Few saints' legends have been more fancifully embroidered than that of St Catherine of Alexandria, who lived in the early 4th Century A.D. Reputedly of royal birth and great erudition, she was converted to Christianity and experienced a vision in which she underwent a mystic marriage with Christ. The emperor Maxentius (self declared 306) ordered her to contend with fifty pagan philosophers in public debate, but far from being shown the error of her ways, she converted her opponents and they suffered martyrdom at the hands of the tyrant. Nor would she respond to the emperor's amorous advances, arguing that she was already the bride of Christ.
After she had made further converts, including his wife, the exasperated emperor ordered her to be broken on a wheel fitted with razors (the origin of the Catherine wheel). However, the instrument broke due to heavenly intervention, causing havoc among the bystanders as the razors flew about. Finally the emperor had her beheaded, whereupon angels carried her body to the monastery of Mount Sinai. In 312 Maxentius was defeated in battle by Constantine, and the empire became Christian.
The legend was the subject of a fine window that Burne-Jones designed in 1878 for the east end of the south choir aisle in the Cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford (fig. 1). He had already designed four windows for the building, the first as early as 1859, and this was the last and most monumental. It was erected in memory of Edith Liddell, daughter of Dean Liddell of Christ Church and the younger sister of Alice Liddell, immortalised by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
The window consists of three main lights with tracery above and predella panels below. St Catherine stands in the centre light, holding a quill pen and a book to symbolise her learning. On the left is an Angel of Victory, brandishing fire as she shatters the wheel, while on the right an Angel of Suffering holds a piece of cloth which may be the saint's shroud. More angels, playing musical instruments, are seen in the tracery, while the three predella panels show, from left to right, St Catherine disputing with the pagan philosophers, her mystic marriage with Christ through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and her body being transported by angels to her tomb on Mount Sinai.
The magnificent cartoons for the main panels, tours de force of their kind which show Burne-Jones at his most assured and sophisticated as a designer of stained glass, are at Christ Church (see Burne-Jones, exh. Arts Council, 1975-6, cat. no. 200, illustrated p. 69). They are in pencil only, while the cartoons for the predella panels are in largely monochrome bodycolour. The present drawing is the cartoon for the panel on the left; the other two are in the Lloyd Webber collection (see Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters, exh. Royal Academy, London, 2004, cat. nos. 61 a-b, illustrated p. 94). All the cartoons are listed in Burne-Jones's account book with the Morris firm (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) between March and August 1878. The artist was paid £45 for the three main lights and the same amount for the predella panels, presumably on the principle that, although much smaller, they contained far more figures. For the three angels in the tracery, which he had designed earlier, in November 1877, he charged £6 each.
The three predella panels belonged to Aglaia Coronio, the younger sister of Constantine Alexander Ionides, whose collection is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Like all the Ionides family, she was an important figure in late Victorian artistic circles. Today she is known chiefly as the confidante of William Morris and for assisting Burne-Jones with his studio properties. 'Her perfect taste', wrote Lady Burne-Jones, 'helped him a hundred times by finding fabrics and arranging dresses for models'. Every Ionides had to be painted by G.F. Watts and Mrs Coronio was no exception; his likeness of her was offered in these Rooms on 25 October 1991, lot 12, illustrated in catalogue.
Mrs Coronio seems to have had some special attachment to the legend of St Catherine. It may have had something to do with the fact that Alexandria had a large Greek community; indeed the city may have been the birthplace of Theodore Coronio, her husband. At all events, she not only owned the three predella cartoons but commissioned Burne-Jones to paint a small watercolour version of the Angel of Victory in the lights above. This watercolour, painted in 1878 and thus contemporary with the related cartoon, is in the Cecil French bequest to Hammersmith Public Library, now on permanent loan to Leighton House (exh. Fulham Library, 1967, cat. no. 13).
The three predella panels were all lent by Mrs Coronio to the Burne-Jones memorial exhibion at the New Gallery in the winter of 1898-9, and presumably she still had them when she died (by her own hand) on 20 August 1906. At some subsequent date, however, the present one was separated from its companions. Exactly how or when this happened is unclear, but it must have been before 1980, when the other two cartoons entered the Lloyd Webber collection.
None of the predella designs was repeated in other churches, as happened with many of Burne-Jones's stained-glass compositions, although the figure of St Catherine in the lights above was re-used on several occasions from the late 1880s. Moreover, a different treatment of St Catherine's marriage to Christ occurs in an elongated predella that Burne-Jones added to his pencil portrait of Catherine Ralli, executed in 1892 and sold in these Rooms in June 2004 (fig. 2). Although the subject was clearly chosen on account of the sitter's name, the fact that she, like Aglaia Coronio, belonged to London's Anglo-Greek community tends to confirm that within this circle the legend of St Catherine was popular.
We are grateful to Julia Ionides for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.