Contact Us

Catherine of Siena: a passionate life

16 June, 2011

If you know next to nothing about Catherine of Siena, this most recent biography of a truly exceptional woman is a good place to start. When Europe was torn apart by war and ravaged by plague and most women were shuttered in kitchens or convents, Catherine was a dynamic and influential figure campaigning for peace among the warring factions of her native Tuscany, and helping persuade Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome. She was revered as a holy woman by her friends and disciples, and nearly assassinated by some of her enemies. She died when she was only-thirty-three years old.

Don Brophy was for many years acquiring editor and managing editor for the book publisher Paulist Press. He has previously written One Hundred Great Catholic Books: From the Early Centuries to the Present (2007). He lives in New York City. This his latest book (2011) is a beautifully written and scholarly study of one of the most intriguing and charismatic women of medieval Europe.



1. The Dyer’s Daughter
2. The Mantle
3. The Room
4. The City


5. “Our Most Kind Mamma”
6. A Time of Testing
7. “Sweet Holy Crusade”
8. “The Bed of Fire and Blood”
9. Encounter in Avignon


10. New Foundations
11. Fulfillment and Disintegration
12. Catherine in Rome
13. Crossing the Bridge

Author’s Note 

296 pp. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd Publishers. To purchase this book online go to www.dltbooks.com


In the first light of day the rooftops of Siena gradually turned from black shapes into brown and then, as the sky lightened, began to glow a deep amber-red, strewn across three knobs of hills like a banked fire of coals. Viewed from the top of the soaring Torre del Mangia, nearly completed in the center of town, the contours of the walled city began to fall into place, a profile pierced by a multitude of towers, leaving pools of darkness where narrow valleys lay between the hilltops. Slowly the March light inched from roof tiles to the brick facades of dwellings whose shutters, one by one, winked open to the new day. Somewhere a rooster crowed, dogs barked. From scattered neighborhoods church bells proclaimed a time for prayer. Sequestered in convents around the city monks and nuns had been awake for hours, leaving their pallets while it was still dark to ask God’s blessing on this day and on the world, their voices joined in a wavering chant:

A solis ortu usque ad occasum
laudabile nomen Domini
[From sunrise to sunset,
may the name of the Lord be praised.]

In front of the handsome Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s government building, night shadows pulled back to reveal the great fan-shaped Campo, newly paved with brick and stone, which served as the city’s main square and civic center. Already men and women could be seen strolling into its wide open space from the warren of streets that bound it on all sides. Deliberately the people began their routine of setting up stalls and opening shops. In this medieval city, the day began early. Farther away, along the fringes of the encircling walls, gates creaked open to admit oxcarts laden with produce from the countryside, the fertile Sienese contado. Entering through the Camollia gate in the northern wall were a few pilgrims who had trekked from Lombardy or from countries beyond the Alps and who would make Siena a stopover on their way to Rome. This was a special day for pilgrims and city dwellers alike: March 25. It was the Feast of the Incarnation, when the faithful recalled how God had cast his lot with the human race, taking on the vulnerability of ordinary flesh. In this particular year, March 25 was also Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Preparations were already under way to mark the day with great solemnity in the duomo, the magnificent cathedral built of white and black marble a short distance from the Campo. The day was special, too, because for Siena, as for the other city-states of Tuscany, March 25 marked the beginning of the new year: 1347.

This new year found Siena at peace with its neighbors and still close to the peak of its influence and wealth. Siena was one of the cities that on the surface at least were giving new shape to the possibilities of urban life in the late Middle Ages. The cities of northern Europe were mostly dirty, disease-ridden, and controlled either by hereditary monarchs or families of nobles who lived outside the walls on feudal estates.To the south, the great city of Rome was languishing, its public monuments crumbling. But in Tuscany nearly all of the cities were self-governing states whose lawmakers were elected and whose leadership was in the hands of the merchant class. Their economy was no longer founded on agriculture but on trade and finished goods—and one thing more, on money. Tuscan cities, especially Florence and to a lesser degree Siena, had become the bankers of Europe. The gold florin minted in Florence was Europe’s most trusted currency. With a population of almost 50,000 Siena was nearly bursting at the seams. Six times during the Middle Ages including twice in the last two dozen years Siena’s walls had to be extended to enclose larger areas.The increasing population did not come from a rising birthrate, however; due to the state of public health in the fourteenth century, sickness and death in cities always exceeded new births. Instead, Siena grew by attracting people from the region under its control, which included numerous villages and some larger towns to the south and west. Each of the Italian city-states tried to control its immediate region as a way of keeping itself supplied with food and labor, and the collision of cities bent on expanding their territories had given rise to a series of bloody little wars. Florence and Siena, abutting each other’s territories, were hereditary rivals. After a Sienese alliance defeated the Florentines in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, Siena was briefly the dominant power in the region. Unfortunately for Siena it was very briefly: Florence came back only nine years later and annihilated the Sienese at Colle di Val d’Elsa. By 1347 Siena had accepted Florentine hegemony but remained fiercely independent in spirit.

