Here is an image of — as the title inscription says –Ἡ ἉΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΑ — He Hagia Aikaterina — “The Holy Catherine.”
At left is Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa/”The Mountain of Moses”. At the base, Moses with his flock sees the “Unburnt Thornbush,” the bush that burned but was not consumed, which in Eastern Orthodoxy is considered a prefiguration of Mary. That is why she is shown here in the same form as in the Znamenie (“Sign”) Mother of God icon type.
At the top of the mountain, Moses is seen again, receiving the tablets of the law from God the Father.
But what does Catherine have to do with all this? If we look on the right side of the icon, we see a body being placed atop a nearby mountain by angels. This is Mount Catherine (Jebel Katerina), some two miles from Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa). And of course in the foreground we see Catherine herself, sitting among books, with one hand holding the cross of martyrdom and the other not only placed on her symbol — the wheel — but also holding a palm of victory.
The answer to why Catherine is depicted with images of Mount Sinai is of course that there is a very old monastery at a mountain that came to be named in the first Christian centuries as the Old Testament Sinai, though where Sinai was originally, no one seems to know for certain. And the reason it is called the Monastery of St. Catherine is the legend (taken as fact in Eastern Orthodox tradition) that the body of St. Catherine was carried by angels from the Egyptian city of Alexandria to the top of Mount St. Catherine, where her relics were supposedly later found.
The Monastery of St. Catherine (Μονὴ τῆς Ἁγίας Αἰκατερίνης/Mone tes Hagias Aikaterines) was not always known by that name — in fact the cult of St. Catherine did not get under way until the 9th century, and only became popular in Western Europe in the 11th. The monastery was built in the 6th century (c. 545) at the command of Emperor Justinian, so tradition goes — around an earlier chapel of the Burning Bush (the “Unburnt Thornbush,”) supposedly built by St. Helena in 327 c.e. The monastery’s official name is the “Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai (Ιερά Μονή του Θεοβαδίστου Όρους Σινά/Hiera Mone tou Theobadistou Orous Sina).
Now we have seen that the veneration of St. Catherine of Alexandria did not become popular until the 9th century, which is rather odd, considering that she is supposed to have been a Christian martyr of the 4th century.
According to her hagiography, Catherine was well educated — trained in philosophy and quite learned. Many men wanted to marry her, but she said she would only marry someone who was her superior in many ways — including knowledge.
She is said to have converted to Christianity. During the persecution by Maximian, she spoke out in favor of Christianity, and tradition says the Emperor had her debate with 50 of the most learned men, but she defeated them all, and they became Christians.
The Emperor — unhappy about this — sent Catherine to be martyred on a spiked wheel, but an angel broke the instrument of torture. Seeing this, the Emperor’s wife and some 200 soldiers were converted, and the Emperor then had them beheaded. In an additional effort to get Catherine to renounce her faith, the Emperor proposed marriage, but she refused him. Finally he had her beheaded.
As we have seen, this tale continues with angels carrying the body of Catherine from Alexandria to Sinai. There is much more to the story, but those are the essentials.
As we have seen many times, some of the saints venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy never existed at all, so we are right to be suspicious when a supposed 4th-century saint only becomes popular in the 9th century. Though there is a Catherine mentioned in a 7th century Syrian liturgical text, the basic tale of her martyrdom first appeared in a menologion of Emperor Basil II (died 886).
So where did the notion of an Alexandrian philosopher martyr, learned and pure of heart, come from? Modern scholarship tends to the theory that St. Catherine is merely a Christianized version of learned female philosopher who really existed, and is reputed to have been both very beautiful and a lifelong virgin — the Alexandrian Hypatia. The big difference, however, is that the noted and respected Neoplatonist teacher and philosopher Hypatia — gracious, tolerant, and extremely intelligent — was not a Christian martyr, but rather was martyred by fanatical Christian monks in the year 415. They were said to have been incited in their murder of Hypatia by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (Patriarch of Alexandria from 412-444) — who later was venerated as an Orthodox (and Catholic) saint. The mob — led by a lector named Peter — pulled Hypatia from her chariot, cut her to pieces, and burned the remains.
So it appears that a real, non-Christian female philosopher murdered in Alexandria by a Christian mob eventually became transformed and distorted into the Christian St. Catherine, much as the story of the early life of the Buddha was eventually distorted into the tale of a Christian saint and prince of India named Ioasaph/Josaphat. That is hagiography for you. It is helpful in interpreting icons, but should never be regarded as factual history in the absence of real evidence.
You may recall that we have seen the combination of Moses at Mount Sinai, the “Burning Bush” and the body of Catherine being placed atop a mountain before, in an icon of the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”:
In that example, however, both Moses and the body of Catherine were depicted on the same mountain.