/ Essays / 2003 / No.1: Beautiful and intelligent, Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.1July, 23 2003

Beautiful and intelligent, Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Which woman would not like to be beautiful and intelligent and to be portrayed like Saint Catherine by Onorio Marinari, Florence? Well, magnificently painted, perhaps yes, but with her background story? Possibly not!

The Painting

We see in this painting a young woman with soft and elegant facial proportions, sitting at a table, leaning forward and seemingly completely absorbed in her reading. She does not look up, but has her forearms comfortably supported on the table. In her hands she holds a large and heavy open book that rests on a purple velvet pillow adorned with tussles and braids. This indicates an obvious method to ease long reading sessions. The beautiful young woman with dark blond hair, decorativly held together with a string of pearls, is reading with full intensity and apparently great precision, since she is keeping her left forefinger between certain pages for leafing back and forth. We notice that the cover is flexible and the pages are printed in two columns. The book must have been read before, judging from the bent corners. Unfortunately, we do not know which book this is. There is another book on the table, closed and covered with a red cloth and a golden crown sitting on top. Again, our curiosity remains unsatisfied.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Onorio Marinari, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, reading a book, oil/canvas, 92,5 x 119 cm,

With friendly permission of Residenzgalerie Salzburg, Loan to Sammlung Schönborn-Buchheim, Photo: Ulrich Ghezzi Oberalm

The robe, made of soft and shiny silk, flows around this beautiful young woman; a yellow scarf kept together by a valuable buckle is draped around her. Since she is not leaning back the view is open to the richly embroidered back of her chair. The room is semi dark; a window allows a sectional view to a hilly landscape. A light source cannot be determined.

Carlo Dolci and his pupil Onorio Marinari

We would like to know more. Who was the model for this painting? However, no further information, elucidating the circumstances or the exact date when this undated painting was made, is available. Actually, it is possibly a contemporary reproduction made by the artist himself. Doubtful until recently this painting was, it has been assumed to have been painted by Carlo Dolci (1616 – 1686), Onorio Marinari's cousin and teacher (suggested in the catalog of the Residenzgallerie Salzburg)(1)

The work of Carlo Dolci is leading in the style of the late baroque period. The artist achieved fame during his lifetime, especially for his softly portrayed Madonnas and female saints which were copied by his contemporaries due to their popularity, and which can be admired today in various European collections.

His pupil, Orinorio Marinari, was born on October 3, 1627 in Florence as the son of the rather unknown painter Sigismondo di Pietro Marinari who was Orinorio's first teacher. Later he became Carlo Dolci's best student, whose style he was able to copy. Marinari, also influenced by Pignone and Furini, created a series of altar paintings for the churches of Florence. His fresco in the Florentine Palazzo Capponi is dated 1707, whereas only a few of his works were dated and signed. A self portrait, showing him as aged man, is supposed to be in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. Marinari died on January 5, 1715 in his native Florence. It is said that his work needs a radical review; this may be the reason why his portrait is currently not on display. It is hoped that the research about him and his work may one of these days disclose more details and background information about his painting of Saint Catherine.

The Legend

The picture depicts a personification of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in spite of the missing wheel and the halo. The legendary martyr, whose death is assumed to be in 306 AC, is according to the catholic faith one of the 14 helpers in need, a patron of philosophers and scientists in general. She is admired not only by universities, schools, women and girls but also by the judicial and book manufacturing trades. There is no proof for the historical existence of this Saint. But, as always, there are legends which are associated with this person from the 3rd century. It is assumed that she was a daughter of the heathen king Costus of Greece, Syria and Cyprus and his wife Meliade, a Christian Armenian princess. Legend says that she displayed a high degree of intelligence and desire for knowledge besides her extreme beauty, so that about 310 teachers were eager to teach her during the course of her studies.

