Interlude: A Thanksgiving

As we gather with our families and friends to give thanks this November 25th, my mind drifted, relatedly, to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day coincides this year with our Thanksgiving Day.  St. Catherine’s story is literally one of legend.  Converted to Christianity at 14, she protested against the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Maxentius.  The Emperor sought to dissuade the girl of her heresy.  In brief, the emperor summoned a host of pagan orators to debate her; Catherine won, converting the orators.  The emperor threw Catherine in prison, where she was visited by the Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximillia, and many others; they too all converted to Christianity.  Maxentius had Catherine tortured, starved and beaten; she would not yield and her body remained undamaged.  The Emperor proposed to marry Catherine, but she refused, pledging her chastity to Christ.  Faced with such stubborn resistance, the condemned Catherine to death in the most horrific way possible.  Strapped between two spiked wheels, Catherine’s body was literally to be torn to shreds.  But the wheels shattered when they touched her body, leaving her unharmed.  So, as is so often the case with saints, he chopped off her head.  End of story.

St. Catherine became one of the most important saints during the medieval age, retaining her popularity right through to the Renaissance, during which time the English composer John Dunstable, who was featured early on in this blog, wrote several motets in her honor.  This one, likely composed to celebrate the marriage of Edward V of England to Catherine of Valois in 1420, is a thanksgiving in its own right, celebrating the political unity of England and France after many years of bloody war.

John Dunstable, Salve scema sanctitatis:

Salve scema sanctitatis
Christi Katherina,
sponsa speciosa satis
castitate cristalina;
cuius caro columbina
reges refusa,
casti celi cacumina
rotis revinxit reclusa,
ruptis rotulis recusa,
plangens plebs precipitatur
rixa rectorum retusa
pira pestilens paratur.

Poli princeps postulator;
Christo cremantur credentes,
piis palio prestatur,
celum constantium cluentes
claudunt carcere cluentes
votis virginem urentem;
clatris confluunt clementes,
vitam vitant vix volentem.
Virgo virtute vegentem
proscit plebem prosperari,
vitam vincens et virentem
polo poscit premiari.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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