Saint Katherine was endowed with extraordinary gifts, including striking beauty and a great capacity for learning. She came from a distinguished and learned family and possessed great wealth. Her vast properties and wealth were confiscated later by the state. Katherine was very devout, a genius in absorbing vast amounts of knowledge. She studied what is known today as philology. Greek and Latin, philosophy, oratory, mathematics, poetry and music. She was well-versed in the Christian Truths, and could converse on dogmas on a par with outstanding theologians. Katherine was just 18 when she surprised the philosophers with her knowledge. She devoted herself to learning, rejecting many proposals of marriage from young men of distinguished families. When Katherine was converted to Christianity, she accepted completely all the Truths, practicing them fully in her everyday life. She became a fervent herald of the Christian Truths, and drew many people to Christianity through her example and preaching.
Katherine’s name became famous, challenging the status-quo of King Maxentius. He wanted Katherine to abandon her faith and return to the pagan religion. He asked 50 philosophers and orators of the area to convince Katherine to return to the religion of her fathers. She turned this encounter into a debate, and day after day she won ground, convincing them to accept Christianity, “For by the power of the Spirit she silenced brilliantly the nobility of liars”. Instead of converting her to paganism, the religion of her ancestors, the philosophers were converted to Christianity. This infuriated Maxentius, who ordered the philosophers burned at the stake and Katherine thrown in prison and tortured. It is said that when Maxentius was away from Alexandria, his queen — followed by 200 watch guards and soldiers, including officers under the command of Prophyrius — visited Katherine in prison to convince her to relent. Instead the queen came away with admiration for Katherine’s virtues and wisdom.
Prophyrius and his soldiers were so deeply impressed by Katherine’s thoughtful and convincing defense of the Christian faith that they were converted to Christianity, and embraced her with respect. They were all baptized and became Christians. When Maxentius learned of this mass conversion of his officers and solders, he ordered them beheaded. They heard of their fate with courage, being inspired by Katherine from her prison cell. The king was so infuriated by this that he ordered Katherine severely beaten and then tied to a rolling spiked wheel. Katherine miraculously survived this atrocious torture, making King Maxentius even more furious. He then ordered her beheaded, and she died in 307. Katherine’s martyrdom was the result of her constant and persistent confession of faith in the Christian Truths and her confession of Christ as Savior, Whom she invoked and Whose help she had felt throughout her life. She was bestowed with a crown of martyrdom, wisdom and virginity — a triple crown which gives the meaning of the name Katherine.
Katherine’s body was miraculously transferred to an impassable place on the highest peaks of Mt. Sinai. In the year 549, Emperor Justinian founded a monastery on Mt. Sinai, and built a church named The Transfiguration of the Savior. Some 400 years later the monks of the monastery found the body of Saint Katherine and placed it in a sepulcher in the katholikon of the monastery, enshrined for veneration. The monks found on the surface of the granite on which her body lay, an impression of the form of her body. After her body was enshrined in the monastery, the monks renamed the church Saint Katherine. According to ancient usage, Saint Katherine (along with St. Mercurius the Great-martyr) was celebrated on November 24, whereas the holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria were celebrated on the 25th. The dates of the feasts of these saints were interchanged at the requests of the Church and Monastery of Sinai, so that the festival of Katherine, their patron, might be celebrated more festively together with the leavetaking of the Presentation of the Theotokos. The Slavic churches, however, continue to commemorate these saints on their original dates.
The monks prepared a monogram for Saint Katherine by using the first three letters of her Greek name clustered around a cross in red for her martyrdom and white for her purity. In 1480, a traveler named Monsignor Bernard de Breydenbach, famous as an accurate and conscientious observer, climbed Mt. Sinai to investigate the curious phenomenon of the impression of her body on granite. He wrote, “On the top of this mountain exists a stony place bearing the form of a human body which was worked neither by iron nor by another human instrument, because the stone became soft and wax-like”. The highest peak of Mt. Sinai, 2,641 meters high, was named Saint Katherine, and has been known over the centuries among the Arabs as Jebel Katerin.
Saint Katherine’s shrine has been venerated by the West as well as the East. Her shrine became popularly known through the efforts of a learned monk, Simeon, who in 1027 traveled through Europe asking for donations for the preservation of the monastery. Simeon carried with him relics of Saint Katherine for veneration by the people. The monks who accompanied the crusaders returned to Europe with stories of this shrine. Saint Katherine’s fame spread to many distinct places. Many churches were dedicated in her name. One of the most famous is the 12th century church of Wisby in Scotland, consisting of 12 high octagonal columns. During the 12th century the Order of the Knights of Saint Katherine was founded to protect the monastery on Mt. Sinai and the faithful who fled there to escape the Arabs. Great devotion was directed to her during the Middle Age, notably in France during the Crusades. In Paris, in 1222, was founded the Brotherhood of Saint Katherine to care for the sick.
The Philosophical School of Paris proclaimed her as the Patroness of philosophical studies and education. All over Europe the universities celebrated her name as Patroness of Letters, even after the Reformation. Frequently in religious dramas over the centuries Saint Katherine was presented as the ideal of virginity and wisdom. Her personality was the subject of literature and the object of art by well-known artists. The Church celebrates her feast day November 24th (December 7th on the Gregorian Calendar).