In portraits, St. Catherine of Siena appears as at right, with a sprig of lilies and wearing the black-and-white habit of the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic, the society of Dominican tertiaries to which she belonged. History knows her as Catherine Benincasa, the persuasive mediator who negotiated peace between Florence and the papacy and who was behind Pope Gregory XI's decision to return the papal court to Rome after its long stay in Avignon. (Less persuasively, she also urged on Gregory and his successor a thorough reform of the clergy.)
But in art and literature she is better known for her intense mystical experiences. These were detailed shortly after her death in a biography by Raymond of Capua, her confessor.1 Some of the most notable experiences narrated by Raymond include:
CATHERINE AND THE ROSARY
The iconography associates St. Catherine with the rosary, even though this prayer is mentioned neither in Raymond, nor in the bull of canonization in 1553, nor indeed anywhere in the Acta Sanctorum's section on this saint.2 Catherine is sometimes portrayed with St. Dominic receiving the rosary from the Virgin and Child, as in the second picture at right and this example. In one painting she appears to be actually stringing a new pair of rosary beads by hand, an activity still practiced today by many Catholic laywomen.
In 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Catherine of Siena one of the patron saints of Europe. The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva has a painting of her in this new role which may influence her iconography in years to come (third picture on the right).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-16