Urban life in Siena in the 1300s was vigilantly ordered. All of the streets were brick paved and, except for the droppings of draft animals, kept clean. One man in each contrada, or ward, was responsible for sweeping. Since 1310 it had been illegal to keep pigs or sheep inside the city, or throw garbage into the street. Already in the fourteenth century, the proud citizens of Siena shared a civic ethos about the maintenance of their city where they lived so close together. And while a housewife might still dump water from a second-floor window, at least she would warn pedestrians by first calling,”Guarda!”

People and buildings were packed tight inside the walls. Via di Fontebranda, a main thoroughfare, was only twenty-four feet wide. Many smaller streets leading to the right and left in a confusing tangle were much narrower. Sienese liked to joke that if invaders ever managed to break through the walls, they would soon get lost in the side streets. Simply getting sunlight for the houses standing so close to each other was a challenge. Many dwellings had wooden balconies projecting over the streets. The Siena commune tried to limit the number and size of balconies because they cut off sunlight to the street below, but on this issue homeowners paid little attention to the law.

The Fontebranda neighborhood, on the west side of the city, was tucked into a cleft between two hills – one to the north, dominated by the severe Gothic walls of San Domenico Church; the other, Castelvecchio hill, to the south, the oldest part of Siena where the duomo and the Palazzo Pubblico stood. Fontebranda was named for its spring-fed fountain – Forte Branda – so well known in Tuscany that Dante had mentioned it in his Inferno. The fountain was located a short distance from the Porta Fontebranda, a city gate that faced westward, toward the fertile lowlands and the sea beyond, some forty miles away. Generally in Siena, the poor lived closer to the walls while the wealthy made their homes on the hilltops. Fontebranda was not the poorest neighborhood of the city. As a center for the leather and cloth trades, it had its share of stinking tanneries, but it also was home to a good number of prosperous weavers and dyers — guild members, most of them. One of its principal streets, leading uphill from the fountain, was Via dei Tintori, the Street of Dyers. There, in the ward known as the Contrada dell’Oca (Goose Ward), a dyer named Giacomo di Benincasa, in business with his sons, had rented a house the year previously from the wool guild.

The combined dwelling and workplace was large and most likely a step up in profession and social status for Giacomo. While certainly not a palazzo, it had ample space for a family with many children and a business to run. Built against the side of a hill, it had three floors. The lowest floor contained the dye shop, the tintoria, with its large vats for soaking wool and flax. The doors of the shop opened directly onto Via dei Tintori
convenient for tradesmen and for carting or carrying water from the fountain. Dyers needed generous quantities of water. In the rear of the dye shop was a stairwell leading down to a small wine cellar, and another going up to the family quarters that occupied the floors above. Because of the slope of the hill the middle floor was also on street level, facing out onto Vicolo del Tiratoio, just a few steps from the small parish church of Sant’Antonio Abate. The middle floor held the bedrooms and perhaps a small sitting room. While the building exists to this day, we can only guess the original layout of the rooms — the interior has been so modified that there is scant trace of the room arrangement of the fourteenth century. On the top floor was a large kitchen that served as a family space and a terrace laid out to hold a small garden.

The family of Giacomo did not belong to the nobility. Had they been nobles it might be possible to track their lineage back through successive generations and connect them to famous or powerful ancestors. The faint trail of Giacomo’s antecedents includes a notary and several merchants in the thirteenth century. Giacomo himself was a full member of the wool guild, the Arte della Lana, which was no trivial thing at that time. It took years to attain guild membership and often required family connections. As a member of the guild he was a full citizen of the commune of Siena. He could vote in state elections or even hold public office if nominated by the party in power. When a guild member died, all the other members closed their shops to attend the funeral, which provided opportunities for enlisting support for the deceased’s widow and children. Within the guild, Giacomo was a master dyer by profession. That could mean a highly skilled worker or even something more. As one writer close to the family put it, Giacomo’s work involved the “mixing and manufacture of the colors used for dyeing.” The business of mixing and making colors in the era before the introduction of chemical dyes suggests his tasks were more complex than simply coloring fabric. Indigo, for instance, had to be imported from the East, so the one who created dyes had to be an importer. Other colors in medieval times were concocted from native plants and insects. If Giacomo mixed and sold these dyes for use by other tradesmen, then he would be working as a wholesaler, in addition to being a dyer himself. While we don’t know the full scope of his business, it is clear that he was a businessman of considerable status and prestige.

