Friday, April 29, 2016

Saint Catherine of Siena – Patroness of Europe and Doctor of the Church

Distance view of the high altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Rome, Piazza della Minerva

In Rome the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is distinguished by its unusual, Gothic style and by the fact that one of the most important saints of Europe is entombed under the main altar.

This body is not the remains of a great Pope, an Emperor or another politically important person.  Probably surprising to some is the fact that it is the body of a young woman who in her brief life did an extraordinary number of astonishing things; things that would be remarkable for a woman in our own day and are truly astonishing when one thinks of the common image of women in the middle ages.

View of the high altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
It is the tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena, who died at the age of 32 in 1380.

Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena
High Altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

The typical image of the medieval woman is that of a subordinated, repressed individual, almost held as a chattel or slave, first to her father and then to her husband.  Yet, this era abounds with a large number of women with a wide range of experience and accomplishment.  A brief list includes:  Eleanor of Aquitaine, Empress Matilda, Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan, Marguerite of Anjou.  But the achievements of Catherine of Siena surpass all of them in scale and continuing relevance. 
Fray Juan Battista de Maino, St. Catherine of Siena
Spanish, 1612-1614
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa was born into a very large middle class artisan family in Siena on September 25, 1347.  She died in Rome on April 29, 1380.  Between these two dates she lived an amazing life. From her early childhood she was devout and very early on experienced visions.  When she was only seven years old, she vowed her virginity to Christ.  At around age 12 her parents decided to arrange a marriage for her, as was the custom at the time.  Catherine refused to go along with their plans and began the series of extreme austerities that she followed for the rest of her life.  Her obstinacy convinced her parents to allow her to live as she chose and she began to live the life of an anchoress, withdrawn from the world and living a life of prayer and sacrifice, while still in the family home.  

At age 19-20 she became a member of the Dominican Third Order, living a form of lay religious life which allows people to continue living their ordinary lives in society under a form of religious rule which incorporates them into the life of the religious order to which they belong.  
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, 1746
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

They are designated as a “Third” portion of a religious family in which the vowed religious men (friars in the case of the Dominicans and Franciscans) form the “First” and the vowed religious women (nuns) form the “Second” portions.  Some Third Orders are further divided into “Regular” and “Secular” branches, with the regular members living together in a community, while the secular members live ordinary lives In the world.  All are, however, members of the Order and all have the right to wear certain parts of the Order’s religious garb or habit.  Therefore, St. Catherine of Siena is generally shown wearing the black and white habit of the Dominican Third Order female members. 

Following her reception into the Dominican Third Order for women (called the Mantellate in Siena) Catherine began to lead a life of active ministry in her home town and beyond.   Her reputation for holiness and wisdom in counseling brought her to the attention of many outside Siena.  She began to be sought out as a counselor by many in high places in both the secular and religious worlds.  And a wise counselor was someone greatly needed at the time.

Follower of the Moerdrecht Master, St. Catherine of Siena
From Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), 1440-1450
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 133 E 15, folio 226v
Carlo Crivelli, St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, c. 1490
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais

The period during which she lived was as troubled and tormented as is our own time.  It has been described as “calamitous”, “disastrous” and a time of crisis.  

The fourteenth century opened with a series of famine years in northern Europe that are sometimes described as the “years without a summer”.  

It also saw the onset of the Black Death, which resulted in the deaths of at least half the population of Europe and which arrived in Western Europe just a few weeks after the birth of St. Catherine.  

Politically, there was constant friction between the rapidly differentiating European states (such as the Hundred Years War between England and France, which began at this time), internal strife within these countries (such as the Jacquerie in France and the Peasants’ Revolt in England) and constant strife within the Italian peninsula between the many city-states, the Papacy, the French monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire.  

And within the church there was also great unease, with many serious abuses becoming common and a papacy that resided not in Rome but in Avignon, in southern France, under the thumb of the French monarchy. 

The last Crusade of the middle ages came to a dreadful end at Nicopolis in 1396.2

In this troubled atmosphere Catherine tried hard to bring about peace in Italy.  But her best known accomplishment is surely her successful effort to persuade Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and to return to Rome, which he did in 1377.  In the confused and contested election which followed his death in 1378, which led to the Great Western Schism, she supported the Italian candidate, Urban VI.

Matteo da Milano, St. Catherine of Siena
From Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri
Italy (Bologna), c. 1500
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 29, folio 36

Her advice on spiritual matters was sought by a wide range of people and survives in her written works, The Dialogue, her Letters and a series of Prayers. 

Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Dictating Her Dialogues
Italian, c. 1460
Detroit, Institute of Art
During her life St. Catherine had a series of visions through which she understood her relationship to Christ.  These events form the primary iconography of St. Catherine of Siena.  A series of them was painted around the time of her canonization by the Siennese painter, Giovanni di Paolo.  These charming paintings were placed as a predella along the bottom of a major Sienese altarpiece and became among the earliest images that set the iconography of St. Catherine.  Consequently, I will show them below as the first image of each section of her iconography.

Among them are: 

 Her Mystic Marriage to Christ (not to be confused with a similar image of St. Catherine of Alexandria, which may have developed from the iconography of the Siennese saint)
Giovanni di Paolo, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, c. 1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lorenzo d'Alessandro da Sanseverino, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine
Italian, c.1481-1500
London, National Gallery

Correggio, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, 1510-1515
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Fra Bartolomeo, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, 1511
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Clemente de Torres, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
Spanish, c. 1650
Private Collection

Hendrik Heerschop, Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena
Dutch, 1660
Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent 

The exchange of Christ’s heart for her heart
Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ
Italian, c. 1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Her vision of St. Dominic investing her with the habit of the Dominican Third Order
Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena Invested with the Dominican Habit
Italian, c. 1460
Cleveland, Museum of Art
In her vision, Catherine was offered the habits of three religious orders: Dominican, Augustinian and Franciscan, by the founder saints of those groups. She chose the order of St. Dominic.

Her generosity in giving her cloak to a beggar who turns out to be Christ Himself when He returns it to her
Giovanni di Paolo. St. Catherine of Siena and the Beggar
Italian, c. 1460s
Cleveland, Museum of Art

Pietro di Francesco degli Orioli, St. Catherine and the Beggar
Italian, c. 1490
Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale
This picture shows how influential the works of Giovanni di Paolo were in establishing St. Catherine's iconography

Her reception of Holy Communion from Christ Himself or from an angel
Giovanni di Paolo, Miraculous Communion of  St. Catherine of Siena
Italian, c. 1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Domenico Beccafumi, Miraculous Communion of St. Catherine
Italian, c. 1513-1515
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

Francesco Brizzi, Miraculous Communion of St. Catherine
Italian, ca. 1600
Bologna, Church of San Domenico, Chapel of St. Catherine

Her reception of the Stigmata (the marks of the Crucifixion of Christ)
Giovanni Di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata
Italian, c.1460
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

Giovanni di Bartolo Matteo, St. Catharine Receiving the Stigmata
Italian, c.1460-1495
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais

Domenico Beccafumi, St. Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata
Italian, 1513-1515
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

Giacomo Pacchiarotti, St. Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata
Italian, 1520-1530
Siena, Church of Santa Caterina in Fontebranda

Other events from her life were also frequently depicted as part of her iconography.  These included her
  • Intercessory prayers for her own family and for others, 
Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena Beseeching Christ to Resuscitate Her Mother
Italian, c.1460-1465
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

Master of San Miniato, St. Catherine of Siena Intercedes for Her Deceased Sister, Palmerina
Italian, c. 1570
La Spezia, Museo Amedeo Lia

Girolamo di Benvenuto, St. Catherine of Siena Interceding for a Possessed Woman
Italian, c.1500
Denver, Art Museum

Il Sodoma, St. Catherine Interceding for the Condemned at the Beheading of Niccolo di Tuldo
Italian, 1526
Siena, Church of San Domenico

Miracles attributed to her

Vincenzo di Tamagni, St. Catherine Heals Matteo Cenni of the Plague
Italian, 1520-1530
Siena, Church of Santa Caterina in Fontebranda, Chapel of St. Catherine

    Her appeals to the Pope to return to Rome
    Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine Before the Pope at Avignon
    Italian, c. 1460s
    Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

    Giorgio Vasari, Idealized Return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome
    Italian, c. 1570
    Vatican City, Apostolic Palace
    St. Catherine appears just to the left of the Pope's Sedia gestatoria urging him to continue on to his Roman residence.

    She is also frequently shown in prayer alone and sometimes in ecstasy.

