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Heritage and identity (58). "Por Santa Catalina, prevente de leña y harina". Notes on her feast in Pamplona and Tudela.


Published in

Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, from a noble family, was model martyred for her knowledge, beauty and bravery, according to the Golden Legend, sermons and hagiography. After confounding the pagan philosophers and suffering several torments, among them that of the cogwheel, she was beheaded at the beginning of the 4th century.

On November 25, her feast day, in past centuries there were numerous celebrations in the capital of Navarre, around the brotherhoods of the cathedral and the parish of San Saturnino. A popular aphorism recalls: "For Santa Catalina, prevente of firewood and flour" and another proverb says: "For Santa Catalina, snow in the kitchen". Both speak of the arrival of winter and the measures to face the harshness of the season.

Santa Catalina has in Navarra seven parishes, twenty-two hermitages and, above all, many representations. Frequently, we find her presiding over altarpieces of her dedication, whose issue exceeds forty, ranging from the Gothic period to the nineteenth century, with a preponderance of Romanesque ones. Among the confraternities, in addition to those of Pamplona, there are ten others from other towns, which have been studied by Gregorio Silanes.

Her image is very easy to identify, thanks to the particular attributes she carries along with the triumphal palm, typical of martyrs. The crown she wears alludes to her noble condition, the book to her wisdom, the cogwheel and the sword to the torments to which she was subjected and, finally, the head that can be seen between the lower folds of her tunic, is that of the emperor Maxentius, defeated by the wisdom, virtue and constancy of the saint, besides being the one who ordered her execution.

In the cathedral of Pamplona

The first temple of the diocese of Pamplona had, at least since 1336, in the time of Bishop Barbazán, a confraternity, to which belonged a hospital for attendance of the Jacobean pilgrims. The leaders of the confraternity made a general demand through the streets of the city and celebrated the feast of the saint with a brotherhood meal, for which moderation was always requested by the visitors. The menu was based on partridges, reaching fail the banquet if the birds were missing. Eduardo Morales Solchaga has studied different devotional, festive, traditional and artistic aspects of the institution. 

On November 25, the day of the saint, the chapel was "decorated with bunches of holly and other trees. It was decorated with damask hangings, guarding it some boys day and night, branches and reeds were spread along the street, put mayos and ran an ox and the night before there were bonfires and rockets and buscapiés..... placed the relic of the saint in the middle, which gives to adore the cymbal all day. The chapel of music concurs and the vespers are sung as second of first class".

Its altar was privileged, from the time of Gregory XIII, at the request of Don Juan de Navarra y Mendoza, chantre and canon of the primate cathedral of Toledo and treasurer of the cathedral of Pamplona. At the end of the 18th century, 260 masses were still celebrated by its two chaplains for the intentions of its living and deceased members.

Regarding the altarpiece, it was one of the few that were saved in the cathedral precinct from the baroque period, after the reform proposed by Santos Ángel de Ochandátegui. We know that the old one was replaced in the last quarter of the 17th century. Specifically, in 1683, the chapter, at proposal of the prior, agreed to apply the distribution of the food to the new altarpiece that was to be made, because the old one was in very bad condition. In 1686 the contract for its execution was signed with Miguel de Bengoechea and José de Munárriz, and it was immediately polychromed, in 1690, by Juan de Munárriz. It is the first altarpiece with Solomonic columns in the Pamplona church. The interesting iconography of the ensemble is an excellent reflection of the preferences of the chapter and the devotions of 17th century Spain, including the Immaculate Conception, St. Teresa and St. James on horseback.

In San Cernin: bonfire and degree program of oxen

In the parish of San Saturnino, the confraternity of Santa Catalina dates back to at least 1344. The accounts of the 15th century document the expenses of its hospital. The main feast was celebrated on November 25 in its chapel and altar. The following day, the brotherhood offered a meal to the poor.

The confraternity celebrated the feasts of the Purification, Assumption and Good Friday. On the day the accounts were taken, the prior presented the confreres with bread, wine and meat, but in view of the abuses, those banquets were suppressed, where the issue of dishes had grown a lot.

He owned numerous estates in Pamplona and various other places, in the form of houses, censuses, etc. Among the illustrious confreres was the King of Navarre Charles III who, in 1396, ordered his treasurer to pay the so-called "torcha" to Santa Catalina de San Saturnino, "of which we are confreres".

The baroque image of the saint with the wheel and sword is in the attic of the altarpiece of her former chapel. This work was saved, along with a few sculptures, from the systematic disappearance of all the Baroque altarpieces of the parish. Its chronology is similar to that of other sculptures, which were made for the parish by the sculptor Juan Ruiz, a neighbor of Madrid, in 1680, although their quality is more modest than those of the aforementioned author.

