St. Catherine Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

St. Catherine 1347?-1380

Italian mystic and saint. Also known as Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa.

One of the most popular of Catholic saints, Catherine of Siena was noted not only for her religious devotion and charitable service to the underprivileged but also for her eloquent, forceful, and controversial involvement in the politics of the Roman Catholic Church and of Italian city-states. Her mysticism was combined with a strong belief in the practical relief of human suffering. During her lifetime she gained legendary status, which only increased after her death due to her considerable following. Her literary work displays her intellectual independence and passionate engagement with both the spiritual and institutional aspects of Christianity.

Biographical Information

Catherine's life experiences were deeply influenced by her spirituality, and the immediacy of this relationship between the worldly and the divine is constantly manifested in her writings. Her life prior to the time that she joined the order of San Domenico at the age of eighteen is somewhat uncertain, due to the difficulty of separating out accurate accounts of this early period from the myths that circulated around her. Her birth date is usually given as 1347, although there is some evidence that this date was fabricated in order to make her thirty-three at her death, the same age as Christ at his death. Catherine was the second youngest of twenty-five children born to Lapa and Jacopomo Benincasa (a wool-dyer by trade), who enjoyed moderate wealth and status in the city of Siena. As a young child, Catherine displayed imagination, independence, and spiritual devotion; a 1374 biography claims that she experienced her first vision during her early childhood. Although she had no formal education, by the time she was an adolescent she had developed, according to Suzanne Noffke, "a passion for the truth of things"—one that led her to reject the more conventional path of marriage in favor of the Church. When Catherine was eighteen, she joined the Dominican order and began a period of extreme isolation. During this time she learned to read, although there is no documentation regarding her schooling or education. In 1368 she felt called to end her solitude in order to perform works of charity for the poor and the sick, as a way of manifesting her devotion to God. With the ultimate goal of helping to unite the Church, she also began to intervene in the political conflicts between the papacy and Italian city-states and to vehemently call for another crusade to the Holy Land; at times this activism put her life in danger, a risk she embraced in the light of her explicit desire to become a martyr. She traveled extensively around Italy in order to counter anti-papal influence. At the same time, her mystical experiences became central to her life: she was frequently unable to sleep or eat, and on one occasion she "died": for several hours she was unconscious and later claimed to have experienced a spiritual union with the divine. Her deteriorating health between 1378 and 1380 reflects in part divine and diabolic visions of increasing frequency that eventually prevented her from eating anything at all. Catherine of Siena died in Rome on April 29, 1380. In 1970 she became one of only two women in the Roman Catholic Church to earn the title of doctor ecclesiae.

Major Works

Catherine's political involvement and personal commitments spurred her to write numerous letters, almost four hundred of which are extant; her Il Dialogo (The Dialogue) is the record of a profoundly mystical experience, in which she described offering four petitions to God and receiving four teachings. Her principal works, therefore, reflect the unique fusion of spiritual contemplation and worldly activity that guided her life. Despite her lack of education, she strongly believed in the power of reason within faith and the importance of truth in the service of the glory of God. Her interpretation of Christian doctrine is highly original—arising out of a faith steeped in ecstatic union with the divine, which intensified the controversy surrounding her life and her subsequent canonization by the Church. One of her most striking interpretive images, in The Dialogue is that of the crucified Christ as a bridge between the divine and earthly spheres: three stages (the feet, the heart, and the mouth) correspond to three movements of the soul (by affections, by love that mirrors the love of Christ, and toward peace after its conflicts with sin). The Dialogue was, according to legend, dictated during a five-day period of ecstasy; her letters show, however, that she worked on it for somewhere close to one year. The dialogue explains four petitions Catherine offered to God and the elaborate responses she received. This text stands as the most comprehensive account of Catherine's understanding of Christian doctrine, as it explains, among other ideas, the path of salvation, the goal of spiritual contemplation, and the role of the Church in faith. Le Orazioni contains transcriptions of what Catherine said during her almost daily states of ecstasy in the last few years of her life. The thoughts documented in this text reflect and explicate some of the ideas in The Dialogue and particularly focus on the issue of God's love for humanity. Catherine's letters (her Epistolario), in contrast to these writings, are addressed to a wide range of correspondents on a variety of political and religious topics. Written in the Sienese dialect, these letters secured Catherine's place as one of the most important women in early Italian literature. According to Karen Scott, the letters are "characterized by a combination of didactic content, personal tone, and passionate concern to affect public matters and people's lives." Catherine understood her own writing to be infused with divine authority; the letters contain teachings directed at specific individuals and groups in particular circumstances, and often speak of her intensely personal spiritual experiences in order to strengthen the faith of her correspondents. The letters are an extension of her charitable works and provide important insights into her understanding of her spiritual role and of the importance of discourse in the transmission of faith.

Textual History

All of Catherine's writings were dictated to and transcribed by nuns or by her confessors, and have been preserved as church documents, but have appeared in a variety of editions. The Dialogue, which was written in 1377-1378 but first published in 1472, survives not in its original form, but in several versions from the fourteenth century; it was edited by Giuliana Cavallini in 1968 according to a thematic organization that reflects the narrative unity of the dialogue rather than the more traditional separation of the text into four sections, corresponding to the four questions. The Orazioni, recorded between 1376 and 1380, were originally spoken in the Sienese dialect but were translated into Latin during Catherine's lifetime and survive in several forms. The letters, also dictated in the last decade of her life, were first published in 1500 and form one of the earliest contributions by a woman to canonical fourteenth-century literature.

Critical Reception

Critics who were Catherine's contemporaries generally fall sharply into two groups: detractors and supporters. For centuries after her death, accounts of her life and writings were permeated by the struggle for canonization. Her work was included in various collections of vernacular literature but has had contradictory evaluations. Her style, as Scott contends, is often "confused" and overly didactic, and the letters, in particular, tend towards repetitiveness. However, recent scholarship has focused on Catherine's use of imagery in articulating her spiritual experiences and on her position as an author: a woman who achieved literacy in a mysterious way (her confessor Raymond of Capua wrote that she had been taught all she knew by the Holy Spirit), one who claimed divine authority and commanded a sophisticated understanding of religious and philosophical ideas; and one who dictated much of her work in the vernacular and during periods of ecstatic communion with the divine. Although she inherited a cohesive set of theological doctrines, she contributed a "fresh and vivid expression of the tradition," as Noffke has claimed, through her personal experiences, both worldly and ecstatic.