Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Catherine

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The Roman hagiology contains the record of six saints of this name.

1. Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr, whose day of commemoration recurs on the 25th of November, and in some places on the 5th of March.

2. Saint Catherine of Sweden, a daughter of Saint Bridget, who died abbess of Watzen in March 1381, and is commemorated on the 22nd of that month.

3. Saint Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380, whose festal day is observed on the 30th of April.

4. Saint Catherine of Bologna, 1413-1463, a visionary, abbess of the convent of the Poor Clares in Bologna, canonized by Pope Benedict XIII, and commemorated throughout the Franciscan order on the 9th of March.

5. Saint Catherine of Genoa, who belonged to the noble family of Fieschi, was born about 1447, spent her life and her means in succouring and attending on the sick, especially in the time of the plague which ravaged Genoa in 1497 and 1501, died in that city in 1510, was beatified by Clement V in 1675 and canonized by Clement XII in 1737; her name was placed in the calendar on the 22nd of July by Benedict XIV.

6. Saint Catherine de’ Ricci, of Florence, daughter of a wealthy merchant prince, was born in 1522, became a nun in the convent of the Dominicans at Prato in 1536, and died in 1589. She was famous during her life-time for the weekly ecstasy of the Passion, during which in a trance she experienced the sufferings of the Holy Virgin contemplating the Passion of her Son. She was canonized in 1746 by Benedict XIV., who fixed her festal day on the 13th of February. In Celtic and English martyrologies (November 25) there is also commemorated Saint Catherine Audley (c. 1400), a recluse of Ledbury, Hereford, who was reputed for piety and clairvoyance.

Of two of these saints, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the Saint Catherine par excellence, and Saint Catherine of Siena, something Saint Catherine, virgin and martyr. more must be said. Of the former history has little or nothing to tell. The Maronite scholar, Joseph Simon Assemani (1687-1768), first identified her with the royal and wealthy lady of Alexandria (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. viii. 14) who, for refusing the solicitations of the emperor Maximinus, was deprived of her property and banished. But Rufinus (Hist. Eccl. viii. 17) called this lady Dorothea, and the old Catherine legend, as recorded in the Roman martyrology and by Simeon Metaphrastes, has quite other features. According to it Catherine was the daughter of King Konetos, eighteen years old, beautiful and wise. During the persecution under Maximinus she sought an interview with the emperor, upbraided him for his cruelties, and adjured him to give up the worship of false gods. The angry tyrant, unable to refute her arguments himself, sent for pagan scholars to argue with her, but they were discomfited. Catherine was then scourged and cast into prison, and the empress was sent to reason with her; but the dauntless virgin converted not only the empress but the Roman general and his soldiers who had accompanied her. Maximinus now ordered her to be broken on the wheel; but the wheel was shattered by her touch. The headsman’s axe proved more fatal, and the martyr’s body was borne by angels to Mount Sinai, where Justinian I. built the famous monastery in her honour. Another development of the legend is that in which, having rejected many offers of marriage, she was taken to heaven in vision and betrothed to Christ by the Virgin Mary.

Of all these marvellous incidents very little, by the universal admission of Catholic scholars, has survived the test of modern criticism. That Saint Catherine actually existed there is, indeed, no evidence to disprove; and it is possible that some of the elements in her legend are due to confusion with the story of Hypatia (q.v.), the neo-platonic philosopher of Alexandria, who was done to death by a Christian mob. To the men of the middle ages, in any case, Saint Catherine was very real; she was ranked with the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven, and was the constant theme of preachers and of poets. Her festival was celebrated in many places with the utmost splendour, and in certain dioceses in France was a holy day of obligation as late as the beginning of the 17th century. Numberless chapels were dedicated to her, and in nearly all churches her statue was set up, the saint being represented with a wheel, her instrument of torture, and sometimes with a crown and a book. The wheel being her symbol she was the patron saint of wheelwrights and mechanics; as the confounder of heathen sophistry she was invoked by theologians, apologists, preachers and philosophers, and was chosen as the patron saint of the university of Paris; as the most holy and illustrious of Christian virgins she became the tutelary saint of nuns and virgins generally. So late as the 16th century, Bossuet delivered a panegyric upon her, and it was the action of Dom Deforis, the Benedictine editor of his works, in criticizing the accuracy of the data on which this was based, that first discredited the legend. The saint’s feast was removed from the Breviary at Paris about this time, and the devotion to Saint Catherine has since lost its earlier popularity. See Leon Clugnet’s article in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. iii. (London, 1908).