Giacomo di Benincasa’s wife, Lapa, came from an established merchant family. Her father, Puccio di Piagenti, did business as a mattress maker and was a recognized man of culture in Tuscany, being a poet of some renown. No examples of his verse remain, but it is known he dedicated one of his poems to Guido Cavalcanti, a friend and colleague of Dante Alighieri in Florence. Puccio’s aesthetic genes, however, may have died with his generation, since Lapa grew into a strong-willed woman not generously endowed with subtlety. Some have called her simplistic; if so, she made up for it by strength of character and devotion to her family. Giacomo married her soon after he had lost both of his parents, so he may have welcomed a woman with both feet on the ground. There was probably some disparity in their ages; she outlived him by several decades. Whatever their differences, Lapa and Giacomo made a good team: where she was impulsive, sometimes volatile, he was quiet and slow to judge but firm when a decision had to be made. Years later she told the story of a customer who sued Giacomo over an unpaid debt, almost bringing him to ruin. Lapa was furious at the man, but her husband refused to criticize him, insisting, “God will show him his mistake.” Sure enough, circumstances proved that the customer was mistaken. The two men eventually were reconciled.

Together Giacomo and Lapa had twenty-five children –  an enormous number by today’s standards, and a lot even in that era. Most of their offspring died before adulthood. Available records put names to only ten of them.The eldest known son was given the name of Giacomo’s father, Benincasa. The next son after him was Bartolomeo, and Sandro was the third. Sandro, however, had disappeared from the record perhaps he died  – by the time the family moved to Via dei Tintori, since by then Giacomo’s business included only two sons, Benincasa and Bartolomeo.

Of the boys, Bartolomeo made the most notable marriage, taking as his wife Lisa Colombini, niece of Giovanni Colombini, one of the most colorful and controversial characters in Siena. Colombini was a wealthy merchant who in midlife underwent a religious conversion so sudden and shattering that he resolved to live his life differently from that moment on. His sin, as he saw it, was grasping, usurious moneymaking. In an effort to make amends he had himself scourged in front of the Palazzo Pubblico. He sold his goods for prices that were lower than cost and then gave away much of the wealth he had left. When his wife complained, Colombini reminded her that she had once begged God to teach him charity. According to the story, she answered, “I prayed for rain, not for the Flood.”. Wanting to do still more, Colombini settled his wife financially and then donned rags to serve the poor in the hospital. He preached in public places about the evils of money, which did not endear him to the bankers in Siena. When he began to attract followers, the city fathers had had enough. Colombini was exiled from the Sienese state for several years. He wandered through the cities and towns of Tuscany, preaching and practicing poverty. Eventually he was allowed to return. After his death in 1367, his followers, called the Gésuati, continued to remind people of the corruptions of wealth.

Giacomo and Lapa had daughters as well as sons. There was Maddalena, who married Bartolomeo di Vannino, and Nicholuccia (called Niccola), who married Palmiero di Nese dalla Fonte. Both sisters will disappear from our story. However, the son of Niccola and Palmiero – Tommaso dalla Fonte – will have an important part in all that follows.

After Niccola in birth order came Bonaventura, who married Niccolo de Giovanni Tegliacci. Then there was another sister, Lisa (not to be confused with Bartolomeo’s wife of the same name). And after Lisa came another son, Stefano.

By this time Lapa was surely weary of childbearing, but nevertheless another pregnancy began in 1346 — perhaps around the time the family moved into its new home. It reached full term on this twenty-fifth day of March in 1347. In a second-floor bedroom on Via dei Tintori, Lapa gave birth to twin girls who were promptly named Caterina (or Catherine, as we shall call her) and Giovanna.
The newborns were weak, and because Lapa could not nurse both she handed the more sickly Giovanna to a wet nurse while keeping Catherine for herself. It was a difficult decision no doubt, but more easily made in the fourteenth century than today. With infant mortality so high, parents invested their hopes in the strongest children. In Lapa’s mind she wasn’t depriving her weaker daughter, since all of her children had been wet-nursed during some part of their infancy. The pregnancies had come too fast and she never had sufficient milk for the ones already born. Catherine, coming toward the end of Lapa’s childbearing years, would be different. Mother and daughter had a chance to bond in ways that Lapa never did with any of her other children. In this case Lapa — never the most intuitive one — made a wise choice. Catherine was nursed until it was time for weaning while Giovanna, tended by the wet nurse, died not long after birth.

