November 25, 2015

Catherine wheel

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the unfortunate namesake of one of the cruelest torture devices ever devised.

n. the figure of a wheel with spikes projecting from its circumference (in reference to the legend of St. Catherine’s martyrdom), esp. in heraldry
v. to turn lateral summersaults (cart-wheel)
n. a window or compartment of a window of a circular form with radiating divisions or spokes
n. a kind of firework which rotates, while burning, in the manner of a wheel
Oxford English Dictionary

Much of what we know of St. Catherine of Alexandria may be shrouded in myth, but for those many thousands tortured on her wooden namesake in the Middle Ages, her legacy was a grisly reality.

Originating in ancient Greece, the “breaking wheel” was a primitive but effective torture device used for nearly three thousand years for interrogation or general cruelty. In most cases, a victim would be placed on the wheel and his or her limbs would be beaten with a cudgel through the spokes.

Alternatively, an executed body might simply be displayed on the wheel as a cautionary tableau. So gruesome were the torture sessions that took place (sometimes extending over days) that occasionally an executioner would deliver a deliberately lethal strike, known in French as a coup de grĂ¢ce, or “blow of mercy.” (As a linguistic aside, the correct pronunciation is COOD-gras. When mispronounced in English―as it most commonly is, with a dropped s sound―the phrase becomes coup de gras [blow of fat] or, worse, cou de gras [neck of fat].)

Religious lore has it that sometime around the turn of the fourth century AD, young Catherine of Alexandria allegedly visited the Emperor of Rome, perhaps Maximinus, and went on a bit of a conversion spree. Though she could not talk the emperor into easing up on the Christians, she did manage to convince his wife and several advisers to come around to Jesus. She was sent to jail for her efforts but ended up converting both her prison escort and all of those who came to visit her. The emperor ordered her to be executed on the breaking wheel, but it shattered when she touched it. She was then martyred instead with an ax. Devout followers believe that Catherine’s body was then delivered to Mount Sinai by angels and that Emperor Justinian I built a monastery there for her in the seventh century.

Over the next several hundred years, her association with the breaking wheel stuck, and the device continued to be used well into the eighteenth century. It was not banned in France, for example, until Louis XVI sensed the public disfavor with cruel and unusual punishment just prior to the French Revolution (see guillotine). By that time, the application of spiked wheels in heraldry or architectural design all bore Catherine’s name. Even today, her namesake wheel appears in countless stained-glass windows with a spoked design. In fact, “rose windows” such as the enormous one in the Notre Dame in Paris are sometimes referred to as “Catherine windows” in honor of the martyr.

However, the most immediately recognizable of Catherine’s namesakes to modern readers is likely the carefree tumbling known alternatively as “turning Catherine wheels” and “turning cartwheels.” In addition, her name has also become attached to several varieties of spinning fireworks.

St. Catherine of the Wheel is today recognized by many as the patron saint of wheelwrights, mechanics, and, of course, virgins.