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29.4.08

Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

Having spent a magical summer studying Dante in Siena, I could not let April 29 go by without observing the feast of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). A Dominican tertiary, Caterina Benincasa lived most of her life as a lay person, organizing a network of people to help the poor and sick in Siena. She was both an intense mystic (like Dante she described visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, as well as many other ecstatic revelations) and one of the most influential women in medieval history, through her letters and private counsel given to the Pope and other church and secular leaders. She may be more responsible than any other single person for the eventual return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome.

On an embassy to Rome to support the claim of Urban VI during the Great Schism, she died on April 29, 1380. She was buried in the Roman church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (she was staying with the Dominicans there when she had a fatal stroke), but her head was brought back to Siena by subterfuge, where it is kept in the church of San Domenico. For her theological writings, especially the Dialogue, she was given the rare honor of being named a Doctor of the Church.

Image: Giovanni di Paolo, Disputation of St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, c. 1460 (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) -- with thanks to the excellent Web Gallery of Art

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