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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

St. Catherine of Siena's Stigmata and Relics

Caterina Benincasa, better known as St. Catherine of Siena, was a gutsy fourteenth century history making woman. She was determined to make a difference, even with doubters and critics. An assertive defender of the faith and church, she was also distrustful and skeptical of church hierarchy. As the co-patron saint of Italy and Europe, she is also the patron saint of nursing.


Born in 1347 to a wool dyer and his wife, Catherine was their twenty-fifth child. The Sienese Benincasa family was far from rich. She became a Dominican nun and followed their mystical traditions, as would be typical for a fourteenth century religious woman. Nearly everything else about Catherine, except for her devout Dominican faith, was atypical. She was political, an activist, and traveled widely. Famous for her intense religious visions, she chose to deviate from leading a quiet life as a nun. Learned, well versed in scripture and Christian doctrine, she was able to debate theology and papal politics. She was not able to read or write, instead she educated herself by forming a group of intellectuals she considered her religious and intellectual family. She dictated her religious treaties on spiritual life, which became respected in the church.


Catherine was known for her deep spiritual experiences, particularly her mystical spiritual marriage to Jesus and receiving the stigmata. Paintings show Jesus giving Catherine a ring as a sign of their spiritual betrothal. St. Catherine, along with St. Francis, are both known for receiving the signs of Christ’s crucifixion. She courageously nursed plague victims, performed healings, and lived an austere life. Feisty as always, she involved herself in disputes between rival cities of Siena and Florence.


She forcefully advocated for an end to the seventy-year schism when the pope was displaced from Rome and resided in France. Different factions of cardinals elected competing popes, all claiming to be the true vicar of Christ. Papal authority and credibility became deeply compromised during this period and Rome fell into decline. She persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome and lead the church, yet it wasn’t until Martin V was elected after Catherine’s death that the schism was resolved. She played an important role in affirming the rightful place of papal power in Rome.

She stepped way outside the boundaries of a fourteenth century nun living in a man’s world. Her letters and mystical writings earned her the title of Doctor of the Church in 1970. She called for reform in the church, keenly aware of abuses of power in the upper echelon of the church and those who did not renounce worldly possessions, and instead embraced a luxurious life. Her views on reform brought sharp criticism, especially from powerful men.


The Dominicans

The Dominican mendicant order was founded in 1216. Mendicant refers to the late medieval change in tradition when religious men and women began a movement to minister directly to people. They left cloistered convents and monasteries to preach and engage in charitable acts in their communities and cities. The Franciscan and Dominican orders were the primary mendicant groups who would live without confinement and commit to lives of poverty. Saints Francis of Assisi and Dominic founded their respective orders. Both orders became powerful forces in ministering to people and in the hierarchy of the church. Mendicant orders focused on ministering to the poor as itinerant disciples of Christ and building churches in towns and cities for the faithful.


Fra Angelico, The Dominican Blessed: Outer Left Pilaster Panel, 1423-24, National Gallery, London, open access.
Fra Angelico, The Dominican Blessed: Outer Left Pilaster Panel, 1423-24, National Gallery, London, open access.

Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar and artist, painted this panel as part of an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Fiesole. The subjects are praying Dominican men and women, dressed in their traditional black and white habit. Shown here is a detail of the panel that would be placed next to the central altarpiece depicting Christ. Fra Angelico included well-known Dominicans of the early fifteenth century.


Great patrons of the arts, Franciscans and Dominicans commissioned art as a means to glorify God and instruct the faithful. Many famous fresco cycles and altarpieces can be found in their churches. The two orders were often rivals for resources, patrons, funds, and establishing churches. They both built churches in many cities, competitive in nature with placement, size of the church, and commissioning artwork. In Florence, Santa Maria Novella (near the train station) was constructed by the Dominicans, while the Franciscans built Santa Croce on the opposite side of town. Generally speaking, the Franciscans imbued Christianity with a mystical sense and the Dominicans had a rational and philosophical approach.

 

In addition to tending to the poor and sick, Dominicans practiced religious rituals devoted to Christ’s passion. During Catherine’s life, Dominicans often engaged in self-harm through whipping, cutting, wearing hair shirts or other forms of inflicting pain as a way to experience and honor Christ’s passion. Catherine was known to self-flagellate with iron chains. One of the main purposes of flagellation was as an act of penance for sins. Self-harm was later seen as an unnecessary part of penance and frowned upon. She engaged in severe fasting regimes which left her near death. Reenactments of Christ’s passion as theatre for an audience was popular with women reaching a state of spiritual ecstasy. These were not “passion plays” as we know them, but ritualized acts of flagellation by groups of religious women known as “ecstasy-performances.”  These beliefs were fundamental to the Dominican order in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Passion performances were still popular in later centuries; however, they were about reverent ceremony, not self-harm.


Stigmata

The Franciscans did not follow such a rigorous devotion to self-mortification, although renunciation of all worldly goods and living in abject poverty to induce a pious state constitutes a variation of self-harm. Francis was known for many attributes, including communing with nature and a hermit-like lifestyle. Francis began his radical new preaching in 1208 and traveled widely to spread the word. He reportedly had a great love of nature and preached to the birds and animals in his remote mountain retreats. While praying, he received the stigmata, on his hands, feet, and side while at La Verna in 1224. His palms, feet, and side showed visible bleeding wounds. Today this sacred site in a quiet, verdant Tuscan mountain is well worth a side-trip. The cave where he prayed and received the stigmata are accessible for the faithful or curious.


Domenico Beccafumi, St. Catherine Receiving the Stigmata, 1513-15, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, public domain.
Domenico Beccafumi, St. Catherine Receiving the Stigmata, 1513-15, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, public domain.

Paintings of Francis’ stigmata depict him holding his hands open with visible round nail marks or blood. If his bare feet are shown, they too have nail marks. He appears in a trance or surrounded by a divine aura. Francis was reclusive about his stigmata and preferred not to show them. After his death in 1226, the marks of the stigmata on his body were verified.


Catherine of Siena also received the stigmata, but her divine experience was treated with doubt and skepticism. Stigmata were not always visible bloody marks of the passion and crucifixion, but could be a single wound on the head, red marks on hands or feet, a raised growth, or a mark on the side where Jesus was pierced with the lance. These marks could appear, disappear, or only some wounds would be experienced. Some stigmata could only be visible to the receiver, or to a few other people, not the public. Some stigmatics preferred to hide their marks. Catherine’s stigmata left no marks. They were invisible except for a few people that saw her behavior and physical actions when she said she received them, and judged the stigmata to be valid.

Catherine told her spiritual advisor what she felt during this episode. She received the stigmata while in a state of pious ecstasy praying before a crucifix. Following the event, she told her advisor, who also became her biographer, that she saw golden rays emanate from Jesus’ hands, head, feet, and side directly to her hands, head, feet, and side, causing her immediate severe pain. She also described to her spiritual advisor the pain felt when a golden ray pierced her heart. Her advisor saw her thrust forward in agony during her stigmatization and hold her arms out to her sides while in a trance.


Because her stigmata were not visible, this became a source of contention with the Dominicans and Franciscans, many of whom did not believe a woman could possibly receive the wounds of Christ. The Franciscans remained adamant Francis was the only true stigmatic. Catherine was persistent in her belief and had no intention of hiding her experience, even though visual marks were absent. Most stigmatics during the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries were female. They were scrutinized closely for their claims.


Compared to visual representations of Francis, religious women who received the stigmata were depicted carefully to de-emphasize their wounds. Francis’ stigmata almost always appear larger than female stigmata and with more definition. Catherine’s might be a small dot on her hands, or depicted only as a golden ray of light coming from above to her affected body. Her male biographers emphasized her wounds and experience to give credence to her stigmata, stating Christ drove a nail into her hand, or that he took her heart and exchanged it for his.


Carlo Crivelli, St. Francis, c. 1476, National Gallery, London, open access.
Carlo Crivelli, St. Francis, c. 1476, National Gallery, London, open access.

