Catherine of Siena


Catherine of Siena writing

Today is the feast of Caterina Benincasa, born in 14th century Siena into a large family of tradesmen. She is, like Joan of Arc a few decades later, one of those activist medieval women. Like Jehanne, she received a mission to enter the affairs of this world and, like Jehanne, she fulfilled this mission with the fearlessness of innocence and extraordinary success.

She  became a tertiary (lay member) of the Dominican Order, over her family’s strenuous opposition, and was active in charity works in her hometown of Siena. Her fame and the extent of her following grew, to the point where she was questioned by her superiors in the Dominican Order on suspicions of heresy.

She was cleared of those, and traveled extensively between the city-states of Northern Italy. Soon she was entrusted with diplomatic missions and did not hesitate to write to the Pope. Her aim was to advocate the reforms she saw as absolutely necessary to the Church and remonstrate against its failings.

The most glaring of those was in her opinion the continued installation of the Holy See in Avignon, in the midst of French territory, at the mercy of the armies of the King of France. She went to Avignon, where she convinced the Pope to return to Rome. When he did, she accompanied him, as depicted in the painting by Vasari, below.

She was also a tireless, forceful, passionate writer, and corresponded with kings, queens and religious figures. Towards the end of her short life, after she had settled in the papal court of Rome, she became heartily tired of its intrigues and worldliness and, to counterbalance those, invited there a group of obscure hermits and monks who were her correspondents. Catherine was a woman who spoke -and wrote- truth to power.

She, not surprisingly, exhausted herself, all the more so that she began to eat less and less. When her confessor upbraided her for it, she responded that food made her physically sick. She died in Rome at the age of 33 on the 29th of April 1380, after a painful illness of several months, in my opinion stomach cancer. But she left us hundreds of her letters, her Libro della divina dottrina and other mystical works. She is also one of the founding mothers of Italian literature.


Catherine of Siena escorting the Pope to Rome, by Vasari

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