Aihearkisto: In English

Mutual decapitation. Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the Head of Emperor Maxentius

Wooden sculpture of St Catherine of Alexandria with the head of Emperor Maxentius

Catherine of Alexandria, 16th century, Portugal. Polychromed wood. Museu da Misericórdia do Porto. Photo: Sofia Lahti 2021. CC-BY

In the project Fragmentation and Iconoclash in Medieval and Early Modern Objects, I work on the theme of fragmentation in the context of reliquaries. An element of fragmentation in the very essence of relics and reliquaries are severed body-parts; as relics, fragments of saints’ bodies are kept inside reliquaries, but some reliquaries are also shaped as fragments, such as severed heads or hands. The same severed limbs are also present in medieval painting and sculpture, in images of saints and their martyr deaths.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is usually recognised by her most common attribute, the wheel of torture, although that was not the instrument that caused her death. According to legend, the wheel specifically designed for her suffering and death did not fulfill its purpose, and she was finally decapitated with a sword – another attribute of hers. She is also portrayed with a book in order to demonstrate her wisdom and rhetorical wit, with which she converted twenty ”pagan” philosophers and several other people into Christianity. In a Portuguese 16th-century sculpture, she holds the book and the sword, looking serene in her dress patterned with flowers, the symbols of martyrs. At her feet is the severed head of a man, and the tip of the sword is thrust into it.

The sculpture, located in the Museu da Misericordia in Porto, is quite standard in many ways. Saints are often represented holding swords and books as references to their background or martyrdom. Signs of violence are typical, too, particularly in the Gothic art; saints are portrayed in terrible suffering and sometimes being decapitated, like Catherine herself. Decapitated saints can be portrayed as cephalophores, carrying their own severed head. Certain saints are portrayed standing on top of their diminished and de-humanized enemy; for St Catherine, that enemy was Emperor Maxentius, who is seen lying under her feet in various medieval images.

Sculpture of St Catherine of Alexandria from Tyrvää church.

The Catherine of Alexandria (early 16th century, re-painted in 18th century) from Tyrvää church, Finland, is standing on the Emperor Maxentius. National Museum of Finland. Photo: National Heritage Agency, Finland. CC-BY.

It is not unusual in legends that a heavenly vengeance of some kind falls upon the saints’ enemies, but it does not happen by a physical act of violence by the saint. The enemy rather dies miraculously, as if struck by lightning. In art, becoming the ”underlier” is the ultimate punishment; admittedly, it is not entirely non-violent to stand on top of someone. Nevertheless, saints are generally not depicted as resorting to violence, only as being victims to it.

Emperor Maxentius, who had Catherine imprisoned, tortured and decapitated, did meet his destiny – or, as the legend says, his punishment. His head had a history of its own: after his death, he was decapitated as well, although that seems to have had nothing to do with Saint Catherine. After losing the battle to Emperor Constantine in Rome, he drowned, and then his severed head was carried through Rome by the celebrating winners.

Art has acted as divine justice, bringing Maxentius’ head into Saint Catherine’s hands and restoring Catherine’s own head to its original place as if it had never been severed. What surprised me was the way Saint Catherine isn’t only standing beside the enemy head with a large sword, implying it was she who beheaded him, but has even half-impaled the head with the tip of the sword. This is presenting the wise, eloquent, constant, chaste, and dignified virgin Catherine (these were her virtues according to the Golden Legend) in a very different light. She is presented as the taker of the Emperor’s head, visually in line with Judith or Salome. Saint Catherine, one would think, should not be in this group: she was the beheaded, not the beheader.

It seems a more concrete symbolism of revenge, battle and victory crept into the saintly iconography in the late medieval and early Baroque images. The impaling Catherine of Porto is so far the only one of its kind I’ve seen, but the elements of the severed head and the active use of the sword are not entirely unique. In other artworks from the 16th and 17th centuries, she has been presented with the head of Maxentius, instead of his entire shrunken figure, at her feet (see e.g. the 16th-century sculpture by Cristoforo Solari) and defeating him, with a foot on his throat (a 17th-century painting by Claudio Coello).

