Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Catherine of Bologna: Mystic, Writer, Artist

Catherine Vigri of Bologna (born 8 September 1413)

The daughter of Giovanni Vigri, a Bolognese diplomat, lawyer, and lecturer, and his wife, Benevenuta Mammolini, Caterina Vigri was given every advantage by her aristocratic family connections.

Ms. illustration of Catherine of Bologna,
by Guglielmo Giraldi, c. 1469
She spent her earliest years primarily with her grandparents in Bologna, and we are told that her mother was a very religious woman. 

From the ages of eleven through fourteen, Catherine was educated at the d'Este court of Ferrara, where her father had been an ambassador. There, as a companion for Margherita d'Este, one of Niccolò III d'Este's many illegitimate children, Catherine had an excellent education, studying Latin, literature, music, and art, including the art of illumination. 

When Margherita married Galeotto Roberto Maltesta in 1427, she hoped that Catherine would continue as a lady-in-waiting; instead, Catherine preferred to enter the convent of Corpus Domini in Ferrara. The convent had been established as a lay community in 1400, but at the time that Catherine entered the convent, it was in the process of adopting the Rule of St. Clare. By 1431, the pope had approved a request for the Corpus Domini community to become a Franciscan convent. 

But, as Bernard McGinn notes, this period was a tumultuous one that split the women in the convent, with some resisting the transition from a lay community to one where the women took religious vows, and with some, like Catherine, supporting the strict form of life prescribed by the Rule of St. Clare. The transition to a Franciscan rule was not complete until 1435.

A manuscript illumination
painted by Catherine of Bologna
During the years of turmoil, between her entrance into the community and 1435, Catherine experienced a serious of what she came to regard as "diabolical temptations." She would describe this period in a work she wrote in 1438, Le sette armi spirituali (The Seven Spiritual Weapons), which she kept secret. 

When the community founded a daughter house in Bologna, Catherine left the Ferrara convent to be the abbess of the Bologna convent, which was also called the convent of Corpus Domini. There, in addition to her role as head of the house, she revised her mystical Seven Spiritual Weapons, wrote eleven treatises, and composed twelve hymns. She also illuminated manuscripts and painted miniatures and, it is said, played the viola on her deathbed. 

After her death, one of Catherine's devoted followers, the Venetian nun Illuminata Bembo (c. 1420-1493) wrote a life of Catherine of Bologna, the Specchio di illuminazione (The Mirror of Illumination), which includes a great deal of information about the abbess's life and work. 

Catherine Vigri--Catherine of Bologna--died on 9 March 1463. She was canonized by Pope Clement XI on 22 May 1712

The enthroned body of Catherine of Bologna,
Chiesa della Santa,
The most complete account of Catherine of Bologna, with a particular focus on her mystic Seven Spiritual Weapons, is Bernard McGinns's The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism, 1350-1550, volume 5 of his The Presence of God, a history of Western Christian mysticism. 

Another good account of Catherine of Bologna is available online: Pope Benedict XVI's address to the General Audience of 29 December 2010 was dedicated to Catherine of Bologna; you can address his remarks by clicking here.

For a discussion of the art of Caterina Vigri, see Germaine Greer's The Obstacle Race. In addition to surviving manuscripts that Catherine of Bologna illustrated, there is also a large painting, St. Ursula and Her Companions, in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. As Greer notes, "The chief source of biographical data about the saint [Catherine of Bologna] is, of course, the Holy See, but no interest has ever been evinced by the Church in her artistic activities." Greer notes that there is also a small picture in the Chiesa della Santa, Madonna with Apple, that is said to be by Catherine but dates "to an earlier period." There also may be a St. Ursula by Catherine in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Bologna.