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   Vatican fresco tells story of saint

Among the 31 Vatican Exhibit frescoes scheduled for display in Lubbock on June 2, 2002, are seven pieces depicting images from the story of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

The Rev. Malcolm Neyland, the Catholic priest who convinced the Vatican City government to release the frescoes for exhibit in the Hub City, said that the images of St. Catherine are among his favorite.

The 800- to 900-year-old images that once adorned the walls of Roman churches were painted by artists whose goal was to remind viewers of the stories about and deeds of saints and prophets, Neyland said.

"You have to realize, in the 11th and 12th, even into the 13th century, not too many people could read or write," Neyland said. "So the way things were handed down were either through oral tradition or painting, which is why, I think, so many frescos were painted in early Christendom -- to tell the stories, to pass them down."

St. Catherine of Alexandria, the story goes, was a virgin who was martyred for her fervent outcry against the persecution of Christians.

History records that Catherine was of noble birth and educated in the sciences. And, at only 18 years old, she criticized Roman Emperor Maximinus.

The emperor was violently persecuting Christians, and Catherine scolded him for his cruelty. She also tried to prove to Maximinus that it was wrong to worship false gods.

Astonished at the girl's audacity, but unable to argue with her reasoned points, the tyrant detained Catherine in his palace and summoned scholars, whom he commanded to use all their skill in reasoning to convince Catherine to refute her belief in one God.

But Catherine, instead, converted several of her philosophical adversaries, and they were put to death by Maximinus.

Furious, the emperor had the girl scourged and then imprisoned.

After the empress visited Catherine in her dungeon, she too converted to Christianity and immediately was killed as well.

Soon afterward, Catherine was condemned to die on the wheel. But at her touch, the torture instrument was miraculously destroyed.

The enraged emperor then had her beheaded.

The story holds that angels carried Catherine's body to Mount Sinai, where a church and monastery were built in her honor.

The acts of Catherine were transformed and distorted by wild descriptions born of the imagination of narrators who aimed to charm their readers.

But the importance attached to the legend of the young martyr throughout the Middle Ages led to Greek, Latin and Arabic texts containing historical value which no one was qualified to question. St. Catherine was invested by Catholic peoples with a halo of miraculous power.

Ranked as one of the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven, she was showered with praise by preachers and sung of by poets.

Many chapels were placed under her patronage, and a statue of St. Catherine was found in nearly all European churches, representing her, according to medieval iconography, with a wheel, her instrument of torture.

St. Catherine became the patroness of young maidens and female students.

Looked upon as the holiest of the virgins of Christ, it was natural that she should be worthy to watch over virgins and young women of the world.

The spiked wheel having become emblematic of the saint, wheelwrights and mechanics placed themselves under her patronage.

Finally, according to tradition, she not only remained a virgin by governing her passions and conquered her executioners by wearying their patience, but she also triumphed in science by baffling the sophists who argued against Christianity. Thus, her intercession was implored by theologians, apologists, pulpit orators and philosophers.

Devotion to St. Catherine assumed vast proportions in Europe after the Crusades. And in the beginning of the 15th century, it was rumored that she had appeared to Joan of Arc and, together with St. Margaret, was divinely appointed Joan's adviser.

(Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III, Copyright 1908, by Robert Appleton Company; Internet Online Edition, Copyright 1999, by Kevin Knight)

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