November 25, 2019

The Discovery of the Relics of Saint Katherine at Sinai

By John Sanidopoulos

In the account of the Life and Passion of Saint Katherine of Alexandria from the tenth century written by St. Symeon the Metaphrastes, we read in her final prayer before her martyrdom her request that God would hide her body so that it could not be divided up for relics. It is believed by many scholars that this request was added by St. Symeon to account for the fact that no relics of St. Katherine existed. Like Moses in the Old Testament, the place of her burial was unknown. According to St. Symeon, angels took the body of St. Katherine and buried it at Mount Sinai. If the relics of St. Katherine would ever be found, you would have to go to Mount Sinai to find them.

When Emperor Justinian built a monastery at Mount Sinai to protect the ascetics that already inhabited the area, he did not dedicate the monastery to St. Katherine, since the association between Sinai and St. Katherine was unknown in the sixth century. Instead, Justinian dedicated the monastery to the Theotokos, of whom the burning bush is a type. According to tradition, the relics of St. Katherine were not discovered until around 800 A.D. when monks based at the Monastery of the Theotokos at the foot of Sinai discovered her incorrupt relics atop what is known today as Jebel Katrin or Mount Katherine.

The problem with this tradition is the date of the discovery. There is no mention of the relics and no account of veneration of St. Katherine at Sinai until the tenth century, after her Life was written by St. Symeon. Nonetheless, whenever the discovery did take place, her relics were immediately placed in a small chapel atop Jebel Katrin, where it was believed that the bones exuded a miraculous healing oil. Today a small chapel dating to the eighteenth century marks the spot where the relics were found and displayed for veneration. Eventually, for reasons unknown, the relics were brought down to the main monastery, probably around the late twelfth century. Philippe de Milly, Lord of Transjordan and later Grand Master of the Templars (1169–70), visited Mount Sinai in the 1160s and saw the body of St. Katherine atop Jebel Katrin, but visitors from the thirteenth century record seeing them in the main monastery. This is where the popularity of St. Katherine grew, and the monastery soon became known as St. Katherine's Monastery.

Today the relics housed at Mount Sinai only consist of her skull and left hand. The discrepancy between the original find of the Saint's incorrupt body and her remaining bones is said to result from the gifts of relics made to visiting dignitaries over the centuries.

Patriarch Eutychios of Alexandria (933-940) wrote a short history of the monastery at Sinai from its foundation till his own day. In this history, he makes no mention of the association of St. Katherine with Sinai or of the presence of her relics there. Western European writers however do mention the presence of her relics from the early eleventh century, therefore making the probable date of the discovery of her relics some time in the mid to late tenth century.

However, in 1950 a joint American-Egyptian expedition sought to microfilm the manuscripts of the monastery for deposit in the Library of Congress in Washington, and in a manuscript dating to the late ninth or early tenth century there is reference to a tract of the skull of St. Katherine being in the monastery. If this is true, then this could be evidence pushing for an earlier date of the discovery of the relics. In the same expedition, a Georgian manuscript written by the scribe John Zosimas from some time between 973-986 has a calendar which records the feast of St. Katherine as being November 24th. However, John Zosimas had previously been a monk at St. Savvas Monastery near Jerusalem, where the feast of St. Katherine on November 24th was known, so he may have carried this knowledge from Jerusalem to Sinai when he wrote the calendar. Despite this, the weight of the evidence still suggests the discovery of the relics of St. Katherine at Sinai to be in the mid to late tenth century.

It is not known exactly when the monastery became known as St. Katherine's. As far as western sources are concerned, in 1217 Pope Honorius III still referred to the "Monastery of St. Mary" on Sinai in a bull confirming the possessions of the monastery. In 1317 Pope John XXII also referred to it as "St. Mary's", but in 1328 he referred to it as "St. Katherine's". This is the first known western reference to the monastery by this name. That the Mother of God was replaced by a Virgin Martyr testifies to how popular the veneration of St. Katherine was at Sinai.

The earliest icon depicting St. Katherine at Sinai dates from the late twelfth/early thirteenth century. The central panel contains a full-length portrait of the Saint in imperial dress and is bordered with twelve depictions of her life and passion that were added later. In the fifteenth century the depiction of St. Katherine receiving a wedding ring from Christ was added. These stories were added as traditions developed about her life.

We do not have an account of the discovery of the relics of St. Katherine until a certain Magister Thietmar visited Sinai in 1217 as a pilgrim, and he gives the most detailed description of the monastery from the Crusader period. In his account, he writes the following after having visited many places in the Holy Land:

"Wishing with great desire and longing to visit the body of St. Katherine, which sweats holy oil, and still more ardently because I had conceived of it in my mind for a long time, I submitted my whole self, body and mind, to the grace of God and the assistance of St. Katherine, not shrinking away from whatever dangers or chance events there might be. I was set aflame with such a desire (for I was exposing my life to death or perpetual captivity through the ebb and flow of chance and fate). Therefore, setting forth on my journey from Acre dressed as a Georgian monk and with a long beard, I pretended to be what I was not, and went along the seashore for three miles towards Mount Carmel."

After a long description of his journey to Mount Sinai, Thietmar enters the church and sees the tomb of St. Katherine, which consisted of a small chest of white marble. The bishop, hearing of the arrival of Thietmar and his wish to see the relics, approached the chest with prayer and incense, and had the cover removed. Thietmar then leaned forward and kissed the bare head of St. Katherine. The limbs still hung together and were steeped in oil, which "exuded from the bones, not from the sarcophagus, like drops of sweat."

Thietmar goes on to write:

"When I inquired about her translation from the mountain to the church, I was told that a certain hermit who dwelt in another part of Mount Sinai from that in which the body of St. Katherine was laid by the angels, frequently saw, by day and by night, a light of great brightness in or near the place where the body lay. Wondering what it was, he went to the church at the foot of the mountain, and described the sight that he saw and the place where he saw it. The monks, after fasting, ascended the mountain, in a procession that was led by him. When they found the body, they greatly wondered whose it was, whence it had come, and how it was taken there. As they stood there wondering, an aged hermit from Alexandria declared, like Habakkuk the prophet who spoke to Daniel, that the body had been brought to Sinai by the grace of God, and he assured those who doubted, that it was the body of the blessed Katherine, and had been carried there by angels. At his instigation, the bishop and monks translated the body to the church because the place where it lay was quite inaccessible."

Thietmar then asked to be taken to the top of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Law, and he describes seeing the place where the body of St. Katherine was laid by the angels. Before leaving the monastery, he received some of the precious miraculous oil of St. Katherine.

At the end of the eighteenth century the relics of St. Katherine were moved from the marble chest to a new coffin made by the skeuofylax Prokopios Kaisareus, and are located south of the altar area of the main church of the monastery, next to two other silver coffins given to the monastery as gifts from Russia.

Jebel Katrin where the relics of St. Katherine were found

Altar marks the spot where the body of St. Katherine was buried by the angels

Marble chest which used to contain the relics

Current coffin of the Saint

Left hand and skull of the Saint