Artemisia Gentileschi, the most celebrated female artist of the seventeenth century, appears in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian saint martyred in the early fourth century. She leans on a broken wheel studded with iron spikes, to which she was bound and tortured, and which became her standard attribute in art. Her right hand, delicately holding a martyr’s palm between thumb and forefinger, is brought to her chest.
The saint is portrayed as resilient, having endured torture – as indeed the artist herself did during the trial following her rape at the age of 17 by the painter Agostino Tassi. After the trial Artemisia moved from Rome to Florence, where this painting was probably made. She seems to have used her own image frequently in works she produced in Florence – a number of self portraits are known and others are recorded in seventeenth-century inventories. New to the city and keen to demonstrate her talent, she may have painted such pictures in a conscious act of self-promotion.