Skip to main content
Select Source:

St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena

The Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a woman of intense prayer and close union with God. She was also active in political affairs and influenced the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome.

The twenty-third child of the Benincasa family, Catherine was born in Siena. She was a cheerful, bright, and intensely religious child, who later said she had vowed her virginity to Christ at the age of 7 when she had her first vision of Him. At 13 she joined the Dominican Sisters of Penitence in Siena. By the time she was 20, Catherine had become so widely known for her personal holiness and asceticism that she attracted a group of spiritual disciples—priests and laymen, men and women.

The many letters she dictated during the next 10 years show that her interest broadened from the religious to the political affairs of the time. The city-state of Florence was at war with the Pope and was torn by opposing factions. In 1376 Catherine was persuaded to act as a mediator and bring peace to Florence. She visited Pope Gregory XI at Avignon, which had been the seat of the papacy for over half a century. Catherine believed that peace would not come to Italy until the Pope returned to Rome. Pope Gregory himself wanted to move the papacy back to Rome but he had been unable to summon sufficient courage in the face of considerable opposition from his advisers. Catherine's deep spirituality and insistent words provided just the right kind of gentle, forceful persuasion.

In 1377 the Pope returned to Rome. But he died a year later and his successor, Urban VI, was harsh, unyielding, and antagonistic. Catherine kept in touch with him, once writing, "For the love of Jesus crucified, Holy Father, soften a little the sudden movements of your temper." The Pope did not follow her advice and lost the allegiance of the cardinals. Declaring that he had not been validly elected, they returned to Avignon to elect another pope. This was the beginning of the Great Schism. Catherine was crushed, and she attempted to win the allegiance of some political leaders to Urban. Her strength failed, however, and she died in Rome on April 29, 1380, surrounded by her spiritual "children." She was canonized in 1461.

Catherine wrote of her religious experiences in a series of "dialogues" with God. This work, which became an Italian classic, is still read with respect.

Further Reading

Of the many biographies of Catherine available in English, two of the best are Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena (trans. 1954), which stresses her spiritual importance, and Michael de la Bedoyère, The Greatest Catherine: The Life of Catherine Benincasa, Saint of Siena (1947), which shows the woman as she appears in her letters.

Additional Sources

Baldwin, Anne B., Catherine of Siena: a biography, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, 1987.

Meade, Catherine M., My nature is fire: Saint Catherine of Siena, New York, N.Y.: Alba House, 1991.

Noffke, Suzanne, Catherine of Siena: vision through a distant eye, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Raymond, of Capua, The life of … Sainct Catharine of Siena, Ilkley Eng.: Scolar Press, 1978. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"St. Catherine of Siena." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"St. Catherine of Siena." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/st-catherine-siena

"St. Catherine of Siena." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/st-catherine-siena

Catherine of Siena, Saint (1347–1380)

Catherine of Siena, Saint (13471380)

A mystic and visionary, and a noted literary figure of the early Italian Renaissance, Catherine Benincasa was born in the Tuscan town of Siena to a wool dyer. She experienced religious visions as a child and withdrew to a tiny room in her father's house, taking little food, practicing selfmortification, sleeping on a hard wooden plank, and living the life of a religious hermit. After joining the Dominican order at the age of eighteen she gradually ended her solitude, tending to the poor and the sick, even as the city was struck by a deadly outbreak of plague. She attracted a small crowd of devoted followers and became famous throughout the city and its surroundings for her virtue and saintliness. She was often called on to mediate disputes and involved herself in the wars between the church and several cities of northern Italy that had banded together to rebel against papal authority. When Pope Gregory XI raised an army to threaten Florence, one of the rebel cities, she traveled to the papal court in Avignon, France, to mediate the conflict. After arriving in Avignon, she urged the pope to return his court to Rome, against the opposition of French cardinals who were then dominating the church administration.

After the death of Gregory, his successor Urban followed her advice and returned to Rome, but the church was soon split between two candidates; Catherine supported Urban, elected by the cardinals of Rome, against Clement, supported by the French. Catherine diligently wrote to the men involved in this Great Schism, attempting through sheer force of personality and eloquence to heal the breach. Impressed by her insight and the force of her personality, Urban invited her to live in Rome, where she died in 1380. Her literary works include several hundred letters written to the popes and princes of Europe and the Dialogue of Divine Providence. Catherine was revered throughout Europe for her asceticism and her devotion to the church, as well as her startling and energetic involvement in worldly affairs. She was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Catherine of Siena, Saint (1347–1380)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Catherine of Siena, Saint (1347–1380)." The Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/catherine-siena-saint-1347-1380

"Catherine of Siena, Saint (1347–1380)." The Renaissance. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/arts-construction-medicine-science-and-technology-magazines/catherine-siena-saint-1347-1380

Catherine of Siena, Saint

Saint Catherine of Siena (sēĕn´ə), 1347–80, Italian mystic and diplomat, a member of the third order of the Dominicans, Doctor of the Church. The daughter of Giacomo Benincasa, a Sienese dyer, Catherine from early childhood had mystic visions and practiced austerities; she also showed the devotion to others and the winning manner that characterized her life. At age 16 she entered the Dominican order as a tertiary and lived at home. In 1370, in response to a vision, she began to take part in the public life of her time, sending letters to the great of the day. She went to Avignon and exerted decisive influence in inducing Pope Gregory XI to end the "Babylonian captivity" of the papacy and return to Rome in 1376. She helped bring about peace between the Holy See and Florence, which had revolted against papal authority. In the Great Schism, she supported the Roman claimant, Pope Urban VI, and worked vigorously to advance his cause. She also advocated a crusade against the Muslims. In 1375 she is supposed to have received the five wounds of the stigmata, visible only to herself until after her death. She became the center of a spiritual revival and a formidable family of devoted followers gathered around her. Though she never learned to write, she dictated hundreds of letters and a notable mystic work, commonly called in English The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena or A Treatise on Divine Providence (or both as title and subtitle), which has been much used in devotional literature. She was canonized in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Feast: Apr. 29. The accounts of her life collected by her followers were used in a biography by her confessor, Fra Raimondo da Capua (1398).

See Saint Catherine as Seen in Her Letters (ed. by V. D. Scudder, 1905); biographies by A. Curtayne (1929), S. Undset (tr. 1954), and J. M. Perrin (tr. 1965); F. P. Keyes, Three Ways of Love (1963); S. Noffke, ed., Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue (1980); R. Bell, Holy Anorexia (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Catherine of Siena, Saint." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Catherine of Siena, Saint." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catherine-siena-saint

"Catherine of Siena, Saint." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/catherine-siena-saint