Jacopo Bassano was long considered a minor, provincial master, specialised mainly in the production of genre paintings and rural scenes which made the fortune of his studio. In actual fact, he can be considered one of the greatest Venetian artists of the Cinquecento, on a par with Veronese and Tintoretto. His artistic heritage was taken up by his four children — Leandro, Francesco, Gerolamo and Giambattista. He received his training in Venice but worked all his life in the town where he was born, while keeping himself constantly up-to-date on progress being made in Venetian and Central-Italian art, from Titian to Lotto and Vasari. His favourite sources for studies often included engravings by German and Italian masters, which provided him with a rich collection of ideas, models and figures.
The Martyrdom of St Catherine was painted in his youth but already demonstrates his wide range of interests. In the supernatural light radiated by the angel, the painting portrays a famous episode in the life of St Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr, who lived in the 4th century AD. According to tradition, the saint was subjected to torture on the wheel but was miraculously saved by an angel who broke the instruments of martyrdom. The sacred episode, which takes place against an architectural backdrop, occupies the higher portion of the painting. Below this, the artist has dwelt on the depiction of the crowd of hirelings overcome by the violence of the miraculous event. The most immediate source for this composition is probably the series of engravings designed by Francesco Salviati to illustrate the Life of St Catherine written by Pietro Aretino.