Perhaps closest to the composition of the Portuguese sculpture is a late-seventeenth-century painting by the Mexican Cristobal de Villalpando.

Simultaneously with the increasing signs of Saint Catherine’s aggression, the enemy has become less distorted. Instead of oozing inherent evil, Emperor Maxentius bears a striking resemblance to the beheaded Saint John the Baptist. An example of St John’s head as a 17th-century reliquary is on display nearby, in the same museum, but in a different room. Seeing the two heads next to each other might have been intriguing, but also puzzling: could the emperor present himself as a martyr of a lost religion, trampled by Christianity? Perhaps such an interpretation would be too far-fetched under the roof of a Catholic institution. Nevertheless, a perspective of relativity might creep into the room: if ”the good head” and ”the bad head” look alike, the judgment is in the eye of the beholder.

Head reliquary of St John the Baptist.

Head reliquary of St John the Baptist. 17th century, Portugal. Polychromed wood. Museu da Misericórdia do Porto. Photo: Sofia Lahti 2021. CC-BY

Sofia Lahti, postdoc researcher

Julia Kristeva 1998. Visions capitales. Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris.
Irma-Riitta Järvinen 2016. Transformations of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Finnish vernacular poetry and rituals. Re-forming texts, music, and church art in the early modern north. Linda Kaljundi & Tuomas M.S. Lehtonen (eds.). Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
Sofia Lahti 2019. Silver Arms and Silk Heads: Medieval Reliquaries in the Nordic Countries. Åbo Akademi, Åbo.
Jacobus de Voragine 1504, Legenda Aurea. Lugduni.

Disjecta Membra in archaeology and art

« Les fragments ne sont pas fragiles: plus ils rapetissent, mieux ils résistent. »
– Michel Serres

I am an archaeologist and an artist, currently working at the intersection of both disciplines. Through the use of different media ranging from ceramics to text, I explore the concepts of fragmentation, decay, time past, nostalgia and longing.

A work of art consisting of light brown colored fragmented pieces and crumbles on a white background

Artwork and image by Céline Murphy

My doctoral thesis in Aegean Bronze Age archaeology explored the fragmentation of Minoan miniature ceramic anthropomorphic figurines discovered by the thousands at mountain peaks in Crete. More precisely, my study aimed at testing – in large part through the means of experimentation with the production and fragmentation of replicas of the artefacts – the long-standing hypothesis that the figurines were deliberately broken as part of rituals (see Myres 1902/3). I concluded that such a hypothesis cannot be supported, although in fact it cannot be entirely refuted either, for the simple reason that deliberate human-provoked fragmentation cannot be distinguished from accidental fragmentation provoked by natural phenomena (weather or animals) where the artefacts are concerned. Experimentation with replicas revealed that both types of breakage leave the same traces on the objects. Moreover, my examination of the archaeological material revealed that the figurines are broken at their most exposed parts such as at the legs, the arms and the necks, but interestingly less frequently come apart at points where joins were made between arms and torso or torso and waist for example. This indicates that the objects were made with appropriate ceramic-working techniques which allow composite pieces to remain solid, and thus to last.

As a result, I proposed that the figurines might have been designed to remain on display at the mountain peaks, as markers of concluded rituals and negotiations and that, exposed to the mercy of mountainous weather, they broke over time (see Murphy 2018). These observations triggered a number of questions regarding the concept of deliberate fragmentation, disposal and abandonment at Minoan peak sanctuaries and about these sites’ ultimate use, while also further contributing to the broader archaeological debate on the fragmentation of body imagery.

