25 March 2021

Saint Catherine of Siena

Pious woman from ordinary family helped the Pope reorganise the church

Tiepolo's 1746 painting of St Catherine, in  the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Tiepolo's 1746 painting of St Catherine, in
 the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
Caterina Benincasa, who was one day to be canonized as Saint Catherine of Siena, a patron saint of Rome, Italy and Europe, was born on this day in 1347 in Siena in Tuscany.

She is remembered for her writings, all of which were dictated to scribes, as she did not learn to write until late in life. While carrying out Christ’s work in Italy, she wrote about 380 letters, 26 prayers, and four treatises of Il libro della divina dottrina, better known as The Dialogue. These works were so influential and highly regarded she was later declared a Doctor of the Church.

Caterina was the youngest of 25 children born to Lapa Piagenti, the daughter of a poet, and Jacopo di Benincasa, a cloth dyer. She is said to have had her first vision of God when she was just five years old and at the age of seven, Caterina vowed to give her whole life to God.

She refused to get married when her parents tried to arrange it, cut off her hair to make herself look less attractive and began to fast. She did not want to take a nun’s veil, but to live an active life full of prayer in society, following the model of the Dominicans.

When she was in her early 20s, Caterina said she had experienced a spiritual espousal, or mystical marriage, to Christ, and she began serving the poor and sick in Siena and attracted a group of followers.

Alessandro Franchi's 19th century painting depicts a young Caterina cutting off her long hair
Alessandro Franchi's 19th century painting depicts
a young Caterina cutting off her long hair
She started to travel around Italy to promote church reform. She strongly believed the return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome was the best way to bring peace to Italy and she went to Avignon to be an unofficial advocate of this. She was then sent by him to negotiate peace with Florence.

In 1377 she founded a women’s monastery of strict observance in an old fortress outside Siena.

The next Pope, Urban VI, invited Caterina to Rome to help reorganise the church. She lived at the court meeting individual nobles to convince them to support the Pope and sending letters to other princes and cardinals urging them to obey him.

She tried to win back the support of Queen Joan I of Naples for the papacy, although Urban VI had previously excommunicated the queen for supporting the antipope. Being trusted by the Pope with such important work was rare for a woman in the Middle Ages.

By the time Caterina was 33 her habit of extreme fasting, eventually living just off the daily Eucharist, had made her ill. She became unable to eat and drink at all and lost the use of her legs. She died on 29 April, 1380 following a stroke. Her last words had been: ‘Father, into Your Hands I commend my soul and my spirit.’

Lorenzo Lotto's 1533 painting, St Catherine with the
Holy Family,
is in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo
Pope Urban VI celebrated her funeral and her burial in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva near the Pantheon in Rome. Her head and thumb were later entombed in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where they remain.

Caterina had a spiritual adviser and friend from about 1374 until her death named Raymond of Capua. He wrote what is known as the Legenda Major: a Life of Caterina, which was completed in 1395.

Tommaso Caffarini, also known as Thomas of Siena, wrote an account of Caterina’s life and compiled a set of documents with testimony from many of her disciples as part of the process for her canonisation. An anonymous Florentine wrote Miracoli della Beata Caterina, about the miracles she performed.

The devotion to Caterina di Siena grew rapidly after her death. She was canonised in 1461 by Pope Pius II, who was himself from Siena and her feast day was established on 29 April. She was declared patron saint of Rome in 1866 and of Italy, together with St Francis of Assisi, in 1939. She was proclaimed patron saint of Europe in 1999 by Pope John Paul II.

Caterina’s Dialogue, letters and prayers have given her a prominent place in the history of Italian literature.

Caterina's home in Siena is now a shrine which houses a museum dedicated to her life
Caterina's home in Siena is now a shrine, which
houses a museum dedicated to her life
Travel tip:

Siena in Tuscany, where Caterina was born and lived for much of her life, has made a shrine out of the house she lived in with her parents. It has a museum dedicated to her life and is open to visitors in Vicolo di Tiratolo off Costa Sant’Antonio.  The nearby Basilica of San Domenico has a Cappella Santa Caterina where her head and thumb are housed. Siena is the venue for the historic horse race, the Palio di Siena. The race is contested in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a shell-shaped open area which is regarded as one of Europe’s finest medieval squares. It was established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form the city of Siena.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, which houses Catherine's remains
The Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
in Rome, which houses Catherine's remains
Travel tip:

Caterina was buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is in Piazza Minerva, close to the Pantheon in Rome. The basilica is the only surviving Gothic church structure left in Rome and has the original, arched vaulting inside. A sarcophagus containing the remains of Saint Catherine of Siena can be seen behind the high altar.  Among the works of art in the church are Michelangelo's statue Cristo della Minerva (1521) and the late 15th-century (1488–93) cycle of frescoes in the Carafa Chapel by Filippino Lippi. The basilica also houses the tomb of the 15th century the Dominican friar Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Blessed John of Fiesole, born Guido di Piero) better known as the painter Fra Angelico.

Also on this day:

1541: The birth of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany

1546: The birth of courtesan and poet Veronica Franco

1927: The birth of ground-breaking politician Tina Anselmi

1940: The birth of Mina, Italy’s all-time best-selling female pop singer

(Picture credits: Caterina's house in Siena by Gryffindor; Basilica by sonofgroucho via Wikimedia Commons)


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