As mentioned, the city Catherine was born into was at that time still close to the zenith of its power and influence. It was self-governing, a center for banking and cloth-making, and a favorite stopping place for pilgrims on the Via Francigena, the great route of pilgrimage from northern Europe down to Rome. It was also a city of dreamers. Dante found the Sienese ardent, vain, and given to grandiose statements. Even as Catherine lay in her crib, Siena was attempting another grandiose statement by reconstructing and extending its cathedral, aiming to make it the largest church in Christendom. Under the leadership of the ruling council known as the Nove (the Nine), the commune had just completed paving its expansive Campo, the great square, or piazza, in the center of town that was the setting for the magnificent new Palazzo Pubblico and the tall, graceful Torre del Mangia connected to it. The Gésuati might warn about the dangers of money and ostentation, but in 1347 Siena wore its prosperity with a certain amount of swagger.

Unknown as yet to anyone in Tuscany, that self-confidence would soon be tested. Something was happening in central Asia that would bring Siena’s plans to a standstill and challenge its resiliency and faith. People in Asia were being struck down by a sickness, abruptly and in great numbers. Signs of the disease included headache, nausea, and fever, and sometimes swelling of the lymph glands in the groin, under the armpits, and on the neck behind the ears, creating distinctive “buboes,” which gave the disease its name: bubonic plague.There was no known cure. In more than half of the cases it led inexorably to death. One frightening thing about the disease was that no one knew what caused it. While people realized clearly enough that it could be passed from person to person, they blamed the transmission on a theory of vapors, or even on planetary influences. Not until long after was the bacillus traced to fleas that infested black rats. The rats attached themselves to ships, especially those loaded with grain. They carried the deadly fleas to ports in the Crimea and from there to Europe. By October 1347 the plague had reached Messina, in Sicily. Before the end of the year it was in Genoa. In January people in Marseille were falling ill. From there the contagion spread like wildfire north into France.

The Black Death reached the cities of Tuscany in the spring of 1348. In March Florence was struck a terrible blow, especially in the poorer neighborhoods where people lived close together in unsanitary conditions. Giovanni Boccaccio described what happened next: “Being confined to their own parts of the city, they fell ill daily in their thousands, and since they had no one to assist them or attend to their needs, they inevitably perished almost without exception. Many dropped dead in the open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbor’s attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses than by any other means. Any what with these, and the others who were dying all over the city, bodies were here, there, and everywhere.”

The cloud of plague reached Siena the following month.The city gates had been locked to keep out strangers who might be infected, but to no avail. As people fell sick, shops were closed. The municipal courts shut down, and also the wool industry, including the dyers. The Council of Nine appointed a three-man committee to oversee the handling of the dead. Plague-pits were dug in various parts of the city. To propitiate the Almighty, candlelit processions wound through the streets; the Gésuati went into the public squares proclaiming the need for penance.There was a surge of moral righteousness. A statue of Venus standing in the Campo was pulled down and broken by a mob because it smacked of dissolute living.

A picture of Siena during the plague has been left to us by Agnolo di Tura, a cobbler and diarist. He wrote, “There are not words to describe how horrible these events have been and, in fact, whoever can say that they have not lived in utterly horrid conditions can truly consider themselves lucky. The infected die almost immediately. Thev swell beneath the armpits and in the groin, and fall over while talking. Fathers abandon their sons, wives their husbands, and one brother the other. In the end everyone escapes and abandons anyone who might be infected. Moreover, it appears that this plague can be communicated through bad breath and even just by seeing one of the infected. In these ways they die and no one can be found who would want to bury them, not even for money or in the name of friendship. Those who get infected in their own house, they remove them the best way they can and they bury them without the supervision of a priest. No one controls anything and they do not even ring the church bells anymore. Throughout Siena, giant pits are being excavated for the multitudes of the dead and the hundreds that die every night. The bodies are thrown into those mass graves and are covered bit by bit. When those ditches are full, new ditches are dug. So many have died that new pits have to be made every day.

