Saint Catherine of Alexandria was one of the most revered saints of Dürer's time and was the subject of much devotion in Nuremberg. The artist wrote a prayer to the saint, and his former master Michael Wolgemut created an altarpiece devoted to her for the church of St. Lorenz.
Saint Catherine suffered her martyrdom after disputing with fifty philosophers and the Roman Empress and converting them to the Christian faith. The Emperor Maxentius sentenced her to torture and death. At the point of being put on the wheel she was saved by a rain of fire that destroyed the wheel and killed four thousand heathens. Miraculously spared of her fate, she was finally beheaded.
Dürer merges both aspects of her martyrdom, the destruction of the wheel by divine intervention and her death, into one image. The scene of mayhem and destruction caused by the fiery rain, very much reminiscent of the catastrophic events unfolding in the Apocalypse (see lot 131), is juxtaposed with the serene figure of the saint kneeling before her executioner, calmly awaiting her death.