    Anonymous Siennese Painter, Saint Catherine of Siena with a Crucifix and a Crown of Thorns
    Italian, 17th century
    Philadelphia, Museum of Art

    Melchiore Caffa, Ecstasy of St. Catherome of  Siena
    Italian, 1667
    Rome, Church of S. Catarina da Siena a Magnapoli

    Rutilio Manetti, St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, 1628-1632
    Private Collection

    Pompeo Batoni, Ecstasy of St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, 1743
    Lucca, Museo di Villa Guinigi

    Her specific iconographic attributes are related to her life. She is shown with the lily of purity, the stigmata and crown of thorns, the cross, sometimes holding a heart as well as with a book or books.
    Giovanni di Paolo, St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, c. 1460
    Cambridge, Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum

    Sano di Pietro, St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, c. 1460-1465
    Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum

    Workshop of Guillaume Vrelant , St. Catherine of Siena
    From a Book of HoursFlemish, 1461-1499
    New York, NYPL, Spencer Collection,
    MS NYPL Spencer 46, fol. 42

    Domenico Ghirlandaio, Saints Catherine and  Lawrence
    Italian, 1490-1498
    Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakotek

    St. Catherine of Siena From a Book Printed in Venice byAldus Manutius
    Italian, c. 1500
    New York, 
    Columbia University, Rare Book Department; Manuscript Library
    Incunable C-281, p. 422

    Anthony van Dyck, Christ On the Cross With St.. Catherine of Siena, St. Dominic and an Angel
    Flemish, Before 1629
    Antwerp, Koninklijk Museen voor Schone Kunste

    Abraham van Diepenbeeck, Christ on the Cross Adored by Eight Saints of the Dominican Order
    Model for an Engraving
    Flemish, 1652
    Paris, Musée du Louvre

    Sometimes she is shown treading on a demon or demons (as in the Bourdichon illustration below), representing her victorious battle with various temptations that tormented her in her early years.

    Jean Bourdichon, St. Catherine of Siena
    From Hours of Frederic d'Aragon
    French (Tours), 1501-1504
    Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
    MS Latin 10532, fol. 368

    Her role as a patron saint appears often as well.

    Anonymous Lombard Painter, Madonna and Child with St. Catherine of Siena and a Carthusian Donor
    Italian, c.1460
    New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

    Gaudenzio Ferrari, Donors with Saints Catherine of Siena and Niicholas
    Italian, 1533
    Vercelli, Church of San Cristoforo

    Il Sodoma, Madonna and Child with  Saints Peter and Catherine of Siena and a Carthusian Donor
    Italian, 1540s
    London, National Gallery

    Catherine died at Rome in 1380, worn out by her relentless austerities and travels.  Her body was buried in the Dominican church at the center of Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, although her head was taken to Siena and is enshrined in the church of Santa Caterina in Fontebranda.

    Giovanni di Paolo, Death of St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, c. 1460
    Private Collection

    Vincenzo Tamagni, Deathbed of St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, c. 1520-1530
    Siena, Church of Santa Caterina in Fontebranda, Chapel of St. Catherine

    She was canonized in 1461.  She has remained a major saint, growing in importance as the centuries have passed.  Pope Pius IX named her a Patroness of Rome in 1866, while in 1939 Pope Pius XII named her a Patroness of Italy.

    Francesco Vanni, Canonization of St. Catherine of Siena
    Italian, c.1600
    Siena, Oratorio della Cucina

    In 1970 Pope Paul VI added her to the distinguished company of the saints who bear the title Doctor of the Church and in 1999 St. John Paul II named her as one of the Patrons of Europe.

    Michele de Meo, St. Catherine of Siena, Patron of Europe
    Italian, 2003
    Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Chapel of St. James

    In the modern day she is sometimes seen as a kind of proto-feminist, a feisty woman who refused to accept the limitations on women of her day and who used emotional blackmail through her fasts to get her own way.  But those who see her this way are blinded by their own modern prejudices, I think.  Just because some things seem on the surface to be similar does not necessarily mean that they are.

    Catherine saw her world through a Christ-centered view and love of Him was her motivation, not a love/hate fixation on self or a desire to have her own way.3  What she did, she did for love of Him and of His church and not for herself.  That is why she continues to have influence in our world today. 

    © M. Duffy, 2016

    1.  For details and an appreciation of her life see the following:

    Butler, Alban, Rev. The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Volume IV. Dublin: James Duffy, 1866;, 2010.

    2.  For fourteenth century history see:  Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978.  

    3.  For an interesting discussion of the issue of Catherine’s “proto-feminism” see: Katherine Mahon, “The Complex Catherine Of Siena and the Sin of Simplifying Saints”, in (DT) Daily Theology, April 29, 2015 at