“And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, have buried five of my sons with my own hands . . . There is no one who weeps for any of the dead, for instead everyone awaits their own impending death. So many have died that everyone believes it is the end of the world.”

It wasn’t the end, but it was close. The plague lasted through the summer months, then slowly lessened in intensity when the weather turned cooler in September and October. People gradually returned to the city. Some shops reopened, while others did not. By Agnolo di Tura’s estimate 52,000 died in Siena alone. That number, however, would equal roughly the total population of the city in 1347. Most historians believe Siena lost about 60 percent of its inhabitants. In Europe as a whole, an estimated one-third of the population died.

As one might judge from di Tura’s account, children were particularly vulnerable to infection from the plague, and newborn children probably even more so. But as far as we know, no one in the household of Giacomo di Benincasa succumbed to the disease. Perhaps Catherine, being breast-fed, shared whatever immunity her mother possessed. Perhaps, like many citizens, the family fled from the city during the height of the infestation. They owned a small farm with a vineyard in San Rocco a Pilli, about five miles south of the city walls. It was part of the dowry brought into the family by Bartolomeo’s wife, Lisa Colombini. The quarters would have been crowded with all of them living there, but for a short time in mild weather it would not have been impossible.

The biography of Catherine written by Raymond of Capua after her death fails to mention, even in passing, the plague year of 1348, and certainly does not speculate about the effect it may have had on her emotional development. Looking back from our perspective, the psychological impact of the pandemic is impossible to ignore. Historians have documented the waves of survivor guilt that swept across Europe in the wake of the “great mortality,” as it was called. Bands of flagellants paraded through the towns of Germany and France, ritually whipping their bodies in an effort to expiate the sins that they believed had angered God and brought on the terrible punishment of the Black Death. The infant Catherine was then too young to feel guilt, but when the events of that year were disclosed to her as an older girl — as they surely would have been  – she must have wondered at the ways of God and why she survived when so many others did not. Not only was she spared from the plague, she would also have learned that she had survived her twin sister. Her survival had been assured when her mother chose to nurse her instead of Giovanna. Being a “chosen one” is usually accepted as a blessing, but in some circumstances it can be a heavy burden.

Although the household got through the plague year intact, their city did not. Siena sustained an almost mortal wound from the plague and its aftereffects. Many businesses went under. Working men, now fewer in number, demanded – and got – higher wages for their labor. Prices skyrocketed. Peasants in the countryside, who had lived in servitude for generations, walked away from their estates, knowing they could find better-paying jobs elsewhere. The city of Siena never fully recovered from its population loss. Driven by a new determination to avoid disease-ridden cities, people from the countryside opted to stay where they were. Suddenly there was plenty of land available on farms and in smaller towns and money to buy it. Many of those who made it through the year found themselves beneficiaries of wealthier relatives who had passed away. Inside the city, Agnolo di Tura told how quickly the promises of personal repentance were forgotten once the danger was past: “[A]ll who survived gave themselves over to pleasures: monks, priests, nuns, and lay men and women all enjoyed themselves, and none worried about spending and gambling.”

The Sienese commune, while not insolvent, lacked the means in the new economic climate to do everything it wanted or even to deliver basic services. The attempt to greatly enlarge the duomo had to be shelved. With a population not even half as large as it had been a few years earlier, shops and homes stood empty and decaying. The streets – once the city’s pride, all of
them paved and swept clean – fell into disrepair. By the end of the century the Via Francigena — the great pilgrim route that ran through the center of the city — was so potholed and muddy as to be unusable in bad weather.

Giacomo’s family, too, suffered  from the economic downturn in the wake of the Black Death. Some years or months before the plague year, the eldest son, Benincasa, with his father’s support, had entered into a partnership with two other dyers. The business did not go well. When both of the partners died, presumably of the plague, Giacomo and his son were saddled with much of the debt. They were sued in Siena’s Market Council by a creditor and lost their case. How much they had to pay is not recorded, but it was the first step in a series of financial misfortunes that would test the family in the years to come.