She apparently refused to get married. After an encounter with an hermit and her baptism into Christianity, she had a vision in which Christ put an engagement ring on her finger. In Alexandria, she met the roman emperor Maxentius who tried to force her to succumb to heathen sacrifices. She, however, the educated and learned daughter of a king, was able to convince 50 of the best philosophers to convert to Christianity using better arguments during a public discussion. Unfortunately, those converts were then submitted to burn and die at the stake. Catherine herself was thrown in jail where she was tortured. The miracles that she performed there convinced her jailers also to convert to Christianity. Finally, she was supposedly tortured on the wheel and to be quartered thereafter, but the wheel broke and killed her torturers instead. Due to this additional miracle, the guards, the people, and even the empress converted. Supposedly, this was the reason to kill the guards. Catherine's breasts were then torn off and she was finally beheaded. According to legend, the wound of her neck did not gush blood but milk, and angels carried her head to the Sinai peninsula, where the cloister of Saint Catherine was founded and still exists today. Nowadays, Catherine has been connected with the Alexandrian philosopher Hyapatia due to her similar faith. Hyapatia was also known for her beauty and intellect that killed her. She lived about 300/400 AC. (1)


This is a gruesome story, true or not - as we often find with legends. We can assume that this legend was known to the artist. To the benefit of the viewer of the painting is the fact that Marinari did not show the brutal part of the live of the Saint in his work. He preferred to present the carefree youth and beauty of Catherine in her luxurious environment pursuing her desire to learn. Therefore, he shows only the crown and the book as attributes to her royal status and omitted the connection to the wheel. We do not know what moved the artist to this kind of depiction. Were there previous paintings he used as inspiration? Is it possible that paintings of one of his teachers, Dolci, served as an example? Or did Dolci himself paint or, at least, start this picture? We do not know.

Is it reasonable to assume that he tried to suppress the horrible end of this Saint with respect to other women and girls so as not to discourage them from learning and studying? This may well be the case considering the fact that in other parts of the world education of women is still being suppressed.


Marinari, Onorio : Picture, Sculpture and Artist Database
Groschner, Gabriele: Grenzenlos weiblich in baroken und antiken Darstellungen, Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, 1999, pages 64-67, (Footnote 1)

Saint Catherine of Alexandria :

Carol Dolci:

DuMont’s Kuenstlerlexikon, Cologne, 1997

Further reference to Saint Catherine of Alexandria:

In a book, dated 1500, issued by the Italian printer and humanist Aldus Manutius (around 1450 – 1515) in the newly developed italics by the letter cutter Francesco Griffo (around 1450 –1518), Bologna, - containing the correspondence (letters) of Saint Catherine, she is shown standing upright, holding a book in her right and a heart in her left hand. In this woodcut, the book is not attributed to Saint Catherine, the heart as well as the accompanying text, however, are.

(Alberto Manguel, Eine Geschichte des Lesens, Hamburg, 2000, page 164)

In an exhibition of the Frankfurter Kunstverein of 1921 „Mittelalterliche Bildwerke aus Frankfurter Privatbesitz“ a small bust of a woman, made of Linden wood (44 cm) was shown, holding the attributes of Saint Catherine, book, broken wheel and crown.
The figure is holding a heavy book in her left, opened up in such a way that the quarter of a wheel forms an angle of 90 deg with the open pages. This artifact from Bavaria is assumed to be from the 16th Century.
From the same period exists a figurine (144 cm) named Saint Catherine, carved from Linden wood, wearing a crown. Other attributes for further reference are missing.
Artifacts mentioned in the catalog, but not shown as illustration, do not permit further proof to be Saint Catherine.

(Catalog “Mittelalterliche Bildwerke aus Frankfurter Privatbestiz”. Exhibition at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt/Main, August 7 – October 4, 1921 with a foreword by O. Schmitt, page 24, figure 110, page 23 and figure 105.)
Also nr. 62 “Saint Catherine”, German, around 1500, fired clay, 11.5 cm, as well as nr. 109 “Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara”, Lake Constanz, around 1520 (Joerg Kaendel von Biberach), relief, Linden wood, 79 cm, This could be the Saint of Alexandria since both are part of the 14 helpers in need.

[translated by Sigi Oberlaender]

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