The parish accounts document, year after year, the purchase of twelve loads of vine shoots for the bonfires on the eve of St. Catherine's Eve, a day of great worship in the parish, and St. Saturnino, which was celebrated a few days later. Those loads were consumed in bonfires that were lit in front of the houses of those who held the offices of the parish workers and sporadically, also at the door of the church. In the heat of the fire and with the light of its flames, the party in the street and the meeting of the people, was possible in the cold days.

Likewise, as practiced by the parish of San Saturnino on the eve of its patron saint, oxen were run, generally in pairs, which were previously brought from the neighborhood of La Magdalena by men who were called "tirabueyes" and on a few occasions "matabueyes", to refer to people familiar with this animal subject and to the slaughtermen who slaughtered them to supply the city's butcher shops. The celebration with bulls ensogados was traditional among many towns and brotherhoods to celebrate their patron saints. In neighboring Guipúzcoa it was internship very usual. In Tolosa, for example, oxen were run at three o'clock in the afternoon every Friday of the year, to the sound of drums, except during Lent. In San Sebastián, the municipal corporation resolved in 1902 to prohibit the celebration of sokamuturras, until then a tradition dating back to the XVII century, due to its dangerousness, a decision that led to serious incidents.

The image of the main altarpiece at Recoletas

If most of the images of the martyr saint are related to her cult and her feast, the one that occupies one of the streets of the monumental altarpiece of Recoletas de Pamplona, a work made between 1700 and 1708, had its motive in commemorating, together with the Baptist, the names of the founders of the monastery, Don Juan de Ciriza and Doña Catalina de Montejaso. On occasions like this, finding iconographies so foreign to the devotional contexts of the religious orders, can be explained by the will of those who paid the expenses of project to place saints that spoke to them of their loved ones or relatives, as happened in the altarpiece of San Fermín in the cathedral. In the latter case, the commissioner, Don Fermín de Apestegui, son of the palace of Errazu, had unrelated saints placed, but whose names bore his closest relatives.

In the capital of La Ribera

In Tudela the saint had her references in the cathedral and in the parish of San Nicolás. The cathedral altarpiece is one of the jewels of the temple's heritage. It has been related to the work of the Aragonese painter Juan de Leví, author of another altarpiece dedicated to the same saint in the cathedral of Tarazona. The aforementioned painter is considered one of the most interesting figures, documented between 1388 and 1407 in the Ebro Valley. The latest programs of study place him at the beginning of the 15th century.

It is an altarpiece with painted panels as the protagonist, framed by simple tracery with gothic elements such as beadings, pinnacles and gables. Its iconographic program combines two cycles, that of the life of Christ and that of the patron saint of the altarpiece, distributed in painted panels. The panels corresponding to the life of the saint are presided over by a larger composition with the patron saint triumphant over Maxentius and the donor praying at her feet. 

The devotion to Saint Catherine of Alexandria is the subject of the famous historian Juan Antonio Fernández in his unpublished manuscript work, dedicated to the parish of San Nicolás of the capital of La Ribera, dated 1786. There he refers to the singular devotion of Sancho el Fuerte to the saint, for having invoked her before the battle of Navas de Tolosa, together with Santiago and San Jorge, quoting Don Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada. The veneration of the martyr in that parish is attested since the 13th century, also having a brotherhood. From the same temple comes the delicate Mannerist bust of the saint (1577), which is exhibited today in the Museo Decanal. For its quality it must be among the best of the sculptor Bernal de Gabadi. In past centuries it was carried in procession on the day of Corpus Christi and on the feast day itself, accompanied by the municipal authorities and the chapter.

The same Juan Antonio Fernández gives an account of the testamentary dispositions of Don Gutierre García de Aguilar, who made his testament in 1382. In it he orders to be buried in the chapel of the saint, where he founded anniversaries and a chaplaincy. The name of this personage could be related to the altarpiece and the board of trustees of the chapel that the Marquis of San Adrián inherited in time, as successor of the Atondo family and these, in turn, of the descendants of Don Gutierre García de Aguilar. However, it is possible that the true promoter of the work was a relative of his, since in the painting he appears with the clerical tonsure and Don García, in his will, states that he was a widower and had a daughter named María.

The doctoral canon Joaquín Ruiz de Conejares refers to the same document in the first volume of his manuscript work entitled Diálogo Sagrado sobre la Santa Real Yglesia de Tudela (1786), adding that devotion to the saint in Tudela dates back to the time of Alfonso the Battler, who won an important battle on her feast day. The same author provides testimonies from the 15th century, by which numerous graces and indulgences were granted to those who visited and gave alms in the cathedral chapel on certain days and under certain circumstances.