I was in Italy in August and September this year and visited many medieval sites – in the next few blog posts, I’ll give you some highlights. But first – let’s meet a very odd medieval saint – Catherine of Siena.
In late August, I went to Siena – a gorgeous medieval city in the heart of Tuscany, Italy. This was the home of one of the fourteenth century’s more colourful saints: Catherine of Siena.
From a very early age, she had ecstatic visions of Jesus Christ and underwent some kind of mystical marriage with her Saviour. Some of these visions are, frankly, very disturbing to the modern mind. They included a Dante-like journey through heaven, hell and purgatory and some very intimate encounters with Christ.
In fact, let’s list some of the odd things about Catherine of Siena:
- She claimed to be married to Jesus and had an invisible wedding ring, possibly made out of his skin!
- Jesus gave her this ring when he married her aged 21 – well, this all happened in a vision – and Catherine had a lot of visions!
- Catherine claimed to have the stigmata – the wounds Christ suffered on the Cross. But whereas other saints could display these wounds on their bodies. Nobody could see anything on Catherine’s naked form. She claimed they were only visible to her.
- She treated a fellow nun who probably had breast cancer by placing her mouth on an open sore that was causing the woman pain. Far from comforting the other woman – she begged Catherine to stop but the future saint said she knew what she was doing.
- Catherine took this unorthodox approach to healing to victims of the notorious 14th century pandemic, the Black Death – as well as to somebody suffering from leprosy.
- On her deathbed, she made very disturbing movements which were construed as being attacks by demons. This went on for about 90 minutes, after which she died.
- Catherine was buried in Rome when she died aged only 33 – possibly of a stroke. The people of Siena wanted her body in the home town. So they managed to get her head but not the rest of her body, which remained in Rome.
The Popes during this period weren’t based in Rome but far off Avignon in France. Catherine visited the Pope in his French exile and begged him to return. The saint became very embroiled in the fighting between different Italian states and competing claimants to the throne of Saint Peter.
Her early demise was cited as a stroke – and some of her symptoms suggest strongly this was the cause of death.