Lying on Mary’s lap, infant Jesus holds Saint Catherine’s hand to put a wedding ring on her finger. The golden crown on Catherine’s head points to her status as the princess of Alexandria. According to The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of the lives of the saints, she was persecuted under the Roman emperor Maxentius (ca. 278–312 CE) for her Christian faith. When the emperor attempted to win her over by proposing marriage, she replied that she is devoted to her union with Jesus. This infuriated Maxentius and led him to order her execution.

The virgin martyr’s story enjoyed popularity since the late Middle Ages, when many female saints were venerated as exemplars of wifely virtues. Luca Cambiaso emphasizes this aspect by giving prominence to Catherine and Mary in the foreground, which is contrasted by the shadowy presence of Joseph behind them.