But within the household on Via del Tintori, life continued. Catherine was weaned because Lapa had become pregnant yet again. Perhaps the pregnancy was a response by her and Giacomo to so much death in the city. When the baby came it was called Giovanna, after Catherine’s dead twin sister. The family grew in another respect as well. Catherine’s older sister Niccola had died of the plague along with her husband Palmiero. Suddenly parentless, their son Tommaso came to live with his grandparents and became like a brother to Catherine. He was ten years older than she — an earnest, devout young man who may already have been considering a vocation to religious life. Except for Catherine’s favorite and adored older sister, Bonaventura, Tommaso became the family member closest to her heart. Unlike girls in the fourteenth century, boys often learned how to read and write at least in a rudimentary way so that, growing up, they would be able to decipher ledgers and invoices. In Tommaso’s case, he was more interested in stories about the saints than commercial accounts. While not the smartest student, he learned enough to read the Legenda Aurea (“Golden Legend”), a collection of devotional stories written the previous century by the Italian Dominican Jacopo da Varazze that had become wildly popular by Catherine’s time. Sitting at the kitchen table during the evening, Tommaso
would struggle through the text, reading aloud, perhaps about Saint Agnes who was beheaded at the age of thirteen because she refused the advances of Roman soldiers. It is not difficult to imagine little Catherine listening, wide-eyed and silent.

From what is told about her, the girl Catherine was not usually silent. She grew into a happy, bubbly child who loved to talk, and was much petted by her older brothers and sisters. Judging from the bond that grew between them, Bonaventura may have been the one who watched Catherine while their mother was busy with the younger Giovanna. Neighbors on the street were so taken by little Catherine that they would invite her into their homes to feed her tidbits and listen to her chatter. Lapa had a hard time keeping track of her. Someone gave the girl the name Euphrosyne, one of the Graces in Greek mythology—the personification ofjoy and it seemed
to fit.

The city itself had a role in Catherine’s formation. As a twentieth-century commentator has pointed out, “Medieval people lived as much in the streets as in their homes; open archways, balconies, and exterior staircases provided ready access between private and public places so that family life was scarcely separated from life in the extended family of their neighborhood. Like most Sienese, therefore, Catherine was a child of the city, as much as of her family; the objective reality of the world around her was text and teacher to her observant and inquiring mind.”

For chores the girls helped to clean the house and prepare food. Although Catherine was too small at first to carry anything heavy, one can imagine her going down the hill with an older sibling to fill pails of water at the fountain of Fontebranda. It was hard, physical work, and Catherine grew into a vigorous young girl. Stories recount the way the teenage Catherine lugged heavy packages up the stairs from the dye shop to the living quarters. This was offered as evidence that in the years before she undertook her fasts and became gradually more frail she was strong and healthy.

She was also pious. Where this came from is hard to know exactly. It is fair to say that most children growing up in medieval Siena were pious by nature. It was in the air they breathed, in the sound of the bells ringing out the hours of the day, continually reinforced by the church calendar with its parade of saints and martyrs. For most people in the Middle Ages churchgoing was serious business; praying was as common and omnipresent as eating. Years later, Catherine’s first biographer would claim that a kind of holiness “showed in germ what afterwards grew up and came to full fruition”— intimating that she was singled out by God from her earliest years. As a faith statement it will serve, but it is a hagiographer’s attempt to sacrilize ordinary history. In Catherine’s case it should be noted that her father was a man of reserved and devout temperament who expected to find those same qualities in his children. Curse words were never permitted under his roof. Giacomo himself had grown up in a devout family. He was a Franciscan tertiary (a layman affiliated with the Franciscan order), and his sister Catherine’s aunt Agnes joined the Dominican tertiaries after the death of her husband. Catherine’s sisters served as models of behavior for her, as well as her sister-in-law Lisa — not to mention nephew Tommaso, on a track to become a Dominican friar. In addition, there were the experiences of her short life to date, above all the knowledge that she survived the calamity that took so many lives in her city. Is it any wonder that these influences insinuated themselves in her personality, deepening the colors of her naturally buoyant spirit? She accepted praying as an activity to be mastered, like setting the table or fetching water. She took delight in it, learning the child’s game of going up the stairs and pausing on each step to kneel and say an Ave. Somewhere she must have heard — probably from Tommaso — about the desert hermits of the fourth century who lived in caves and gave their nights and days entirely to prayer. It must have struck her imagination as wonderfully romantic — not in any way depressing but grand and adventurous. Exploring silence and solitude for herself, initially in small ways, her extroverted spirit gradually encountered mystery. In this way the child Catherine came to experience the tides of desire.

At first, much of this development occurred as a kind of play. Catherine had places in the house where she hid herself and learned to be still. When she was about six or seven years old and friends visited her they would pretend they were in a convent. Sitting or kneeling primly, they would recite prayers like the nuns and sometimes beat their shoulders with improvised scourges. Catherine was always the prioress. It was a game they enjoyed enormously.

