Wednesday, November 25, 2015

St. Catherine of Alexandria in England

According to this site, today's saint was very popular in medieval England:

The main center of Katherine's cult in the Middle Ages was an Orthodox monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, which claimed to have acquired her tomb and her relics by miraculous means. Since Katherine's tomb exuded an oil with healing powers that could be sold to pilgrims, it became a major source of fame and revenue for the monastery - aided by the advertisements for this pilgrimage site that ended many retellings of her legend. Some medieval readers were skeptical about the miracles that supposedly occurred at Mount Sinai (see Mirk's account, for example), but the rest of Katherine's legend was widely accepted, and by the end of the Middle Ages she had become one of the most popular saints in Europe. The main impetus for her cult in the west came not from Sinai itself, but from the abbey of the Holy Trinity and Saint Katherine at Rouen, in Normandy, which had acquired some of her relics by the end of the eleventh century. From Normandy, of course, her cult easily spread across the English Channel. Her great subsequent popularity in England is suggested by such facts as these: her name appears in the dedications of 62 medieval English churches, countless side altars, and many parish guilds; at least 56 churches had wall paintings with scenes from her life; and over 170 bells with inscriptions in her honor have survived until recent times. She was also one of the saints most frequently portrayed on church screens, in stained glass windows, and in small works of art for private use.

Katherine's appeal was even broader than Margaret's because her legend cast her in a wide range of roles, inviting different kinds of people to take her as their patron saint. For example, she was considered a suitable patron for aristocratic women because she was a princess who had been brought up to rule a kingdom. She was a good patron for nuns and other women with religious vocations because, like them, she was a consecrated virgin, a faithful bride of Christ. Her courage and outspokenness were clearly important to some exceptional women, including Catherine of Siena and Margery Kempe, who emulated her example when they spoke out against abuses of power in their own society. More surprisingly, she was a favorite patron and role model for (male) university students and preachers, since she was such a brilliant scholar and debater that she had once defeated the arguments of fifty pagan philosophers at once. Her legend also made her an advocate for women with evil husbands, a patron for nursing mothers (because milk flowed from her neck when she was beheaded), and a powerful intercessor for those who invoke her when they are dying or in great need (because of her final prayer and its answer). Since the climactic instrument of torture devised by her persecutor was a diabolical set of wheels, she was often portrayed with a wheel as her emblem - with the paradoxical result that she even became the patron saint of wheelwrights, millers, and other craftsmen who worked with wheels.

One church or chapel dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria was a pilgrimage site founded by the Benedictine monks of abbey of St Peter at Abbotsbury. As the English Heritage site for the chapel notes:

Its isolated setting allowed the monks to withdraw from the monastery during Lent for private prayer and meditation. . . .

Although no records survive of its building, the chapel can be dated in style to the late 14th century. It is a sturdy rectangular structure, built entirely of the local golden buff limestone. The walls are high and heavily buttressed to take the stone vaulted roof; rainwater drains off the roof through holes in the parapet wall between the buttresses.

At the north-east corner a stair turret, octagonal on the outside, rises above the roof and gives access to the parapet. It also contains a tiny oratory at roof level. Originally the buttresses and the stair turret were crowned with pinnacles. There are porches on both north and south walls.

The overall effect of the chapel is of a structure far larger than it actually is. The high walls and tall parapets are designed to impress, while the sense of grandeur is further enhanced by the chapel’s lofty position.

Inside, the effect in medieval times would have been just as rich, with stained glass in the windows, and details of the roof picked out in bright colours. At the intersections of the vaulting are bosses carved with foliage, figure subjects and animals. A large triple window lights the east wall, and there are smaller windows on the other walls.

The walk up to the chapel provides excellent views down over Abbotsbury village and the abbey site.

The chapel survived the suppression of the abbey in 1539 because it was used as a beacon, being on the southern coast of England. Sir Giles Strangways received the abbey's property from Henry VIII. Sir Giles, like many, could not know what was going to happen in England after the Reformation. Strangway's will "bequeathed £6 13s.4d. a year for two years for a priest to say mass for the repose of his soul and the souls of his wife and son"--he died in 1546, a year before Henry VIII died in 1547: those Masses may or may not have been said during the reign of Edward VI.

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