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Gothic Relief “St. Catherine and the Holy Family”

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Gotisches Relief Hl. Katharina und die Heilige Familie

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Time
Alpine, around 1510
Material
carved Swiss pine wood, original polychrome paint and gilding, Renaissance frame, around 1600, in the shape of an aedicula with vine-clad column
Measurements
27 ¾ × 23 ¼ × 7 ¼ in

One of the most adored martyrs during the Middle Ages, the most important of the Three Holy Virgins, and one of the 14 Holy Helpers, in many places, Saint Catherine of Alexandria was surpassed in her religious significance only by the Mother of God herself. It is presumed that Catherine is not a historical figure, but rather came to be in the 8th century as the result of various legends, especially that of the pagan philosopher Hypatia, who was highly esteemed by the Christians and was murdered in Alexandria in 415. In the 14th century, the legend of the mystic marriage of Catherine to the Infant Jesus began to spread. Supposedly, in a vision, the Christ child, who was sitting on the lap of Mary, placed a ring on her finger. The popular motif can be found across all artistic genres and was also a frequently used subject in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It enabled artists to depict the Holy Family at the same time as the much-loved saint. The relief shown here, of the Alpine region around 1510, is an especially appealing example of this subject matter. Catherine kneels alongside the Mother of God with the Christ child, who is turned towards her as she reaches out her hand to gently touch his. The holy woman is dressed in a leather jerkin, probably a reference to her role as the patron saint of knights. On the grass beside her, we can make out the attribute of the broken wheel. The three main figures have been accentuated with a sculptural effect; the head of the Christ child is almost completely round. They gaze at each other lovingly with gentle smiles. Joseph, who blends somewhat more into the architecturally structured background, looks out from the carved art piece, and establishes contact with the observer. The wide, partly gilt garments with soft pleats envelop the figures and, in keeping with the motif at hand, create the effect of them melting into one unit. In this relief, the mystic initiation of Catherine of Alexandria into the Holy Family is depicted as an intimate scene full of divine love and is in keeping with the high rank associated with the saint in faith during the Middle Ages.

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