Catalogue entry: Widely considered the most beautifully painted religious picture by Peter Paul Rubens in the United States, The Crowning of Saint Catherine originally served as an altarpiece in the church of the Augustinians in Mechelen (Malines), near Antwerp. Seated on a throne ornamented with foliages, the Virgin Mary gently holds the Christ Child on her lap. He places a laurel crown signifying victory on the head of the kneeling virgin saint, Catherine of Alexandria, who contemplates a palm branch, symbol of martyrdom. At the left stands Saint Apollonia, a virgin martyr who also bears a palm branch and holds her attribute, a set of pincers (she was tortured by having her teeth extracted). On the right stands Saint Margaret, who, for refusing to marry the pagan governor of Antioch, was imprisoned and devoured by Satan in the form of a dragon. Though the beast burst, releasing her unscathed, she was subsequently martyred. She holds the demonic dragon on a leash. Rubens' visionary scene departs from the traditional imagery of the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, which is derived from Jacobus de Voragine's popular Golden Legend, written about 1275. In Voragine's account, the erudite young Egyptian queen converted to Christianity in about 300, thereupon experiencing a mystical vision in which the Christ Child symbolically married her and "in token of this set a ring on her finger." When Catherine then refused the advances of the pagan emperor Maxentius, she was tortured on spiked wheels, which were miraculously destroyed by a thunderbolt (the child angel holding lightning bolts alludes to this miracle); later she was decapitated. Rubens' unprecedented invention of Saint Catherine receiving a crown rather than a ring still conveys the metaphor of divine matrimony, but places more emphasis on martyrdom—a saintly attribute often celebrated during the Counter Reformation renewal of Catholic fervor.
Rights: Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey