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Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510)

Italian mystic who, thwarted in her desire to become a nun, continued to deepen her religious fervor into a remarkable mysticism, one side of a "double life," which was combined with an active role in the secular world. Name variations: Catherine or Caterinetta Adorno; Catherine Fieschi; Caterinetta Fieschi. Born in autumn 1447 in Genoa, northern Italy; died on September 15, 1510, at the

Pammatone Hospital, Genoa; daughter of Giacomo Fieschi, viceroy of Naples, and Francesca di Negro; married Giuliano Adorno, on January 13, 1463; children: none.

As daughter of noble parents in one of Italy's most important cities, demonstrated early in life that she was more concerned with the life of the spirit than bodily pleasures; attempted to become a nun (1460), at age 13; pressured into marriage by her family at age 16 (1463); distanced herself from her spiritual impulse, first isolating herself in misery and then attempting to live the social life expected of her (1463–73); received a powerful, transforming vision, which she called her "conversion" (1473); devoting herself to the life of the spirit, fasted for up to six weeks at a time, existing only on salt water and the eucharist; spent hours each day in prayer and continued to receive intimate visions of God and revelations concerning the nature of divine love and sin and other mysteries of her faith, combining this intense spirituality with an active physical life of service to the poor and sick (1473–96); served as director of the Pammatone Hospital in Genoa (1490–96); died age 63, her physical vitality apparently burned away by her consuming love of God (1510).

The plague struck early in the spring of 1493, and the people of Genoa died in the thousands throughout that summer. Four-fifths of those who remained in the city perished. Catherine of Genoa, director of the great Pammatone Hospital, did not for a moment consider leaving her post. Instead, as the building filled to bursting with the sick and dying, she had tents set up in the grounds, and she tirelessly cared for the hundreds who sought her spiritual and material comfort.

Catherine Fieschi was born into a powerful and wealthy Genoese family, the youngest of five children, three boys and two girls. Her mother Francesca di Negro was of noble blood, and her father was the former viceroy of Naples. Despite her powerful family connections—Pope Innocent IV was a relative on her father's side—Catherine was denied permission to enter into the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in 1460 because she was only 13.

As a child, she seems already to have been inclined to simplicity and piety. The author of the earliest and most detailed biography of Catherine, who was probably her friend and disciple Ettore Vernazza, records in the Vita e Dottrina how devout she was. At the age of about eight "beginning to dislike the soft indulgence of her bed, she laid herself down humbly to sleep on straw, with a block of hard wood under her head, in the place of pillows of down." An image of the suffering Christ, which she kept in her room, caused her to be convulsed with grief. Unimpressed by riches, "she led a very simple life, seldom speaking with any one, very obedient to her parents, well skilled in the way of divine precepts, and zealous in the practice of the virtues."

Catherine seems to have decided to follow her older sister Limbania Fieschi into the religious life, and it was to her sister's convent that she unsuccessfully applied in 1460. The early death of her father in 1461 meant that control of the family's affairs passed to Catherine's oldest brother, and it was he who decided that the pious, almost reclusive young woman should marry. Beautiful and wealthy, she was certainly not without suitors. At age 16, Catherine was married off, against her wishes, to Giuliano Adorno. The match was made purely for political reasons; the marriage represented a healing of a long-standing feud between two powerful families.

With her ambition of devoting herself to God thwarted, Catherine endured ten years of great unhappiness. For the first five years of her marriage, she withdrew from society almost entirely and lapsed into a lonely, melancholy state during which she took little interest in anything. Whether her husband's behavior was the cause of her withdrawal or whether Catherine's obvious unhappiness provoked her husband to neglect her, we cannot be sure. Certainly the couple did not spend much time together, and Giuliano, while squandering the family's fortune, acquired a mistress and an illegitimate daughter.

Perhaps at the urging of her family, perhaps in an attempt to save her faltering marriage, Catherine came out of seclusion after five years, and between 1467 and 1473 she became more involved in the life appropriate to her social class in the busy, cosmopolitan port city of Genoa. According to her biographer, she became "devoted to external affairs and feminine amusements, seeking solace for hard life, as women are prone to do, in the diversions and vanities of the world, yet not to a sinful extent." But involvement in the world satisfied Catherine no more than withdrawal from it had done, and her life was to be utterly transformed once again as the result of a mystical experience she received on the feast day of St. Benedict, March 22, 1473.

The night before St. Benedict's day, Catherine had gone, in desperation, to the church named after the saint and had prayed that God might keep her sick in bed for three months, so disgusted was she with all the worldliness that surrounded her. The next day, she went to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, persuaded by her sister to make her Lenten confession. Her biographer describes the event in minute detail:

The moment she knelt before [the priest], she was wounded so forcibly with the love of God, and received so clear a revelation of her misery and faults, and of the goodness of God, that she had well nigh fallen to the ground. Overpowered by these emotions … she was so drawn away by her purified affections from the miseries of the world, that she became almost beside herself; and without ceasing, internally repeated to herself, in the ardor of love: "No more world, no more sin." And at that moment if she had possessed a thousand worlds, she would have thrown them all away.

Catherine was overcome by the feeling that all her imperfections were being burned away by God's love and that a bright light was illuminating her soul so that she could understand God's goodness, physical manifestations of her spiritual experience, which were to stay with her for the rest of her life. On this occasion, she "lost entirely all consciousness through this sweet wound of love, so that she could not speak." Unable to complete her confession, Catherine was taken home where she had more visions, including one of the bleeding Christ carrying his cross, "and this vision so inflamed her heart, that she was more than ever lost in love and grief."

In discussing the impact of these visions, Friedrich von Hugel, author of The Mystical Element of Religion, a massive and complex study of Catherine and her ideas, has observed: "Something profoundly real and important took place in the soul of that sad and weary woman." She had begun the first stage of what was to be a spiritual journey, a journey that was in many ways to resemble, and in other significant ways to be markedly different from, other such mystical progressions.

And to him who seeks to know what it is that I know and feel, I can only reply that it transcends all utterance.

—Catherine of Genoa

In order to more clearly understand the nature of Catherine's spiritual transformation, it is essential to examine a little of the devotional context of Western Europe during the later Middle Ages. The medieval period is often, somewhat simplistically, presented as an "Age of Faith." It was that, but it was also much more. By the mid-12th century, popular devotion was beginning to assume a more personal and less institutional character. While the services of the church—the Mass and sacraments—were still central to the Catholic faith, private prayer and other individual devotional practices were becoming more important. At this time also the first well-known and influential female mystic Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) emerged.

By the late medieval period, mystics had become a familiar part of the spiritual landscape, increasing in numbers during the 14th and early 15th centuries as the institutional church was assailed, first by the relocation of the papacy from Rome to Avignon and then by the Great Schism. The Schism was a bitter dispute, which saw the church, the "body of Christ" on earth, with two heads. For almost four decades, two, and occasionally three opposing popes, claimed rightful jurisdiction.

For the mystics, the troubles of the church establishment were peripheral, if not irrelevant, to their spiritual progress. These women, and most of the mystics we know about were female, were able to develop an intense familiarity with God by entering ecstatic states that we might call trances or out-of-body experiences. In such situations, God would reveal himself, usually speaking directly to the mystic, who would recall and record the nature of her visions once her trance-like interlude was over.

Should we then regard Catherine as being simply part of a trend towards the personal in the spiritual realm, which increasingly, and most interactively, expressed itself in mysticism? In the years that followed her "conversion" in 1473, her theology unfolded, and it seems logical to place it in the tradition of the revelations of Hildegard, Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena . Yet Hildegard was a German abbess, Mother Julian was an anchoress (recluse), and Catherine of Siena was a Dominican nun. Women traditionally chose between marriage or the life of the spirit, hence the convent or the anchoress' cell. The best that a pious married woman of the time might be expected to do, in terms of her spiritual development, would be to give money to the church and to the poor, to purchase or commission elaborate Books of Hours or, if she were extremely pious, to pray regularly and perform occasional tasks of a charitable nature. Catherine was to prove a notable exception to such stereotypical expectations.

One early, tangible sign of the change in Catherine's life, the shaping of her new spiritual identity, occurred in May 1474: "The Lord gave her the desire for holy communion, which she never lost during her whole life…. [S]he was often summoned to receive it, by priest inspired by God to give it to her." The faithful believed the body of Christ was present in the bread, consecrated during the ceremony of the Mass, and although devotion to the eucharist had grown in intensity as part of the increasingly personal trend in religious devotion, it was still considered somewhat irregular to receive it frequently. Catherine's biographer reveals that she "envied no one in this world" but the priests "who received whenever they wished, without causing remarks from anyone."

Particularly fervent devotion to the eucharist can be observed in the lives of many late medieval mystics, with Catherine of Siena being a notable example. Another element that many of the female mystics shared was the practice of rigorous fasting. Catherine's Vita describes this next step in her spiritual journey:

Some time after her conversion, on the day of the Annunciation of our Lady [March 25 1476], her Love spoke within her, saying that he wished her to keep the fast in his company in the desert, and immediately she became unable to eat, so that she was without food for the body until Easter, and with the exception of the three feast days, on which she had the grace to be able to eat, she took nothing during the whole of Lent.