A child living in a home where so many siblings were older could not help but be aware of political events that were rocking the city- this time. Catherine’s father and older brothers were involved in Siena’s public life, both in the guild and the commune. She heard them talking about it, particularly her brother Bartolomeo. There was muttering about the Council of Nine, the oligarchy of bankers and merchants who had controlled Sienese affairs for over sixty years. Things had changed after the plague. The city was doing poorly and dissatisfaction was rising. The Nine were further embarrassed in 1353 when the mercenary army of Fra Moriale raided Sienese territory, burning estates, terrorizing and murdering people. Strong walls kept the mercenaries out of the city, but Siena’s pitiful army could not chase them away. Finally Siena had to pay Moriale 13,000 gold florins to leave, suffering the added humiliation of having to reimburse him for the horses he had lost.

One day during that summer or fall, Lapa asked Stefano and Catherine to deliver an item to Bonaventura who lived with her husband in another part of the city. The two children set off, climbing up from the narrow valley where their house was located, cutting across the slope of Castelvecchio near the duomo toward the Porta Ansano neighborhood where Bonaventura lived. One expects young Catherine was thrilled to visit the sister she loved so much. Most likely she and Stefano spent several hours at Bonaventura’s house and then, following the same route, headed home before evening. Stefano moved on ahead, Catherine trailed behind. They passed the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala and the duomo and came at last to the steep stairway that led down to Fontebranda. One could see across the valley to the imposing church of San Domenico on the crest of the opposite hill. It was late afternoon and the light was changing. Suddenly Catherine stopped and looked up. There, floating in the sky above San Domenico, she could see a number of human figures, just like in the frescoes painted on the walls of Siena’s churches. Enthroned in the center was Christ, wearing white papal robes and a tiara and holding a pastoral staff with his left hand. He was looking straight at her. Standing to one side of the throne were the Apostles Peter and Paul, and on the other side John the Evangelist. Grouped around them were other figures. Catherine stood, transfixed. It seemed as though Christ was smiling at her. He raised his right hand and made the sign of the cross over her. She was rooted to her place, lost in the vision. Stefano, glancing back, saw that she had stopped. He called to her but she did not answer. He called again. Still no answer. Finally he ran back and tugged her sleeve, demanding, “What are you doing here? Why don’t you come?” She was forced to turn from the vision and look at her brother. She cried out, “Oh, if you could see what I see you wouldn’t have disturbed me.” She turned back to the vision, but it was gone. Disappointed, she burst into bitter tears.

Catherine made Stefano promise not to tell their parents about the vision. Neither did she speak of it, but in the days after it was always on her mind. The Son of God, the Savior of the world, was pleased with her. He had smiled at her and blessed her. She would carry that knowledge all of her life.Yet, as she related the event to her confessor years later, she reproached herself for looking away. The disappearance of the vision in that moment was a source of enormous sadness. She blamed herself for it. In the words of one early account, “From this moment, she was always tormented from inside, fearful, conscientious, and afraid of falling into sin, as much as was possible for a girl of her age.” At home she began to hide herself away with more purpose and to discipline her body with more vigor.

We will come back to these disciplines later. For now it is fair to wonder what we’re supposed to make of the vision itself. Was the girl Catherine delusional? Did she really believe she saw heavenly beings? There is no getting around the fact that Catherine believed that this vision and others she would have in the future were completely authentic: Christ and the saints appeared and interacted with her just as surely as human visitors did. Not only did Catherine believe this was so, but her spiritual advisors, her family, her followers, and almost everyone who came in contact with her or who knew her by reputation believed it as well. One might write this off as an example of the credulous era they lived in, and to be sure the late Middle Ages was a time of feverish religious enthusiasm. Catherine was not the only visionary in medieval Italy.There were dozens, and most of them were women. For example, Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317) was visited by the Virgin Mary, who allowed her to hold the baby Jesus. Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297) was visited by Jesus, who told her which priests were chaste and which were not, while Angela of Foligno (1248-1309) was invited by Jesus to drink blood that flowed from his side. Yet it would be a mistake to discount these stories as quaint examples of folk religion propagated during an uncritical age. Religious visions are not limited to Italy, or to women, or to the fourteenth century. There has been no age or faith without religious visionaries, including our own.

