Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: St Catherine and Maxentius (Image #1) and St Catherine Disputing with the Philosophers (Image #2)
  • Creator: Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, painter
  • Description:

    These two panels were created by the Master of the View of Sainte Gudule between 1470 and 1490. Both convey scenes of the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the legendary fourth century virgin martyr, whose cult made her the most popular female saint in the Middle Ages. Linking the images sequentially is compelling given that St. Catherine wears the same dress in both panels, which are of similar size. The panels are thought to have been part of a larger altarpiece, though no certain link has been drawn to any additional surviving altarpiece panels.

    The leftmost panel, St. Catherine and Maxentius, likely occurs earlier in the sequence depicting parts of St. Catherine’s life. According to the Golden Legend, the emperor Maxentius takes Catherine to his castle and interrogates her on her faith. The panel reflects this particular scene. St. Catherine, Maxentius, a learned man and the emperor's attendants are pictured in a small, intimate bedroom setting. Maxentius’ bold red robes contrast with the sumptuous green sheets upon which Catherine sits. The scepter he carries renders his identification unmistakable. The bed is opulent; it is outfitted with a canopy, curtains, and rich green bedding. The curtains are contained in the small green bag on the corner of the bed, where they were often kept during the day for efficient storage.

    The panel on the right, St. Catherine Disputing with Philosophers, depicts St. Catherine arguing with the philosophers and a bishop that Maxentius has summoned. Offering a gold reward to anyone who can best Catherine in verbal debate on theology, Maxentius attempts to discredit and undermine Catherine’s increasingly persuasive stance on the Christian faith. The panel’s small size, delicate details and tight clustering of figures reflects a stylistic similarity to manuscript illuminations, suggesting that the artist may have had some training in manuscript illumination prior to his painting career in Brussels. The rich use of color and gold highlights lend a vibrancy to the work. The artist was identified by M. J. Friedländer in 1923 and named for the cathedral of Sainte Gudule in Brussels that appears in the painting, The Preaching of St Géry.

    St. Catherine’s narrative disrupts traditional notions of medieval gender performance. The virgin martyr is extremely well-educated, eloquent, and intelligent. She boldly asserts her opinions in a public forum and succeeds in converting many to Christianity. If Catherine’s narrative implicitly advocates for women’s education and ability at a time of patriarchal dominance, why was her story so widely and popularly disseminated? Sheila Delany contends that St. Catherine’s “queerness” may have been made more palatable through imagery that conveyed careful regulation of the female mind and body. Catherine’s femme-empowering narrative is countered by masculine institutions of captivity, while the palace in which she was educated was built and regulated by her father. Her agency was furthered by the belief that a virgin’s staunch resistance to her carnal desires moved her closer to "rational male thought". The narrative of Catherine's life engaged many audiences, from royalty and nobles to clerics and lay people. She was a special model for women, including young girls who in conduct literature were urged to behave like Catherine in a steadfast manner. Kim Philips has argued that girls likely took a special interest because Catherine was so appealing. She wore elaborate and fashionable clothing. Also, her youth set her apart from many other saints, and she commanded the attention of all around her.

    The Master of the View of Sainte Gudule’s choice to convey Catherine and Maxentius’ interrogation in a bedroom is one worth noting. In the late Middle Ages, the public and private spheres were less distinct than they are now; more accurately, the bedroom was conceived of in a different way than it is today. An elegant, well-constructed bed may be a symbol of wealth, as much as it is a place for sleep or prayer. Additionally, the presence of a bed did not necessitate that the chamber was a bedroom, as beds could also be found in halls, parlors, or reception rooms. The artist’s employment of a bed also allows Catherine to take a commanding, thronelike position in the narrow scene. Catherine’s crown rises above Maxentius’, signifying her divine authority over Maxentius’ pagan rule. Catherine is the only one afforded some amount of space in the small panel, while Maxentius and his lackeys are awkwardly clustered to the side and foot of the bed.

  • Source: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon (Image #1)
    Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Image #2)
  • Rights: Reproduced with permission from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay (Image #1)
    Reproduced with permission from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. (Image #2)
  • Subject (See Also): Authority Catherine of Alexandria, Martyr, Saint in Art Conversion, Religious Hagiography Martyrs in Art Preaching Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1470- 1490
  • Related Work: Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, St Catherine of Alexandria with Sts Elizabeth of Hungary and Dorothy, private collection, circa 1480.
    Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, Madonna and Child with Donor and Mary Magdalene, Curtius Museum, circa 1475.
    Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, The Preaching of St Géry, Museé du Louvre,circa 1480.
  • Current Location: Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, Inv. 1293 (Image #1)
    Oberlin, Ohio, United States, Oberlin College, Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1972.1 (Image #2)
  • Original Location: Brussels
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Painting; (Images #1 and #2)
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Oil paints; Wood panel (Images #1 and #2)
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 36 (Image #1); 37.9 (Image #2) /30 (Image #1); 30.5 (Image #2)/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Ainsworth, Maryan, "St. Catherine Disputing with the Philosophers: An Early Work by the Master of St. Gudule", Bulletin of the Allen Memorial Art Museum 32, 1 (1974-1975): 22-33;
    Burger, Glenn. "In the Merchant's Bedchamber." Thresholds of Medieval Visual Culture: Liminal Spaces. Edited by Elina Gertsman and Jill Stevenson. Boydell Press, 2012. Pages 239-259;
    L'héritage de Rogier van der Weyden:la peinture à Bruxelles 1450-1520. Edited by Véronique Bücken, Griet Steyaert, Brigitte de Patoul and Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey. Lannoo, 2013;
    Lewis, Katherine J. The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England. Boydell Press, 2000;
    Phillips, Kim M. "Desiring Virgins: Maidens, Martyrs and Femininity in Late Medieval England." Youth in the Middle Ages. Edited by P. J. P. Goldberg and Felicity Riddy. Boydell and Brewer, 2004. Pages 45-60;
    Winstead, Karen A. "St Katherine's Hair." St Katherine of Alexandria: Texts and Contexts in Western Medieval Europe. Edited by Jacqueline Jenkins and Katherine J. Lewis. Brepols, 2003. Pages 171-199.