As recounted in the Golden Legend, Saint Catherine lived in the 4th century and was the daughter of King Costus of Alexandria. A devout convert to Christianity, Catherine rebelled against the Roman Emperor Maxentius, who had commanded her people to sacrifice to idols. Moved by their suffering and repulsed by animal sacrifice, she met with Maxentius and denounced his pagan practices so eloquently and vehemently that neither the emperor nor his fifty brightest orators could counter her arguments. The orators converted to Christianity, but the emperor, who was smitten with the virtuous princess, condemned her to be killed by a machine with spiked wheels. Just before her execution, Catherine prayed to God, who struck down the horrible contraption. Maxentius, undeterred by this divine intervention, ordered her beheading instead.
In the present panel, a magnificent Catherine stands triumphantly over the body of the emperor, next to the broken wheel. She is dressed in a lavish, gold-embroidered gown, trimmed in ermine and ornamented with pearls (symbolizing her purity) and other precious stones. Her turbaned crown lends her an exotic, yet regal flare appropriate for this Egyptian princess. In her left hand she holds an open book, her attribute as the patron saint of scholars and students. In the distance, Catherine kneels in prayer before her executioner; above them, in accordance with her hagiography, two angels carry her body away to be buried near Mt. Sinai. Several buildings are visible beneath the blue haze of the horizon. The tallest tower, flanked by two shorter pinnacles, resembles that of the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Bruges, the city where this panel was painted. Formerly attributed to the Master of Saint Lucy, the present work may be compared to a panel by that master in the Johnson Collection in Philadelphia (cat. 326), datable to c. 1482, in which the city is more clearly represented. In the early 20th century, R.H. Wilenski proposed that the author of the present panel may have travelled to Italy at some point in his career, which could account for the unusual presence of cypresses in the background (op. cit., pp. 41, 46). The sharp, thrusting forms of these trees echoes the spikes of her broken wheel, and accentuates the verticality of the painting's major compositional elements: Catherine's elongated body, Maxentius's scepter, the wheel's posts and the landscape itself.