Fragmented ceramic pieces lying in the freshly-dug ground

Image by Céline Murphy

My artwork raises similar questions but on a broader scale. My most recent project, named the Fragment Cycle, consists of ephemeral ceramic installations which, as they are destroyed or decay, recycle themselves into new installations. The project began in 2018 with the Disjecta Membra installation (for images see It involved the display of small clay limbs, which were not dissimilar in appearance to those of the Minoan figurines, on the floor at the entrance of an art space (DA, in Heraklion, Crete). In order to enter the space and to see the other works on display at the back of the room (ceramic casts of orphaned body parts, and water-colours of rejected organs), visitors had to step on the small limbs, and crush them. The floor patterning partially camouflaged the pieces and thus accentuated the surprise and shock effect of the crunch under foot.

In Latin, ‘disjecta membra’ means ‘scattered fragments’. It is frequently used to refer to surviving textual passages or pieces of ancient pottery, but I chose to read it more literally as ‘scattered limbs’. In directly involving visitors in the destruction of the ceramic limbs, the exhibition addressed the following questions: “who is responsible for the breakage of the objects?”, “was their breakage deliberate?”, “is an act of breakage still deliberate if facilitated by circumstances beyond the agent”, and “why is breakage shocking?”. Disjecta Membra was also an opportunity to consider the relationship between the part and the whole: must the part always belong to a whole? Are breakage and creation so different from each other?

An artwork consisting of small clay limbs scattered over multi-colored floor

An artwork consisting of small clay limbs scattered and crushed on a multi-colored floor

Artworks and images by Céline Murphy

At the end of the exhibition, the remaining limb fragments, and the clay dust created by the passage of many feet in the gallery, were collected. This is when I began work on the second installation of the Fragment Cycle. Named Abfutura, the installation was shown in 2019 in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and consisted of the fitting of a large floor mosaic and three small cabinet displays in one of the museum rooms (for images see: The mosaic was made of stamps, which I made out of the limb fragments collected from the previous installation and which I dipped in a watercolour paste also made with the clay powder collected from the 2018 Disjecta Membra show. The mosaic was non-figural, and the stamps were arranged in swirls and intertwining patterns. The three cabinets contained Disjecta Membra limb fragments in different stages of decay.

The installation overall made reference to the notions of excavating, curating and conserving the smallest and faintest traces of a past which has now nearly entirely vanished. In Latin, ’abfutura’ means “what is about to disappear”. By mimicking the traditional museum exhibit, the installation was metaphorical of a situation archaeologists are frequently faced with: that of gathering pieces and of attempting to make sense of thousands of loose fragments which, more than often, do not join. In struggling to grasp something recognisable, the visitor was compelled to scrutinise the details, to seek patterns. Is that a foot, a hand? Is it a mosaic, map, a strange alphabet? In raising such questions, my works prompted the visitors to use their imagination in the creation of their own narratives about the objects in front of them, of which only the material essence effectively remained.

An artwork of a mosaic on a grey platform

An artwork of traces of limbs within powdered brown clay on a white background

Artworks by Céline Murphy, images by Vasilis Flouris

Fragments, be they of archaeological or modern origin, provoke paradoxical responses. On the one hand, the broken is discarded, cleaned-up and kept out of sight. On the other hand, the broken is treasured, preserved and protected from further decay. Despite their seeming fragility, lightness and modesty, fragments breathe resilience. By sheer virtue of their quantity and their gentle disappearance, material traces of one complete objects refer to a past immediate or ancient but are ultimately also suggestive of a future – a future which we are striving to make them, and ourselves, a part of. Both ancient and modern in appearance, the small limbs of the Fragment Cycle are odd remains, strange documents, and chance survivors of time and human and non-human intervention. They are where new stories begin.

Céline Murphy


Murphy, C. 2018. Solid items made to break, or breakable items made to last? The case of Minoan peak sanctuary figurines. Les Carnets de L’ACoSt 17.

Myres, J. 1902/3. The sanctuary site of Petsofa. Annual of the British School at Athens 9, pp. 356-387.

Serres, M. 1990. Distraction. In A. Pingeot, Le Corps en Morceaux. Paris: Editions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, p. 34.

Dr Céline Murphy (PhD, PGCHE, MRes, BA) is a Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin and one of the primary collaborators of the Iconoclash project.

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