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Catherine of Siena

Mystic and Theologian

By

Saint Catherine of Siena

A statue of Saint Catherine of Siena, outside Castel sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy. Artist: Francesco Messina (1900-1995).

© marialba italia, iStockphoto
Pius II Canonizes Catherine of Siena 1461

Pius II Canonizes Catherine of Siena 1461 (Pinturicchio)

Image © www.arttoday.com, used with permission
Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena Dictating Her Dialogues - Giovanni di Paolo

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Catherine of Siena Facts

Known for: Patron saint of Italy (with Francis of Assisi); credited with persuading the Pope to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome; one of two women who were named Doctors of the Church in 1970

Dates: March 25, 1347 - April 29, 1380 Feast Day: April 29
Canonized: 1461 Named Doctor of the Church: 1970
Occupation: tertiary of the Dominican Order; mystic and theologian

Catherine of Siena Biography

Catherine of Siena was born into a large family. She was born a twin, the youngest of 23 children. Her father was a wealthy dye-maker. Many of her male relatives were public officials or went into the priesthood.

From age six or seven, Catherine had religious visions. She practiced self-deprivation, especially abstaining from food. She took a vow of virginity, but told no one, not even her parents. Her mother urged her to improve her appearance as her family began to arrange a marriage for her, to her sister's widower (the sister had died in chilbirth).

Becoming a Dominican

Catherine cut off her hair -- something done for nuns as they entered a convent. She was punished for that act by her parents, until she revealed her vow. They then permitted her to become a Dominican tertiary, in 1363 joining the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic, an order made up mostly of widows. This was not an enclosed order, so she lived at home.

For her first three years in the order, she stayed isolated in her room, seeing only her confessor. Out of the three years of contemplation and prayer, she developed a rich theological system, including her theology of the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Service as Vocation

At the end of the three years of isolation, she believed she had a divine command to go out into the world and serve, as a means of saving souls and working on her own salvation.

About 1367, she experienced a Mystical Marriage with Christ, in which Mary presided along with other saints, and she received a ring to signify the marriage -- a ring which she said remained on her finger all her life, but was visible only to her.

She practiced fasting and self-mortification, including self-scourging. She took communion frequently.

Public Recognition

Her visions and trances attracted a following among the religious and the secular, and her advisors urged her to become active in the public and political world. Individuals and political figures began consulting her, to mediate disputes and give spiritual advice.

Catherine never learned to write and she had no formal education, but she did learn to read when she was twenty. She dictated her letters and other writings to secretaries. The best known of her writings is The Dialogue (also known as Dialogues or Dialogo), a series of theological treatises on doctrine written with a combination of logical precision and heart-felt emotion.

In 1375, in one of her visions, she was marked with the stigmata of Christ. Like her ring, the stigmata were only visible to her.

In 1375, the city of Florence called upon her to negotiate the end of a conflict with the pope's government in Rome. The Pope himself was in Avignon, where Popes had been for almost 70 years, having fled Rome. In Avignon, the Pope was under the influence of the French government and church. Many feared that the Pope was losing control of the church at that distance.

She also tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the church to take up a crusade against the Turks.

The Pope at Avignon

Her religious writings and good works (and perhaps her well-connected family or her tutor Raymond of Capua) brought her to the attention of Pope Gregory XI, still at Avignon. She traveled to Avignon, had private audiences with Pope Gregory, and argued with him that he should leave Avignon and return to Rome, to fulfill "God's will and mine." She also preached to public audiences while there. The French wanted the Pope in Avignon, and Gregory, in ill health, probably wanted to return to Rome, so that the next Pope would be elected there. In 1376, Rome promised to submit to papal authority if he returned, so in January 1377, Gregory returned to Rome. Catherine as well as St. Bridget of Sweden are credited with persuading him to return.

The Great Schism

Gregory died in 1378. Urban VI was elected the next Pope, but soon after the election, a group of French cardinals claimed that their vote was influenced by fear of the mobs of Italy, and they and some other cardinals elected a different Pope, Clement VII. Urban excommunicated those cardinals and selected new ones to fill their places. Clement and his followers escaped to set up an alternative papacy in Avignon. Clement excommunicated the followers of Urban. Eventually, European rulers were nearly equally divided between support for Clement and support for Urban. Each claimed to be the legitimate Pope and the other the Anti-Christ.

Into this controversy, called the Great Schism, Catherine threw herself assertively, supporting Pope Urban VI, and writing strong and critical letters to those who supported the Anti-Pope in Avignon. Catherine's involvement did not end the Great Schism (that would happen in 1413), but Catherine tried. She moved to Rome and preached the need of the opposition to reconcile with Urban's papacy.

In 1380, in part to expiate the great sin she saw in this conflict, Catherine gave up all food and water. Already weak from years of extreme fasting -- her confessor, Raymond of Capua, later wrote she had eaten nothing but the communion host for years -- she fell gravely ill. She ended the fast, but died at age 33.

Legacy of Catherine of Siena

In Raymond of Capua's hagiography of Catherine, which he published in 1398, he noted that this is the age at which Mary Magdalene, a special role model for Catherine, died. I would note that it is also the age at which Jesus was crucified.

Catherine of Siena was canonized by Pius II in 1461. In 1939, she was named one of the patron saints of Italy. In 1970, she was named a Doctor of the Church, meaning that her writings were recommended teachings.

Catherine's Dialogue survives and has been widely translated and read. Extant are 350 letters that she dictated.

Her assertive and confrontational letters to bishops and popes as well as her commitment to direct service to the sick and the poor made Catherine a role model for a more worldly and active spirituality. Dorothy Day credits reading a biography of Catherine as a major influence in her life on the way to founding the Catholic Worker Movement.

Feminist?

Some have considered Catherine of Siena a proto-feminist for her active role in the world. Her concepts were, however, not really what today is described as feminist. She, for instance, believed that when she wrote to powerful men to persuade them, it was especially to shame them that God sent a woman to teach such men.

Catherine of Siena in Art

Catherine was a favorite subject of several painters. Note especially the "Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine" by Barna de Siena, the "Marriage of Catherine of Siena" by the Dominican Friar Fra Bartolomeo, and the "Maesta (Madonna with Angels and Saints" by Duccio di Buoninsegna. The "Canonization of Catherine of Siena" by Pinturicchio is one of better known artistic depictions of Catherine. (The black and white reproduction on this page is of this fresco.)

In art, Catherine is usually depicted in a Dominican habit, with a black cloak, white veil and tunic. She is sometimes portrayed with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th century virgin and martyr whose feast day is November 25.

Holy Fasting

There was, and is, quite the controversy over Catherine's eating habits. Raymond of Capua wrote that she ate nothing for years except the host, and considered this a demonstration of her holiness. She died, he implies, as a result of her decision to abstain from not only all food but all water as well. An "anorexic for religion"? That's still a matter of some controversy among scholars.

Bibliography: Catherine of Siena

  • Catherine of Siena (Catarina da Siena). Catherine of Siena: The Dialogues. 1988.
  • Catherine of Siena. Dialogo della Providenza. Suzanne Noffke, translator. 1980.
  • Raymond of Capua. Legenda Major. G. Lamb, translator. 1960.
  • Karen Armstrong. Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings. 1994.
  • Caroline Bynum. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. 1987.
  • A. Curtayne. Saint Catherine of Siena. 1935.
  • G. Kaftal. St. Catherine in Tuscan Painting. 1949.
  • Suzanne Noffke. Catherine of Siena: Through a Distant Eye. 1996.
  • Elizabeth Alvida Petroff. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. 1994.

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