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Catharine, Saint, of Sienna

CATHARINE, SAINT, OF SIENNA: Roman Catholic saint; b. at Sienna [Mar. 25] 1347; d. at Rome Apr. 29, 1380. She was the twenty-third child of a dyer named Jacomo Benincasa.

Early Life.

Her early home in the vicinity of a Dominican monastery made a deep impression on the sensitive child, and she believed that St. Dominic himself appeared to her in a dream and urged her to enter his order. Disregarding her mother's wish that she should marry, Catherine, then about twelve years of age, cut off her long blond hair to escape unwelcome attentions. Three years later smallpox destroyed her beauty and she was able to fulfil her heart's desire, to which her mother had consented sometime 455previously, by entering the order of penitents of St. Dominic. She no longer drank wine, while her only food was uncooked herbs, taken as a salad, or with oil, fruit, and bread. She scourged herself thrice daily according to the most rigid Dominican custom, once for herself, once for the living, and once for the dead. Under her habit she wore a shirt of haircloth for which she substituted later an iron chain about her waist. She passed the night in prayer until the bells on the monastery called to matins and then lay down between boards which symbolized her coffin. This asceticism she practised in a tiny room in her father's house which she scarcely left for three years except to attend mass in the neighboring Dominican church. After 1366, however, she appeared more frequently in public and became conspicuous for her deeds of mercy to the poor and sick, especially during the plague of 1374. Through her devotion and her piety she gathered around her a spiritual household of about twenty persons of both sexes, chiefly members of the Dominican order.


The chief cause of St. Catharine's fame was her reputation for visions and for prophecy. Even during the time of her novitiate she believed that Christ often appeared to her and, toward the end of this period of preparation, that he himself betrothed her formally as he had the first St. Catharine (see Catharine, Saint, the Martyr), by placing a ring upon her finger. This marriage symbol, she declared, was always visible to her, although no other eyes might see it. Her union with Christ was further sanctified by an interchange of hearts and finally by the divine stigmata, beginning with the print of a nail on her hand and ending with the painful impress of the four other wounds. This stigmatization also, as in the case of her German contemporary, Margareta Ebner of Medingen, always remained invisible, whereas in St. Francis and the majority of the stigmatists, the wounds might be seen of all. She likewise believed that she associated much with the Virgin and with Christ, not only being convinced that she drank the blood from the wounded side of the Lord, and the milk from Mary's breast, but also that she received divine instruction, admonition, and comforts, which she was frequently able to communicate to others in her ecstasies. Many of her letters and writings, especially her "Dialogues," were dictated by her in trances. She once fasted during the forty days from Easter to Ascension, being supported solely by the Eucharist and thus becoming a model for later saints, particularly for the two Catharines of the fifteenth century.

Political Activity.

Despite her death to the world, St. Catharine was compelled, during the closing years of her life, to take part repeatedly in the political and ecclesiastical affairs of her country. After 1374 she frequently left Sienna for the promotion of peace between the hostile nobles of Tuscany. In 1375 she was in Pisa, where she wrote Queen Joan of Naples to undertake a crusade to free the Holy Land. A year later she went to Avignon to reconcile the republic of Florence with Gregory XI., but was unsuccessful on account of the treachery of the Florentines. Later, however, after she had in great measure been instrumental in securing the return of the pope to Rome, she effected her purpose by a journey to Florence in 1378. The schism between Urban VI. in Italy and Clement VII. in Avignon also engaged her attention. She was a firm partizan of the former, who summoned her to Rome and after listening to her exhortations of peace sent her to the court of Joan together with St. Catharine of Sweden to win the queen from Clement to himself. The mission failed, since Bridget's daughter would not be subordinate to her sister saint, but Catherine of Sienna lived to see the longed-for, though brief, adherence of Naples to her pope. She was recalled to Rome by this turmoil and struggle and there died. She was buried in the Dominican Church of Minerva in Rome, although her skull is said to be in the Dominican Church of her native city. She was canonized by Pius II., in 1461, while Urban VIII. appointed her feast for Apr. 30. She is represented in art as carrying a crucifix with stigmata on her hands, as well as with the bridal ring. Occasionally she carries in her hand a lily or a book.


The chief writings of St. Catharine of Sienna are 373 letters (best separate edition by N. Tommaseo, Le Lettere di Santa Caterina da Siena, 4 vols., Florence, 1860), many of them addressed to popes, cardinals, princes, and nobles, and important for the history of the period. She likewise wrote twenty-six prayers, various short prophetic oracles, and a dialogue between herself and God the Father, dictated in a trance in 1378, under the title Libro dells Divine Dottrina (Eng. transl., by A. Thorold, Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catharine of Sienna, London, 1896), later divided by G. Gigli into four treatises on religious wisdom, prayer, providence, and obedience; an older division is into six treatises under the title Dialogi de providentia Dei. Historically, the most interesting of these treatises is the one on prayer, in which St. Catherine emphasizes the value of the prayer of the heart, which needs no words, in contradistinction to mere formalism. In her criticisms she spared neither priests, cardinals, nor pope, sternly reproving them for their derelictions and admonishing them of their high duty. Yet though she proclaimed the necessity of reformation, she desired it to be within the Church and was unswerving in her orthodoxy and in her allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith. Her complete works were first edited by Aldus at Venice in 1500, but the best of the older editions is that of G. Gigli, L'Opere della Serafica Santa Caterina da Siena (5 vols., Sienna, 1707–26).

(O. Zöckler†.)

Bibliography: The early Vita and other documents are collected in ASB, April, iii. 853–978. For later lives and criticism consult: A. Capecelatro, Storia di Caterina da Siena e del Papato del suo tempo, 4th ed., Sienna, 1878; Augusta T. Drane, Hist. of St. Catherine of Siena and her Companions, 2 vols., London, 1887; A. H. Chirat, S. Catherine de Sienne et l’église au 14. siècle, Paris, 1888; Josephine E. Butler, Catherine of Siena, London, 1895; Comtesse de Flavigny, S. Catherine de Sienne, Paris, 4561895; Vida D. Scudder, St. Catherine of Siena as seen in her Letters, New York, 1905; St. Catherine of Sierra and Her Times, London, 1906; E. G. Gardner, St. Catherine of Sierra, London and New York, 1907. Also L. Gazet, Le Grand Schisme d’Occident, 2 vols., Florence, 1889.

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