Biography of Catherine of Siena, Saint, Mystic, and Theologian

Mystic and Theologian

Saint Catherine of Siena, pensive and haloed, painted by Alessandro Franchi in 1888

EA / A. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Saint Catherine of Siena (March 25, 1347–April 29, 1380) was an ascetic, mystic, activist, author, and holy woman of the Catholic Church. Hardly an anchoress, her assertive and confrontational letters to bishops and popes, as well as her commitment to direct service to the sick and the poor, made Catherine a powerful role model for a more worldly and active spirituality.

Fast Facts: Catherine of Siena

  • Known For: Patron saint of Italy (with Francis of Assisi); credited with persuading the Pope to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome; one of two women named Doctors of the Church in 1970
  • Also Known As: Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa
  • Born: March 25, 1347 in Siena, Italy
  • Parents: Giacomo di Benincasa and Lapa Piagenti
  • Died: April 29, 1380 in Rome, Italy
  • Published Works: "The Dialogue"
  • Feast Day: April 29
  • Canonized: 1461
  • Occupation: Tertiary of the Dominican Order, mystic, and theologian

Early Life and Becoming a Dominican

Catherine of Siena was born into a large family. She was born a twin, the youngest of 23 children. Her father was a wealthy dye-maker. Many of her male relatives were public officials or went into the priesthood. From age six or seven, Catherine had religious visions. She practiced self-deprivation, especially abstaining from food. She took a vow of virginity but told no one, not even her parents.

Her mother urged her to improve her appearance as her family began to arrange her marriage to the widower of her sister, who had died in childbirth. Catherine cut off her hair⁠—something nuns do upon entering a convent⁠—and her parents punished her for it until she revealed her vow. They then permitted her to become a Dominican tertiary when, in 1363, she joined the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic, an order made up mostly of widows.

It was not an enclosed order, so she lived at home. For her first three years in the order, she stayed isolated in her room, seeing only her confessor. Out of the three years of contemplation and prayer, she developed a rich theological system, including her theology of the Precious Blood of Jesus.

Service as Vocation

At the end of the three years of isolation, she believed she had a divine command to go out into the world and serve as a means of saving souls and working on her salvation. Around 1367, she experienced a mystical marriage to Christ, in which Mary presided along with other saints, and she received a ring⁠—which she said remained on her finger all her life, visible only to her—to signify the union. She practiced fasting and self-mortification, including self-scourging, and took communion frequently.

Public Recognition

Her visions and trances attracted a following among the religious and secular, and her advisors urged her to become active in the public and political world. Individuals and political figures began consulting her to mediate disputes and give spiritual advice.

Catherine never learned to write and she had no formal education, but she learned to read when she was 20. She dictated her letters and other works to secretaries. The best-known of her writing is "The Dialogue" (also known as "Dialogues" or "Dialogo"), a series of theological treatises on doctrine written with a combination of logical precision and heartfelt emotion. She also tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the church to take up a crusade against the Turks.

In one of her visions in 1375, she was marked with the stigmata of Christ. Like her ring, the stigmata were only visible to her. That year, the city of Florence asked her to negotiate the end of a conflict with the pope's government in Rome. The Pope himself was in Avignon, where Popes had been for almost 70 years, having fled Rome. In Avignon, the Pope was under the influence of the French government and church. Many feared that the Pope was losing control of the church at that distance.

The Pope at Avignon

Her religious writing and good works (and perhaps her well-connected family or her tutor Raymond of Capua) brought her to the attention of Pope Gregory XI, still at Avignon. She traveled there, had private audiences with the Pope, argued with him to leave Avignon and return to Rome and fulfill "God's will and mine." She also preached to public audiences while there.

The French wanted the Pope in Avignon, but Gregory, in ill health, probably wanted to return to Rome so that the next Pope would be elected there. In 1376, Rome promised to submit to papal authority if he returned. So, in January 1377, Gregory returned to Rome. Catherine (along with St. Bridget of Sweden) is credited with persuading him to return.

The Great Schism

Gregory died in 1378 and Urban VI was elected the next Pope. However, soon after the election, a group of French cardinals claimed that fear of Italian mobs had influenced their vote and, along with some other cardinals, they elected a different Pope, Clement VII. Urban excommunicated those cardinals and selected new ones to fill their places. Clement and his followers escaped and set up an alternative papacy in Avignon. Clement excommunicated Urban's supporters. Eventually, European rulers were nearly equally divided between support for Clement and support for Urban. Each claimed to be the legitimate Pope and named his counterpart the Antichrist.

Into this controversy, called the Great Schism, Catherine threw herself assertively, supporting Pope Urban VI, and writing heavily critical letters to those who supported the Anti-Pope in Avignon. Catherine's involvement did not end the Great Schism (that wouldn't happen until 1413), but she worked hard to unite the faithful. She moved to Rome and preached the need for the opposition in Avignon to reconcile with Urban's papacy.

Holy Fasting and Death

In 1380, in part to expiate the great sin she saw in this conflict, Catherine gave up all food and water. Already weak from years of extreme fasting, she fell gravely ill. Though she ended the fast, she died at age 33. In Raymond of Capua's 1398 hagiography of Catherine, he noted this was the age when Mary Magdalene, one of her key role models, died. It is also the age that Jesus Christ was crucified.

There was and is quite the controversy over Catherine's eating habits. Her confessor, Raymond of Capua, wrote that she ate nothing but the communion host for years, and considered this a demonstration of her holiness. She died, he implies, as a result of her decision to abstain from not only all food but all water as well. Whether she was "anorexic for religion" remains a matter of scholarly controversy.

Legacy, Feminism, and Art

Pius II canonized Catherine of Siena in 1461. Her "The Dialogue" survives and has been widely translated and read. Extant are 350 letters that she dictated. In 1939, she was named as a patron saint of Italy, and in 1970, she was recognized as a Doctor of the Church, meaning her writings are approved teachings within the church. Dorothy Day credits reading Catherine's biography as an important influence in her life and her founding of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Some have considered Catherine of Siena a proto-feminist for her active role in the world. However, her concepts were not exactly what we would consider feminist today. For instance, she believed that her persuasive writing to powerful men would be especially shaming because God sent a woman to teach them.

In art, Catherine is usually depicted in a Dominican habit with a black cloak, white veil, and tunic. She is sometimes portrayed with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth-century virgin and martyr whose feast day is November 25. Pinturicchio's "Canonization of Catherine of Siena" is one of the better known artistic depictions of her. She was a favorite subject of several other painters, especially Barna de Siena ("Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine"), Dominican Friar Fra Bartolomeo ("Marriage of Catherine of Siena"), and Duccio di Buoninsegna ("Maestà (Madonna with Angels and Saints)").

Resources and Further Reading

  • Armstrong, Karen. Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings. Bantam, 1994.
  • Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California, 2010.
  • Curtayne, Alice. Saint Catherine of Siena. Sheed and Ward, 1935.
  • da Siena, Saint Caterina. The Dialogue. Ed. & trans. by Suzanne Noffke, Paulist Press, 1980.
  • da Capua, Saint Raimondo. Legenda Major. Trans. by Giuseppi Tinagli, Cantagalli, 1934; trans. by George Lamb as The Life of St. Catherine of Siena, Harvill, 1960.
  • Kaftal, George. St. Catherine in Tuscan Painting. Blackfriars, 1949.
  • Noffke, Suzanne. Catherine of Siena: Vision through a Distant Eye. Michael Glazier, 1996.
  • Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. Oxford University, 1994.