Saint Catherine of Siena was the youngest of the twenty-five children of Giacomo di Benincasa, a dyer, and was born, with a Saint Catherine of Siena. twin-sister who did not survive her birth, on the 25th of March 1347. A highly sensitive and imaginative child, she very early began to practise asceticism and see visions, and at the age of seven solemnly dedicated her virginity to Christ. She was attracted by what she had heard of the desert anchorites, and in 1363-1364, after much struggle, persuaded her parents to allow her to take the habit of the Dominican tertiaries. For a while she led at home the life of a recluse, speaking only to her confessor, and spending all her time in devotion and spiritual ecstasy. Her innate humanity and sound sense, however, led her gradually to return to her place in the family circle, and she began also to seek out and help the poor and the sick. In 1368 her father died, and she assumed the care of her mother Lapa. During the following years she became known to an increasingly wide circle, especially as a peacemaker, and entered into correspondence with many friends. Her peculiarities excited suspicion, and charges seem to have been brought against her by some of the Dominicans to answer which she went to Florence in 1374, soon returning to Siena to tend the plague-stricken. Here first she met the Dominican friar, Raimondo of Capua, her confessor and biographer.

The year 1375 found Catherine entering on a wider stage. At the invitation of Piero Gambacorti, the ruler of the republic of Pisa, she visited that city and there endeavoured to arouse enthusiasm for the proposed crusade, urging princes and presidents, commanders and private citizens alike to join in “the holy passage.” To this task was added that of trying to keep Pisa and Lucca from joining the Tuscan League against the pope. It was at Pisa, in the church of Santa Cristina, on the fourth Sunday in Lent (April 1), while rapt in ecstasy after the communion, that Catherine’s greatest traditional glory befell her, viz. the stigmata or impression on her hands, feet and heart, of the wounds corresponding with those received by Christ at his crucifixion. The marks, however, were at her prayer not made visible. There is no need to doubt the reality of Catherine’s exaltation, but it should be remembered that she and her circle were Dominicans, and that the stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi were considered the crowning glory of the saint, and hitherto the exclusive boast of the Franciscans. The tendency observable in many of the austerities and miracles attributed to Saint Catherine to outstrip those of other saints, particularly Francis, is especially remarkable in this marvel of the stigmata, and so acute became the rivalry between the two orders that Pope Sixtus IV., himself a Franciscan, issued a decree asserting that Saint Francis had an exclusive monopoly of this particular wonder, and making it a censurable offence to represent Saint Catherine receiving the stigmata.

In the year 1376, the 29th of Catherine’s life, Gregory XI. was living and holding the papal court at Avignon. He was the last of seven French popes in succession who had done so, and had perpetuated for seventy-three years what ecclesiastical writers are fond of terming “the Babylonian captivity of the church.” To put an end to this absenteeism, and to bring back the papacy to Italy was the cherished and anxious wish of all good Italians, and especially of all Italian churchmen. Petrarch had urgently pressed Urban V., Gregory’s immediate predecessor, to accomplish the desired change; and Dante had at an earlier date laboured to bring about the same object. But these and all the other influences which Italy had striven to bring to bear on the popes had hitherto failed to induce them to return. In these circumstances Catherine determined to try her powers of persuasion and argument, attempting first by correspondence to reconcile Gregory and the Florentines, who had been placed under an interdict, and then going in person as the representative of the latter to Avignon, where she arrived on the 18th of June. Gregory empowered her to treat for peace, but the Florentine ambassadors were first tardy and then faithless. Nothing daunted, Catherine herself besought Gregory, who, indeed, was himself so minded, to return, and he did so, in September (taking the sea route from Marseilles to Genoa), though perhaps intending only to make a temporary stay in Italy. Catherine went home by land and stayed for a month in Genoa with Madonna Orietta Scotti, a noble lady of that city, at whose house Gregory had a long colloquy with her, which encouraged him to push on to Rome. To this year, 1376, belongs the admission to Catherine’s circle of disciples of Stefano di Corrado Maconi, a Sienese noble distinguished by a character full of charm and purity, and her healing of the bitter feud between his family and the Tolomei. Another family quarrel, that of the Salimbeni at Rocca D’Orcia, was ended by her intervention in 1377. This year also she turned the castle of Belcaro, which had been given to her, into a monastery.

