These two beautifully executed panels were identified by Friedländer in 1937 as belonging to a group of stylistically consistent works painted by an anonymous yet talented artist who he identified with the pseudonym ‘The Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine’, after the eponymous picture now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels (Friedländer, op. cit., 1934, p. 138). Noting the painter’s strong reliance on Rogierian models, Friedländer suggested that he might be identified with Rogier van der Weyden’s son, Pieter van der Weyden (Friedländer, op. cit., 1969, p. 138), an assertion that has since been challenged (G. Steyaert, ‘Le Ma”tre de la Légende de sainte Catherine’, L’Héritage de Rogier van der Weyden, Brussels, 2013, p. 206). The presence of the Brussels panel maker’s mark on the reverse of several works associated with this artist, as well as dendrochronological analysis, indicate that the master was active in Brussels in the last quarter of the fifteenth century (ibid., p. 205). Only fourteen panels by his hand have been identified to date, making the present panels rare surviving examples of his distinctive style, and more generally of fifteenth-century painting in Brussels.
These two panels would have functioned as the wings of a now-dispersed triptych, which would likely have featured a Madonna and Child in its central panel. They show Saint Catherine in the right panel, a highly popular saint during the Northern Renaissance. An early Christian martyr, Catherine was a princess who because of her refusal to marry the pagan Emperor Maxentius, was condemned to be tortured on the wheel and was eventually decapitated. Catherine’s regal status is here conveyed by her crown and rich attire. The saint’s traditional attribute of the wheel is missing, yet she is identified by the sword of her martyrdom, shown crushing the defeated Maxentius lying at her feet. In the left panel is Saint Blaise, Bishop of Sebastea in Armenia, also an early Christian martyr, whose torment involved having his flesh attacked by iron combs, which became his attribute. Saint Blaise was the patron saint of wool merchants, which helps explain his presence in paintings from fifteenth-century Flanders, a region reputed for its production of fine cloth. Given the small scale of these wings, it is likely that the original triptych would have been intended as an object for private devotion.