Today on Museum Bites we’re wrapping up our Italian adventure with a visit to the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico in Siena. On display inside these hallowed walls is the sacre testa (sacred head) of Caterina Benincasa (1347-1380). Pious, obstinate, and hell-bent on sacrifice, Saint Catherine of Siena lived an austere and yet colorful life. Join me for a brief look at this 14th century saint’s rise to fame and the miraculous heist of her mummified head. We begin with saintly bones…
Fun Saintly Fact: Catholics have been venerating the body parts and possessions of saints as far back as the 2nd century. The faithful believe these objects retain the mystical powers of their beloved saints. Collecting and displaying these pieces in elaborate reliquary was especially popular during the plague-ridden Middle Ages. Which brings us to Saint Catherine…
Spirit in the Sky: Caterina Benincasa was born in Siena, Italy just one year after the Black Death ravaged the city. She was the 23rd child of Lapa and Giacomo di Benincasa. Despite her family’s wealth, many of Caterina’s siblings died in infancy, including her twin sister, Giovanna. When Caterina was six years old she experienced her first vision, an image of Jesus Christ sitting on his throne above the Basilica di San Domenico in Siena.
By age seven, Caterina pledged her virginity to Jesus and began holding prayer circles with her gaggle of girlfriends. At 12, Caterina was considered ready for marriage. Persuaded by her mother and Bonaventura, a favorite older sister, Caterina began dying her hair, donning fancy dresses, and making more of an effort with her appearance. However, after Bonaventura’s death, Caterina returned to her pious and unprimped lifestyle, flat out refusing to marry. Her father and brothers were adamant she wed, but like an angsty teenager Caterina dug her heels in. And to hit the point home, she cut off her hair.
Cinderella Years: Caterina was promptly punished for her obstinance. She was kicked out of her bedroom and consigned to do menial labor around the house while suffering the verbal abuse of her family. But Caterina remained firm and her father eventually gave her permission to join the Sisters of Penitence, a tertiary of the Dominican Order. Comprised of uncloistered widows, the Sisters of Penitence initially balked at the idea of a young, single woman joining their ranks. Once again the headstrong Caterina persisted. Eventually, they too gave in but only if Caterina was not beautiful. She passed the ugly test and her path to sainthood began to take shape.
It Hurts So Good: Caterina not only embraced her religious life, she clutched it in a chokehold. In a show of devotion to God and to atone for the sins of the world, Caterina lived a life of extreme austerity. She ate little, prayed often, and when exhaustion overtook her, slept on a wooden plank. Gradually Caterina ate less and less, with some accounts claiming the only food she consumed was her daily Holy Communion. Other reports indicate she took pains to limit her amount of sleep, getting only ½ hour every two days. And if that weren’t enough, she practiced daily self-inflicted flagellation.
Three times a day, she shed the blood from her body to render to her Redeemer blood for blood.
~ Friar Raimondo delle Vigne, St. Catherine’s biographer & confessor
Blinded By the Light: Caterina’s harsh self-discipline led to a series of hystero-epileptic attacks which included more visions and several bouts of stigmata. Furthermore, by pledging her virginity to Christ, Caterina like all nuns believed she was in a spiritual marriage with the Messiah. However, Caterina took it a step further claiming her wedding ring was made from the foreskin of her godly groom.
Her extreme piety and mystical reputation grew and caught the attention of church leaders. Caterina became more involved in church politics and served as a mediator for Pope Urban VI (c1318- 1389) during the Great Schism of the West.
Head Case: At age 33, Caterina suffered a massive stroke believed to be related to her self-imposed starvation and punitive lifestyle. Entombed in Rome, Caterina’s followers, especially her confessor and biographer, Raimondo delle Vigne (c1330-1399) were desperate to bring her home to Siena. Raimondo paid a visit to her tomb and legend has it, somehow managed to smuggle her head and thumb into a knapsack. As Raimondo was leaving, a guard demanded to see what was inside the sack and miracle of miracles, all he saw was a cache of rose petals. Cleared for takeoff, Raimondo whisked Caterina’s sacre testa and thumb to Siena where today they are on display inside the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico. The Basilica website denies any foul play in the acquisition of Caterina’s head. Click on this Caterina’s sacre testa link for a more practical explanation.
The rest of Caterina’s remains have been entombed in marble and are on display under the alter of the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. Caterina was canonized into sainthood by Pope Pius II (1405-1464) in 1461. She is the patron saint of Siena, Italy, and Europe, and her feast day is celebrated on April 29th.
That wraps up our brief look at the life and lore of Saint Catherine of Siena. I’ll be back with more Museum Bites after the 4th of July break. In the meantime, have a fun and festive holiday.
Cover photo by cjverb (2019): St. Catherine of Siena possibly by Vecchietta (c1445), Duomo di Siena.