The recent work of historian Caroline Bynum Walker has persuasively documented the significance of fasting in the lives of female mystics. Walker suggests that since medieval society allowed women such little influence in the political and economic spheres, and often denied them control of decisions affecting their own lives, fasting represented an act of defiance, as well as an act of devotion. For the next 23 years, Catherine's biographer tells us, during Lent and Advent, the six penitential weeks before Easter and Christmas, "she took nothing but a tumblerful of water, vinegar and pounded salt." She described feeling as if the fire of love that was within her instantly dried up the moisture, and her biographer could not have been alone in reacting in amazement: "How wonderful! For no one, however healthy, could bear a drink of this kind, fasting; but she described the sweetness that proceeded from her burning heart as so great, that even this harsh beverage refreshed her." He records also that, during these times of fasting, "she slept better, and felt stronger and more active," although she insisted that the fasting was not a penitential act on her part, for she did not choose it. Rather, she said, she was physically unable to swallow food, much as she might try. Yet, on the days preceding and following the penitential periods, she was able to eat quite normally.

Such bodily deprivation would have been considered exceptional, even for the most devout recluse, but Catherine had still to maintain her involvement with the world. A few months after Catherine's conversion in the spring of 1473, her husband's extravagances resulted in the loss of his fortune. He was forced to sell or rent his various palaces, and by the autumn his misfortunes, no doubt combined with Catherine's influence, lead to Giuliano's own conversion. It was probably at this time that he told his wife about the existence of his illegitimate daughter whom Catherine accepted and provided for in her will. Giuliano became a lay member of the Franciscan order and spent the rest of his life working with his wife among the poor and sick of Genoa. Having made a vow to abstain from sexual inter-course, the couple moved to a small house, close to the famous Hospital of the Pammatone.

Thus began Catherine's new double life: the interior life of penance and fasting, and the exterior life of active service. To mortify her flesh, she wore a hair shirt, never ate meat or fruit, and slept on thorns. When her relatives came to visit, she spoke as little as possible; as much as she could, she denied herself all earthy pleasures. Her biographer records that sometimes "she was found in a remote place, prostrate on the earth, her face covered with her hands, so completely lost in the sweetness of divine love, that she was insensible to the loudest cry." And yet, "she would be aroused suddenly by the voices of persons calling her, and attend to their smallest wants." With a group of charitable women of the city, the Donne della Misericordia, she visited the poor and sick, cleaning their houses and their vermin-infested clothes.

In 1479, Giuliano and Catherine moved inside the hospital where both were to spend the rest of their lives. She was appointed director (rettora) of the hospital in 1490 and expertly fulfilled this burdensome office for six years. Despite the growing intensity of her internal, devotional life, she directed the hospital through its time of gravest crisis and, says her Vita, "her accounts were never found wrong by a single danaro (farthing)."

Von Hugel describes Catherine's tireless activity in 1493, the year of the plague:

Throughout the weeks and months of the visitation she was daily in the midst, superintending, ordering, stimulating, steadying, consoling, strengthening this vast crowd of panic-stricken poor and severely strained workers.

The Vita gives a vivid account of the death of a pious woman in Catherine's care. During her final days, the woman lost her ability to speak, but Catherine visited her constantly, urging her to "Call Jesus." The dying woman moved her lips "and Catherine, when she saw her mouth so filled, as it were, with Jesus, could not restrain herself from kissing her, and in this way took the fever, and only narrowly escaped death." As soon as she recovered, however, Catherine devoted herself once again to the running of the hospital and the care of the sick.

In 1496, her own health broke down, but there was no discernable medical ailment to account for the weakness and pain she suffered. She could no longer administer the hospital and was forced to abandon her great fasts during Lent and Advent. In the autumn of the following year, her husband Giuliano died. Catherine remarked to a friend a short time later that, although her husband "was of somewhat wayward nature, whence I suffered much mental pain," God had assured her of his salvation. Giuliano carefully provided for "his beloved wife and heiress" Catherine in his will, affirming that she had "ever behaved herself well and laudably towards himself," wanting "to provide the means for her continuing to lead, after his death, her quiet, peaceful and spiritual mode of life."

