Saint Catherine of Alexandria arguing with the orators

Oil on panel
82 x 87 cm.
Valencia, c. 1430-40
Provenance: Barcelona, collection of the Marquises of Villamizar.

Bibliography: Gómez 2004a, p. 104; Gómez-Ruiz 2014, pp. 24-25.


The panel we have before us here was first revealed by José Gómez Frechina in 2004, having seen an old photo of it taken when it belonged to the Marquises of Villamizar (Barcelona). The image, preserved at the Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic in Barcelona (cliché Mas G-36880), presented the work with clear repainting that camouflaged the original subject. This did not, however, stop it from being attributed to the Valencian painter Gonçal Peris Sarrià[1]. Fortunately, after its recent restoration, the work has recovered its original appearance.

The scene depicted shows St. Catherine in discussion with a group of men. In the middle there is a finely-dressed individual, who stands out by wearing a curious conical head-dress with a crown of rays of light coming out of it. The figure is facing a first group of sages holding books and phylacteries, while pointing towards the saint. She is located standing to their right, and is seen with a punch-marked gilt halo. She is also gesticulating and addressing a second group of individuals who are also consulting books and clearly debating with her. The scene takes place in an interior space covered by a wooden roof, accessed by a triple entrance arch supported by two slender columns. The piece’s gilt architectural motif has survived, taking the form of a great basket-handle arch, with numerous lobes on the inside and oculi in the interstices, topped by a frieze with little three-lobed oculi inside. The same frieze is repeated in the lower section of the panel. The carpentry work is complemented by two uprights at the sides, with an architectural section in the form of a pinnacle.

In terms of iconography, we are being shown one of the episodes from the life of the saint, popularised though sources such as Jacobus da Varagine’s Golden Legend, where Catherine of Alexandria is described as being summoned by the Emperor Maxentius to his palace to discuss Jesus Christ. Maxentius had already been humiliated by Catherine once before, so this time he gathered together the fifty most renowned sages in the Empire, experts in grammar and rhetoric, so they could defeat her in debate using their convincing arguments. But the saint also defeated them, and the sages fell silent. Varagine’s text refers to one of the sages calling on Maxentius to demonstrate that the gods in which they had believed up to that point were greater than Catherine’s god, explaining that if he was unable to do so, they would all convert to Christianity[2].

From a stylistic point of view, the attribution to Gonçal Peris is clear. The human models, the gestures and faces of the pagan sages are reminiscent of the ones we find in a panel depicting the Stoning of Jesus in the Temple sold recently on the London art market (Sam Fogg), where the inside is depicted in much the same manner, even matching the types of curved benches portrayed[3]. St. Catherine’s face and curly blond locks bear close resemblance to those of varying compartments from the St. Barbara altarpiece from Puertomingalvo (Teruel), housed today in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, as well as to the St. Michael preserved in Edinburgh’s National Galleries of Scotland[4]. The same may be said for the St. John the Evangelist that appears on the predella of the Rubielos de Mora altarpiece, and also for a panel depicting the same saint from a private collection[5]. When it comes to the composition, the scene is not so far removed from the same episode depicted by Joan Reixac in his St. Catherine altarpiece in Villahermosa del Río from around 1448, with interesting similarities observed such as the type of throne or the presence of the figure carrying the phylactery[6].

The gilt features simulating architecture, which are mostly original, also draw parallels with models that were common in altarpieces by Peris, as we see in the friezes with their oculi, reminiscent of a Birth of the Virgin that appeared on the Barcelona art market (La Suite, 2018)[7], or in two compartments dedicated to the life of St. Bartholomew from the old Mateu collection, now in private hands[8], all of which were most probably from the same altarpiece dedicated to both the Saint and the Virgin. The multi-lobed hanging-basket arch with oculi in the interstices is extremely similar to the ones over the compartment of the Virgin altarpiece in Puertomingalvo now housed in the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas, or in the aforementioned St. Barbara altarpiece[9]. These are the same architectural elements and decorative motifs as we find in a series of panels from an altarpiece to St. Peter which has been linked indiscriminately to Pere Nicolau and Jaume Mateu[10]. Saying that, their style matches that of the works mentioned here, and it would therefore be advisable to conduct a detailed revision of the matter to determine whether they might also be the work of Gonçal Peris Sarrià.












[1] Gómez 2004a, p. 104. Cfr. Gómez-Ruiz 2014, pp. 24-25.

[2] Vorágine 1982, vol. II, pp. 768-769.

[3] Velasco 2019b, pp. 60-65.

[4] See, respectively, Cornudella 2011, fig. 6 and Miquel 2009, p. 50, fig. 1.

[5] Details of both in Aliaga 2016, fig. 6.

[6] See a detail from the scene in Gómez 2001i, p. 206. We should not forget that historiography has posited the possible training of Reixac in Peris’ workshop.

[7] Reproduced in Velasco 2019b, p. 65.

[8] Post 1935, p. 560, fig. 244. Reproduced in Gómez-Ruiz 2014, pp. 50-51.

[9] Cornudella 2011, fig. 9.

[10] Gómez 2004a, pp. 29-30; Aliaga 2007.