Written by C. Rolé
Various 6th century writings describe the life and martyrdom of Saint Catherine. However, the devotion towards this Saint saw its culmination in the 7th Century. One day, a monk from the monastery of Sinai, had a vision where an angle showed him where Saint Catherine was buried. This monk, together with a number of other monks went to this place and found the remains of St. Catherine in a cave. The area where this sacred body was found is considered a place of prayer till our days and is still referred to as Gebel Katerina (Farrugia, 2005).
The remains of this saint were taken to the monastery of Sinai and buried in the main chapel of this monastery, at the side of the main altar. Most probably these rests were moved to the monastery due to the harsh Muslim invasions of that period (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978) The monks of the monastery knew that Mohammed respected them and would do no harm to the monastery due to the help that the monks had offered him in the previous years. Consequently, Saint Catherine's bones together with the remains of other saints could be kept safe in this place (Farrugia, 2005). The devotion towards this saint grew so much in the area that the monastery was renamed as the Monastery of Saint Catherine (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
"The Holy war"... this was the name given to the harsh and crewel war, spread over 200 years between the Roman Catholics and the Muslims. A war which took the life of thousands of soldiers in the attempt to recapture the Holy Land (Runciman, 1992). Being promised indulgences, Knights and soldiers fought the crusades with great courage, and during their journey back, they shared their experiences in the Holy Land. The crusaders not only shared stories of great battles and warriors, but also stories related to the new saints and martyrs of which the Western World would have never heard of. Amongst theses saints one can find St. Catherine, St. George, St. Nicholas and many others. As a result, during the 10th century the cult of Saint Catherine started spreading all over Western Europe. Some researchers came to the conclusion that these soldiers passed some time in the monastery of Sinai, however most probably no one visited Gebel Katerina due to the fact that this place is practically inaccessible (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
During the 11th century, some of the remains of St. Catherine were taken to France by Simon, a monk from the monastery of Sinai. These remains were placed in the Abbey of Trinité-au-Mont which later on took the name of Sainte Catherine-au-Mont (Farrugia, 2005). The journey undertook by Simon is documented in various writings, amongst which are the Chronicles of Ugo de Flavigny and in the Chronicon Triplex (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978). Research shows that in the mid-11th century, a feast in honour of St. Catherine was celebrated in this Abbey (Farrugia, 2005). From here, the devotion towards this Saint spread all over France and later on even to Italy and other Western European cities. As a result, a representation of he Saint dating back to the 11th century can be seen in the Catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples (Scudu, 2005).
The liturgical feast of Saint Catherine started to be celebrated in the 13th century (or even earlier) by the Benedictines, Cistercians and Klujacensi, together with a number of other religious orders (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978). During the same century, St. Catherine was also declared the patron Saint of the faculty of Theology in Sorbonne, the first University of the World (Farrugia, 2005). Students reading Theology and Filisophy in the university used to take part in the procession towards the church of Sainte Catherine-de-la Couture in order to celebrate the feast in honour of the Saint. The liturgical feat of St. Catherine was introduced in the Roman Calendar during the 13th century and later on, during the 14th century the celebration of this feast became obligatory throughout the churches of Western Europe during the pontificate of Pope John XXII (1316 - 1334) (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
Saint Catherine in Malta
Even though little is known regarding the fist years of the Roman Catholic faith in Malta, it is known that during the end of the 6th century, Malta had a Bishop which was very close to the Province of Sicily. During this period, the rule of Sicily went under Constantinople and the same happed to Malta. As a result, it is possible that during this period, the cult of various saints who lived in the East, amongst which we find St. Catherine, started to spread over the Maltese Islands. The ties between Malta and the Eastern World started to become even stronger with the arrival of a number of refugees from Northern Africa, after great persecutions from the barbarians. Even though till now no evidence was found, these refugees could have brought over to Malta the devotion towards this saint. If the Maltese society had knowledge of this saint before 870AD, it is highly probable that this knowledge and devotion remained alive during the Arabic rule (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