Despite her increasing frailty, Catherine resolutely continued her spiritual mode of life, but she also remained closely involved with worldly matters. Administration of the complex provisions of her late husband's will forced her to travel, and the frequent changes in her own will, reflecting the deaths of family members or their changing economic circumstances, makes it clear that she vigorously maintained her external interests. From 1506 onwards, she weakened still further, and she was thought to be near death for much of the year 1510. She complained of intense pain in her heart and of the feeling that she was being burned by fire. She was sometimes heard to whisper: "Now my heart seems as if in ashes, I am consuming with love." The physicians who were called could not identify a physical cause nor find any remedies to assist her. On September 10, 1510, less than a week before Catherine's death, they concluded that her illness must be "a supernatural and divine thing, since neither the pulse, nor any of the secretions, nor any other symptom, showed any trace of any infirmity."

By September 12, Catherine was unable to eat or drink; for the next three days, she consumed only the eucharist. She began to vomit blood, black spots appeared all over her body and the following day she lost the ability to speak. At dawn on Sunday September 15, when she was asked by friends who were with her whether she wished to communicate, she pointed towards the sky. "And at this moment, this blessed soul gently expired, in great peace and tranquility, and flew to her tender and much desired Love."

Catherine of Genoa was buried next to one of the walls of the hospital chapel, but when the area was flooded some 18 months later, the coffin was dug up and opened. Her body was found to be perfectly intact, and great crowds flocked to see it. The body was subsequently placed in a marble tomb inside the church, where it may still be seen, resting in its crystal casket. Such was her reputation that she immediately began to be called "blessed," and she was made a Saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Clement XII on May 18, 1733. An indication of her continuing importance in the Catholic Church is the decision of Pope Pius XII to proclaim Catherine Patroness of the Hospitals in Italy in 1944.

We know more about Catherine of Genoa's exterior and interior lives than we do about most women of her time, yet this knowledge is based almost entirely on three sources, all previously thought to have been written by Catherine herself. The Vita e Dottrina was probably the work of her closest disciple Ettore Vernazza; The Spiritual Dialogue, also sometimes entitled The Pure Love of God, was compiled from Catherine's teachings, perhaps by Vernazza's daughter Mother Battistina ; and the Trattato, sometimes entitled The Treatise on Purgatory, is a collection of Catherine's sayings and teachings on purgation and purgatory, the only one of the three still thought to be actually written by the saint. While the Vita is the best guide to Catherine's exterior life, it is The Dialogue which best reflects her "inner history," with various allegorical figures reflecting aspects of her character and struggling for control. At the heart of The Dialogue is the conflict between the Soul and the Body, vividly and often poetically depicted in terms of a painful progress towards union with God, with the voice of God sometimes taking part in the discussion.

Catherine's great admirer and biographer von Hugel has observed that she had "a highly nervous, delicately poised, immensely sensitive and impressionable psycho-physical organism and temperament." Her strong mind and will, he concludes, having discovered the support of religion, were able to shape this fragmented, conflicting personality into a strong, coherent whole. She became a saint, he suggests, because she had to, in order to harmonize the potential chaos within her. While, almost a century after von Hugel's analysis appeared, we may be less inclined to agree with his view that Catherine espoused her faith "to prevent herself going to pieces," it is clear that her sensitivity and religious devotion combined to produce one of the most coherent mystical voices of the Christian church.

Like those of her namesake Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa's spiritual insights are compelling and eloquent. Like her namesake, she lived a life of intense physical deprivation. However, almost unique among mystics, Catherine of Genoa was actively "of the world," as a married woman, a hospital director, and a widow. Even after her husband's death, she never became a nun or even joined any of the religious orders that allowed men and women to continue to live independent lives. It was as if such created structures were irrelevant to her active, individual life of spirituality and service. As Catherine, in the allegorical guise of the Soul, recounted in The Dialogue:

She said that no human tongue could describe how inflamed she was with that glowing fire. The love that God manifested to her made her instinctively reject whatever was displeasing to him…. She heeded not the world, the flesh, nor the devil. All devils who opposed her were not so strong as this soul in her union with God, who is the true strength of those who fear, love, and serve him; and so much more because she did not perceive how she could be injured by self, it being in the hands of God and upheld by his goodness.


Catherine of Genoa. Life and Doctrine of Saint Catherine of Genoa. NY: Christian Press Association, 1907.

——. Purgation and Purgatory: The Spiritual Dialogue. Translation and notes by Serge Hughes. Introduction by Benedict J. Groeschel. NY: Paulist Press, 1979.

——. Treatise on Purgatory: The Dialogue. Translated by Charlotte Balfour and Helen Douglas Irvine. London: Sheed & Ward, 1946.

suggested reading:

Butler's Lives of the Saints. Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1956.

Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper and Row, 1959.

von Hugel, Friedrich. The Mystical Element of Religion, as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and her Friends. 2 vols. London: J.M. Dent, 1908.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510)

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Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510)