St Catherine's and Strachur, Argyll

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This site was last updated
 09 November 2007

A mediaeval picture of the life of St Catherine.
I have been able to find reference to two different saints called Catherine:  A Life of Catherine was first written in English in the 13th century; paintings show her holding her attribute, a wheel. She was the subject of the first English ‘Miracle’ or Saint’s play, written about 1100 by a monk called Gorran and performed in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. Later paintings of Catherine often show her with long loose hair and even bare-breasted, but originally she was portrayed as a pious virgin, wearing a sober headdress and a plain gown and cloak. This Catherine (whose story seems to be entirely mythical) was scholarly as well as virginal, and accounts of her experiences may be based on the career of Hypatia of Alexandria, a renowned woman philosopher who died in 415 - at the hands of monks, many said. Catherine is said to have protested at the practice of making sacrifices to pagan idols and to have disputed with 50 pagan philosophers and converted them to Christianity, her punishment for which was to be sentenced by the Emperor Maxentius to breaking on the wheel, an instrument of torture. This failed when the wheel broke (Divine Intervention is usually claimed but you probably couldn't get good quality maintenance staff in the fifth century any more than you can today). It appears, however, that feminine assertiveness is not confined to the 21st century and, not easily repressed, St Catherine converted the Empress and all the Emperor's soldiers to Christianity as well, which led to a massacre of the soldiers and the execution of the Empress. Despite being in a minority of one the Emperor decided to have the last word and Catherine was finally beheaded.

There is more evidence for the other St Catherine, known as Catherine of Siena. Catherine Benincasa, the 23rd child of a prosperous dyer, was born in Siena on March 25 1347. At the age of six, Catherine had a religious experience that changed the whole direction of her life. Until 1367, she lived as a contemplative in her own home. During that period, she also became a member of the Mantellate, a group of laywomen affiliated with the Dominican Order. Eventually Catherine left her solitude, reaching out to help the needy of Siena - the pensioners, the sick, and the poor. By 1370, her world had expanded to include people from all walks of life. She became known as a peacemaker, a healer and above all, a prophet. In the short span of ten years, with the help of secretaries, Catherine sent out over 400 letters, many of them to leaders of Church and State. During the last five years of her life, Catherine came into close contact with two Popes, Gregory XI, whom she persuaded to return to Rome, and his successor, Urban VI. More than once, she served as the papal emissary to the city states in revolt. At the beginning of the Schism in 1378, Urban VI called her to Rome, but all Catherine's efforts to prevent the spread of the Schism were in vain. Worn out by her attempts to restore unity and peace, Catherine died in Rome on April 29 1380 and her body was laid in the church of the Minerva where it remains today.

I cannot say for which of these two St Catherine's is named, only that it is the site of the cell where dwelt a hermit or solitary monk who dedicated himself to the service of the Saint; small traces of this dwelling can still be seen. The spelling of the name is not always consistent and at least one old source refers to "St Cathrine's" with only one 'e'.