MASTER of the Housebook
(active 1475-90 in Mainz)

St Barbara, St Catherine

Drypoint (unique impression), 120 x 40 and 119 x 38 mm, respectively
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Barbara and Catherine were the most popular of the female saints. The Master of the Housebook made two small prints of them in which they appear as courtly figures. Both were indeed of gentle birth. Barbara, who lived in the third century, was the beautiful daughter of a rich heathen. In order to protect her from the world he had her locked up in a tower. However, she managed to receive regular visits from a Christian, and after some time was baptized. Her father discovered this when she insisted that the tower should have three windows in honour of the Trinity. Enraged by her refusal to recant, he seized his sword and struck off her head, thus gaining her the palm of martyrdom. In the print she is shown with her attribute of the tower with three windows. Above the door is a chalice, for like St Christopher she was invoked as a protectress against a 'bad death'.

The print of St Catherine was certainly intended as the companion to that of St Barbara, although the consoles on which they are standing are not seen from the same vantage-point. They were often depicted in tandem, with Barbara representing the active life and Catherine the contemplative. According to tradition, Catherine was a princess living in Alexandria in Egypt at the beginning of the fourth century who converted to Christianity. The emperor Maxentius (ca. 280-312) fell in love with her, but was enraged when she told him that she considered herself the bride of Christ. He gathered together fifty heathen philosophers to persuade her to renounce her faith. Catherine, however, combined brains with beauty, and she converted them all. The emperor condemned them to the stake, and ordered Catherine to be put to death by wheels studded with sharp blades and teeth. An angel, however, intervened to prevent this, whereupon Catherine was beheaded. That is why, in addition to the palm branch, she has the attributes of a wheel and a sword.

This kind of small prints of a favourite saint could easily be kept in a prayer-book.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.