Post Mortem

Catherine received the stigmata in 1375 and died five years later. After her death her body was examined and the stigmata were visible. What was next for a holy or mystical person after they die? Often an autopsy to look for supernatural signs attributed to the hand of God. Sanctity could manifest in miracles, visions, or internal organs. We do not know specifically if Catherine’s body was autopsied following her death. It was common to look for signs of holiness in the deceased, especially if they had performed miracles, or had visions.


Disemboweling a body following death was common, often done by a barber for common folks. The abdomen and thoracic areas were opened, and the viscera and internal organs were removed. The cavity was washed and filled with aromatic herbs to offset decomposition and allow for public viewing. There was no dishonor in this postmortem procedure, instead it indicated a respectful treatment of the deceased.


Autopsy was also common, but only done under certain circumstances, such as suspecting foul play, or to discern signs of sanctity. Examination of the internal organs could confirm a state of holiness, particularly the condition of the heart. There was little correlation regarding the appearance of organs and health of the individual or how that might relate to cause of death. The heart was the source of piety, compassion, and emotion. An enlarged heart was seen as a mark of holiness. Some holy people had deformed hearts or a sign of the cross on their organ to confirm their divinity. Physicians did not consider those signs of illness or contributing factors to death, but the result of supernatural causes.


Confirmed stigmatics were considered to have come in direct contact with Christ. Their bodies, clothes, books, hair, crosses, were all vestiges of Christ. Anything that had come in contact with the person would be considered a holy relic. Catherine was canonized in 1461 by Pope Pius II. Obtaining or touching a relic could bring the faithful closer to Christ through the veneration and intercession of the saint. Body parts were the most revered first-class relics, and churches and chapels were often the home to saintly body parts or the entire remains.


Chapel of St. Catherine of Siena with Relic of her Head, San Domenico, Siena; Foot Relic of St. Catherine of Siena, Saints Giovanni and Paolo, Venice. Photos Gerriann Brower.


Thanks to my travels in Italy, I have now seen most of St. Catherine of Siena’s relics in Siena, Venice, and Rome. Catherine died in Rome, away from her home town of Siena. She was buried in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon in the ancient center of Rome. The church’s name derives from its construction directly over a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva (sopra = above). The Sienese Dominican order and the city greatly desired to have her body returned for burial in the church of San Domenico.  It was a common practice to distribute body parts to different churches for veneration.


Five years after her death her tomb was opened and her head was severed and sent to Siena along with her thumb. In 1430 her body was moved to a different tomb in the Roman church. She was not to rest in peace as her tomb was opened again with her foot, shoulder blade, hand, and rib removed. The Dominican sisters in Rome received the left hand while the foot found a new home in Venice’s Dominican church of Saints Giovanni and Paolo. The shriveled foot, which looks small compared to today’s feet, is housed in a reliquary in a side chapel of the Venetian church. Her head is prominently on display in San Domenico. The head displayed in the chapel appears eerie and gruesome. Her chapel has scenes from her life and her relics are still venerated today.


Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome. Photos Gerriann Brower.


The remainder of her body is entombed in Rome’s Santa Maria Sopra Minerva under the high altar. While the remains of her body are not visible her tomb is enclosed in a beautiful Gothic reliquary functioning as the high altar. Walking around to the back of the high altar, a small door to the reliquary is open where people have left hundreds of messages of prayer or to request an intention. The church has kindly supplied paper and pencils for the faithful.


Sources

Butler, Alban, and Paul Burns. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. New concise edition. Liturgical Press, 2003.

 

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa. 1st ed. Harper San Francisco, 2001.

 

Park, Katherine. "Holy Autopsies: Saintly Bodies and Medical Expertise, 1300-1600." The Body in Early Modern Italy, Julia L. Hairston and Walter Stephens, editors, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 61-73. 

 

Siraisi, Nancy G. "Signs and Evidence: Autopsy and Sanctity in Late Sixteenth-Century Italy." Medicine and the Italian Universities, 1250-1600. Education and Society in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, v. 12, Brill, 2001, pp. 356-380.

 

Warr, Cordelia. Stigmatics and Visual Culture in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy. Amsterdam University Press, 2022.

 

Webb, Heather. “Catherine of Siena’s Heart.” Speculum, vol. 80, no. 3, 2005, pp. 802–17.

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