Meanwhile the returned pope was not having an easy time. Besides perpetuating the strife with his enemies he was alienating his friends, and finding it increasingly difficult to pay his mercenaries. He vented his anger upon Catherine, who reproved him for minding temporal rather than spiritual things, but in the beginning of 1378 sent her on an embassy to Florence and especially to the Guelph party. While she was urging the citizens to make peace with the pope there came the news of his death. During the troubles that ensued in Florence Catherine nearly lost her life in a popular tumult, and sorely regretted not winning her heart’s desire, “the red rose of martyrdom.” Peace was signed with the new pope, Urban VI., and Catherine, having thus accomplished her second great political task, went home again to Siena. Thence on the outbreak of the schism Urban summoned her to Rome, whither, somewhat reluctantly, she journeyed with her now large spiritual family in November. Once arrived she gave herself heartily to Urban’s cause, and wore her slender powers out in restraining his impatient temper, quieting the revolt of the people of Rome, and trying to win for Urban the support of Europe. After prolonged and continual suffering she died on the 29th of April 1380.

Catherine of Siena lived on not only in her writings but in her disciples. During her short course she gathered round her a devoted company of men and women trained to labour for the reformation of the individual, the church and the state. Her death naturally broke up the fellowship, but its members did not cease their activity and kept up what mutual correspondence was possible. Among them were Fra Raimondo, who became master-general of the Dominicans, William Flete, an ascctically-minded Englishman from Cambridge, Stefano Maconi, who joined the Carthusians and ultimately became prior-general, and the two secretaries, Neri di Landoccio and Francesco Malavolti. The last of her band, Tommaso Caffarini, died in 1434, but the work was taken up, though in other shape, by Savonarola, between Francis of Assisi and whom Catherine forms the connecting link.

Catherine’s works consist of (1) a treatise occupying a closely-printed quarto volume, which Fra Raimondo describes as “a dialogue between a soul, which asked four questions of the Lord, and the same Lord, who made answer and gave instruction in many most useful truths,” (2) letters, and (3) prayers. The dialogue if entitled, The Book of Divine Doctrine, given in person by God the Father, speaking to the mind of the most glorious and holy virgin Catherine of Siena, and written down as she dictated it in the vulgar tongue, she being the while entranced, and actually hearing what God spoke in her. The work is declared to have been dictated by the saint in her father’s house in Siena, a little before she went to Rome, and to have been completed on the 13th of October 1378. The book opens with a passage on the essence of mysticism, the union of the soul with God in love, and the bulk of it is a compendium of the spiritual teachings scattered throughout her letters. There is more monologue than dialogue. The book has a significant place in the history of Italian literature. “In a language which is singularly poor in mystical works it stands with the Divina Commedia as one of the two supreme attempts to express the eternal in the symbolism of a day, to paint the union of the soul with the supra-sensible while still imprisoned in the flesh.” The prayers (twenty-six in all) are mostly mystical outpourings repeating the aspirations found in her other writings. Of more interest are the letters, nearly four hundred in number, and addressed to kings, popes, cardinals, bishops, conventual bodies, political corporations and private individuals. Their historical importance, their spiritual fragrance and their literary value combine to put their author almost on a level with Petrarch as a 14th century letter-writer. Her language is the purest Tuscan of the golden age of the Italian vernacular, and with spontaneous eloquence she passes to and fro between spiritual counsel, domestic advice and political guidance.

Authorities. — The sources for the personal life of Catherine of Siena are (1) the Vita or Legenda, Fra Raimondo’s biography written 1384-1395, first published in Latin at Cologne, 1553, and widely translated; (2) the Processus, a collection of testimonies and letters by those of her followers who survived in 1411, and had to justify the reverence paid to the memory of one yet uncanonized; (3) the Supplementum to Raimondo’s Vita, compiled by Tommaso Caffarini in 1414; (4) the Legenda abbreviata, Caffarini’s summary of the Vita, translated into beautiful Italian by Stefano Maconi; (5) the Letters, of which the standard edition is that of Girolamo Gigli (2 vols., Siena, 1713, Lucca, 1721). A selection of these has been published in English by V. D. Scudder (London, 1905). A complete bibliography is given in E. G. Gardner’s Saint Catherine of Siena (London, 1907), a monumental study dealing with the religion, history and literature of the 14th century in Italy as they centre “in the work and personality of one of the most wonderful women that have ever lived.”

MLA Citation

  • “Saint Catherine”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. Saints.SQPN.com. 10 March 2013. Web. 28 July 2014. <>