Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church

Catherine of Siena (died 29 April 1380)

Catherine of Siena,
Chapel of Catherine of Siena,
Basilica San Domenico
One of the most active and acclaimed women in Christianity, Catherine di Benincasa was born in the Tuscan city of Siena in 1347, during the midst of the plague. Her father was a tradesman, a cloth dyer, while her mother, Lapa Piagenti, may have been the daughter of a local poet.

As one of twenty-five children, Catherine was described by her first biographer as both a delightful, merry child and one who experienced visions that would transform her life. By the age of five, six, or seven (accounts vary), she had decided to devote herself to a life of perpetual virginity and to give her life to God.

Although her parents wished her to live a more "normal" life for a girl of her class--they wanted her to marry--by age sixteen Catherine was allowed to join the third order of the Dominicans (for a discussion of tertiary orders, click here).

Throughout her short life (she died at the age of thirty-three), Catherine of Siena continued to experience visions, including a "mystical espousal" (the infant Jesus offers her a wedding band) and a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven.

She left the cell in which she had, at first, isolated herself in order to devote herself to caring for the sick and the poor; she eventually undertook a more public role, advocating clerical reform, urging the return of the papacy to Rome, and taking up her pen to write a series of letters to a wide range of men and women, from kings to poor, troubled souls who wrote to her with their questions and requests for help. 

Catherine of Siena is a complex, sometimes off-putting character. Despite pleas for peace in Europe, she called for a new crusade to the Holy Land. She practiced extremes of self-denial and penance--her refusal to eat led to her early death, for example, and she was disappointed that she escaped assassination during the Ciompi riots in Florence in 1377 because she was denied martyrdom. She "received" the stigmata, and she is said to have levitated. She practiced flagellation, endured extended periods of ecstatic rigidity, put sticks in her throat to make herself throw up, and drank the puss of her patients' sores.

She also wrote: over 400 letters, a treatise, The Dialogue of Divine Providence, and a group of prayers composed during the final year of her life. 

The sarcophagus of Catherine of Siena,
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Catherine of Siena was buried in Rome, where she died--today you can see her remains in a remarkable tomb in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Her head and thumb, however, were removed to Siena, to the Basilica San Domenico. She was canonized on 19 June 1461.

In 1970, Catherine of Siena was declared one of the Doctors of the Church--by that date, some thirty men had been recognized as significant theologians by the Catholic Church, but in 1970, two women were added to that number, Catherine of Siena and Theresa of Ávila, (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was named a Doctor of the Church in 1997, Hildegard of Bingen in 2012.)

Relics of Catherine of Siena,
Basilica San Domenico, Siena
All of her letters are available online in an English translation (you can access them by clicking here or here). They are also available in print, of course, in numerous editions, as is her Dialogue. Editions of the first biography of Catherine of Siena, written by Raymond of Capua, are also widely available. (Capua was her spiritual director--he completed his life of Catherine in the mid-1380s.)

Some of the most interesting work on Catherine of Siena analyzes the meaning of her extreme physical deprivation. Jennifer Egan's 1999 essay, "Power Suffering," is a good place to start. I also recommend Rudolph Bell's 1985 Holy Anorexia and Caroline Walker Bynum's 1988 classic, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women.