One way to distinguish between delusions and energizing visions is by weighing the effect they have on the visionary. Delusions arise from a distorted view of the world and lead a person to relate to his or her environment in bizarre and dysfunctional ways. Healthy visions, on the other hand, enlarge a person’s innate capacities and provide motivation and direction for human growth. Rather than leading the visionary into a private world, they become vehicles for social engagement. They can become a source of energy for the one having the vision, and for others as well. A single person announcing “I have a dream” can enlarge the vision of a whole society. Therefore, one should not be too hasty in deciding whether a particular event, which may appear very odd on the surface, is delusional or is a graphic representation of the soul’s deepest purpose. If it turns out to be the latter, one will be able to tell from the fruit it bears.

However, it is essential to note that Catherine herself recognized the difference between her visions and physical reality. Although “real” on one level, the visions were gifts given only to her. Stefano had not seen Christ in the sky. Other people on the street could not see him. Even at the moment of awakening, when Stefano grabbed her sleeve, Catherine was conscious that she and her brother did not share the same experience. If you could see what I see. Years later Raymond of Capua wrote that Catherine’s visions “for the most part took place in her imagination, but sometimes they were perceptible … by her bodily senses.” There was complete agreement between Catherine and her spiritual mentor on that point: visions were products of her imagination, planted there by God. She “saw” them, and sometimes her other senses perceived them as well, but in all cases they arose in her own imagination.

One more aspect of the young girl’s vision is worth mentioning. According to Raymond of Capua, the figure of Christ seen by Catherine in the sky was dressed in papal vestments. This may be the only instance in Christian iconography where Christ appeared wearing papal robes. One wonders what inspired it. Had the child Catherine seen a mural with a vested pope and confused that image with Jesus? Had she heard adults discussing the new pope, Innocent VI (elected only the previous year), and had the pope and Christ somehow blended together in her mind? The conflation of icons is interesting because it was Catherine’s habit in later years to equate loyalty to the pope with loyalty to Christ. Curiously, a different account of the vision written years before Raymond’s does not mention specific papal trappings. The Miracoli claims she saw Christ “dressed in totally white clothes” and holding a pastoral staff. There is no tiara.

Six-year-old Catherine went home in sadness, believing her inattentiveness had severed a connection with the other world and blaming herself for it. Such feelings are common among children as a first response to loss. But the larger experience of being connected, even momentarily, had been so powerful that it gave her a steely determination to recover it. Far from lapsing into lasting sadness and fear, Catherine resolved to eradicate all inattentiveness from her character through vigilance and self-discipline. She had no Zen master to slap her face and cry “Wake up!” so she whipped her own body. “Brother Ass,” as Francis of Assisi had called the body — sometimes it needed whipping in order to move forward. Her attitude toward food also changed. The Fathers of the Desert believed gluttony was the font of all other sins, so she resolved to fast, thereby denying herself food’s soporific comfort. Above all else, she sought solitude – hard to find in a house crowded with family. Her own room may have been shared with young Giovanna, and probably also with her older sister Lisa. However, since Stefano was old enough to work but still too young to marry, his room was empty during the day. It and the family wine cellar became Catherine’s prayer spaces.

She longed to be one of the desert hermits. Tommaso had told her about them. Now she reflected on the luxury of having one’s own cave or hermitage to pray in without interruption or distraction. There would be no one to tug on her sleeve and ask, “What are you doing?” It was common knowledge that a few hermits, both men and women, lived outside Siena’s Porta Ansano in their rude shelters. Catherine weighed going out to join them. Her mother wouldn’t notice – Lapa didn’t know where Catherine was half the time anyway. So one day she took a loaf of bread for herself and began the long walk up and over the hill in the direction of Bonaventura’s house but instead of stopping at the house she kept going, through the gate in the city wall and out into the countryside. The landscape there was broken, with narrow valleys and rock outcroppings. Finally she found a suitable place under a rock overhang. She settled herself and prayed. Time passed. One medieval account reported that during the prayer the Virgin Mary appeared to Catherine who, in turn, begged Mary to accept her as the spouse of Jesus. Raymond of Capua, on the other hand, omitted Mary’s visit but claimed Catherine was lifted into the air as she prayed. Neither account mentioned whether she ate the bread. What we do know is that Catherine suddenly realized the light was failing. Being just a young girl, she thought it would be wise to go home. As expected, when she got there no one realized she had been away.

Catherine was not ready to leave home, but her short experience in solitude outside the city walls may have confirmed for her that she was different from everyone else in her family. She was unique. She was chosen. And she was coming to see that she would probably have to battle in order to maintain that difference.


Tags: ,