Harsh times laid before the Maltese Island when the latter fell under the Arabic rule on 29th August, 870 (Wettinger, 1986). When the Arabic Empire conquered a Christian land, the former ruled very strictly and were very harsh with the local community. Apart from paying harsh taxes, the Catholic Religion went through hard times. Maltese historians believe that the construction of churches and monasteries, reading from holy books and processions with the cross were prohibited. In addition to this, a Maltese citizen could not possess any form of weapon, ride on donkeys with harness or live in houses as large as those occupied by the Arabs. During this period, a number of Maltese converted to Islam so as to pay fewer taxes(Laspina, 1970). In addition to this, the Bishop of Malta was imprisoned, leaving the church without a leader (Castillo, 1979). The Arabs took and destroyed whatever they found on their way, so much so that some historical writings illustrate the story of warrior Sawada Ibn Muhammed who took rock and marble from the Maltese chapels to the Emir of Susa to use them as building material for his own palace. This period of sufferance came to an end in 1090, when Malta passed under Norman domain. During this period the Roman Catholic religion could be practiced with no restrictions. Some historical proceedings point out that during 1127, Malta once again had a Bishop (Buhagiar, 2007). During the Norman rule, the cult and devotion towards St. Catherine was introduced by the monks of St. Basil who arrived to Malta from Sicily and Pantelleria with the ultimate purpose of converting Muslims into Roman Catholics. The monks of St. Basil were devoted to various saints amongst which are St. George and St. Catherine of Alexandria (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
Through the passing of time, the cult and devotion towards Saint Catherine continued to grow and various chapels dedicated to this Saint Could have been built. The oldest remains of a chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine could be found in Baqqari, limits of Zurrieq. Most probably this chapel was built towards the end of the 13th century (Farrugia, 2005). There is no historical evidence of the spreading of the cult and devotion of Saint Catherine during the 14th century, however in a rollo dating back to 1436, reference is made to a Cannon of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Donnus Antonius de Astis who had financial incomes from chapels, amongst which there is reference to cappella di lo Zurrico, dedicated to Saint Catherine (Mangion & Zerafa, 1989). This rollo carrying the name of Quinterniolus pro Concordia taxarum, commissioned by the Bishop Senatore de Mello, makes reference to 12 chapels, two of which dedicated to Saint Catherine in Zurrieq and Zejtun (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978).
The iconography portraying Saint Catherine during the end of the Medival era shows the spreading and the increase in the devotion towards this saint (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978). An important documtn dating back to 1506 shows clearly that the Parish Church of Zurrieq was dedicated to Saint Catherine, where the church of this village is refered to as Cappella et parochie Sante Catherine de lu Zurrico, in a contract signed in front of the notary Consalvo Canchur. During his pastoral visit in 1575, Mons Pietro Dusina made reference to a church dedicated to Saint Catherine in the limits of Zurrieq, together with other 16 chapels dedicated to this saint (Mangion & Zeraf, 1989). In his report, Mons Dusina makes referenct othe fact that the devotion towards Saint Catherine was very strong in Zejtun, so much so that every Monday, a large number of people from all over Malta visited this church (Buhagiar & Zarb, 1978). This devotion was so strong that a map dating back to 1794, shows Zejtun as Terrae Sanctae Catherinae (Farrugia, 2005).
The Italian Knights of the Order of Saint John contributed towards the spreading of this cult and this could be seen though the 2 churches built in Valletta and Birgu, dedicated to Saint Catherine. Together with this, cone could also see a number of paintings dedicated to this saint, amongst which is that of Mattia Preti, situated on the choir altar in Zurrieq and another one situated in the Co-Cathedral of Valletta (Farrugia, 2005).
The devotion towards this Saint is still strong during our times and this could be been through the two feasts celebrated in June and September in Zejtun and Zurrieq respectively (Farrugia, 2005).
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