Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Catherine of Genoa: Saint and Mystic

Catherine of Genoa (canonized 16 June 1737)

St. Catherine of Genoa,
eighteenth-century painting by
Giovanni Agostino Ratti
Caterina Fieschi was born in Genoa in 1447, the fifth and last child of Jacopo Fieschi and Francesca di Negro, both members of aristocratic and politically active families.

An account of Caterina's life, later recorded by her confessor, indicates that by the age of thirteen the young Caterina had professed a desire to enter the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a house of Augustinian Canonesses of the Lateran, where her sister was a nun. Although she was ardent, the nuns thought she was too young, and to take her into the convent at such an age was against their customary practice.

Instead, after her father's death, her brother used her marriage as a way of settling some family disputes. Not yet sixteen, Caterina Fieschi was married in 1463--although she was recognized for her holiness, Caterina was also noted for her "dutiful obedience." 

Her marriage to Giuliano Adorno was unhappy in the extreme--she endured his abuse for ten years and then, on 22 March 1473, after she experienced a mystical, transformative vision of God, the already religiously inclined young woman underwent a "conversion."

What followed was a "life of purification," one devoted to prayer and penance. She averted her eyes from all "sights of the world," spoke as few words as possible, slept as little as possible, and ate as little as possible, only enough to sustain life. (According to the account of her life made by her confessor, she fasted completely during Advent and Lent, sustained only by water "flavored" with salt and vinegar.)

As part of her devotional practice, she wore a hair shirt, and when she did sleep, it was on a bed filled with briars and thistles. She made her husband promise to live with her as if he were her brother--a promise that he kept, chastened by his own financial ruin. She was instructed directly by the holy spirit in a series of visions, and, aside from the six hours a day she devoted to prayer, she dedicated her life to ministering to the poor and the sick. She eventually converted her husband, who died in 1497. Catherine herself died on 15 September 1510.

In addition to writing his account of her "miraculous life," her confessor, a "Father Marabotti," preserved the two works attributed to her, a treatise on purgatory, Purgation and Purgatory, and The Spiritual Dialogue.

Catherine of Genoa was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X and canonized by Pope Clement XII on 16 June 1737.

For his account of the "most important late medieval Italian woman mystic after Catherine of Siena," I recommend Bernard McGinn's The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, 1350-1550, volume 5 of his mammoth history of western Christian mysticism. McGinn is excellent on the "problem" of "Catherine's" writings--since she knew how to write "but she chose not to leave anything of her own to posterity."

The texts attributed to her represent her "teachings" in "texts put together by her followers and not published until 1551." The works are available in a number of editions, but I like the version that is published as part of the Classics of Western Civilization series, Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory, The Spiritual Dialogue.