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The Breaking Wheel

The Breaking Wheel

(2017) 8’
for clarinet and piano
Solenne—Con anima—Energico


The Breaking Wheel draws inspiration from the 13th-century wall paintings discovered in 1931 at Little Missenden Church in the Chiltern Hills. The paintings, in red and yellow ochre, allude to a different world. One of the most striking features is a series depicting the Life of St Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages. The development of Catherine’s medieval cult was spurred by the reported rediscovery of her body at Mount Sinai around the year 800; the story goes that a stream of healing oil poured from her body.

At Little Missenden, Catherine is first illustrated before the Emperor Maxentius as a noble, serene figure, in a long red tunic and white mantle, crowned and veiled. She is shown debating with the Emperor’s philosophers. Maxentius hoped that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine wins the debate. As punishment, Maxenitus orders the scourging of Catherine. The image is difficult to make out but delicate traces of Catherine’s torturers wielding whips place its meaning beyond doubt. Other images are too indistinct to be identified – perhaps one shows Catherine being imprisoned, whilst another may describe her visit from the Empress. A later image is unmistakeable – Catherine’s sentencing to death on the spiked breaking wheel. Catherine is uncrowned, her hair falling on her shoulders, illuminated with a deep, red nimbus; legend has it that the wheel shattered at Catherine’s touch. The wall painting shows the breaking wheel smashed into pieces, fragments scattered around the composition. The figure of a destroying angel wielding a sword can be seen, as can the heads and shoulders of Catherine’s tormentors, killed by the flying shards. The furious Maxentius ordered that Catherine be beheaded; her martyrdom is hard to make out, but the hand of God emerging from above the composition can still be seen. The final image, now almost completely faded, depicts Catherine’s burial on Mount Sinai.

This series inspired me to create a work in three short movements exploring the cult of St Catherine. Drawing upon two 13th-century pieces of English music composed in honour of Catherine – the first is a motet called Virgo regalis, the second is the three-part conductus, or devotional song, O laudanda virginitas – I have used techniques of layering, transformation and fragmentation to create a musical response to the beautiful, mysterious paintings at Little Missenden. The work doesn’t aim to represent the narrative of the St Catherine legend, but rather explores the idea that we might create connections between the storytelling, the art and the music of the distant past and our own, living culture today. MB

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A short article on the work can be found here.

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