Catherine of Siena: Between Reality and Legend


posted by on History & Culture

San Domenico church Siena

The San Domenico church in Siena. Photo by Ulrich Stark on Flickr

Undoubtedly one of the most famous saints of Siena, is Catherine of Siena. Born in 1347, this woman was to become an incredibly important figure in Italian history, and later would even be declared a patron saint of Italy. But although much of the information about Catherine is factual, there is also a very special legend…

Catherine of Siena was born to a lower middle class family from Siena. At a young age, and after refusing to be married, she went on to become a nun of the Dominican Order. It is said that even when she was a young woman, she experienced numerous visions and carried out miracles. She was known for being completely selfless, and dedicated much of her time to working with the poor and the sick, in and around Siena. In fact, it was a miracle in itself that this didn’t kill her, as many were suffering from the plague at this time.

Due to her good nature and her good work, Catherine of Siena acquired a following of disciples, with whom she travelled around northern and central Italy. She is renowned for her success is persuading Pope Gregor XI to return the Papacy to Rome, after it had been moved to Avignon in France, 7 years before. The centre of Europe was once again in Rome, and it was largely due to her efforts.

When she finally died at age 33, she was well known throughout the whole of Italy, and it was decided that her body should be buried at the Pantheon in Rome. Legend has it that there were many people in Siena who weren’t too happy with this decision, and believed Catherine, or at least a part of Catherine, should be returned to her home town. Her head had been parted from her body, and so it is said that it was carried away in a bag. When stopped by guards in Rome, they prayed to Catherine for help, believing that she herself would also want to be taken back to Siena. Their prayers worked, and when the guard checked the bag, it was found to contain rose petals. No head in sight. When they were once again safe, the head reappeared once more.

Whether or not there is any truth in this legend, images of Catherine can often be seen holding a rose, and she is now entombed in the basilica of San Domenico, in Siena.
Why not find out more about Siena’s history with a Siena guided tour? Take a private excursion through the beautiful surrounding countryside, including the wonderful San Gimignano, before exploring the medieval streets of Siena and visiting points of historical interest. Pay special attention to your bag though, as you never know who might make an appearance…

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