Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin (1347-1380): The Iconography

History knows Catherine Benincasa as 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 were the saint's mystic marriage to Christ (image), her exchange of hearts with the latter (image), her reception of the stigmata (image), a Communion miracle (image), and the revival of her dead mother by Jesus upon the prayers of Catherine (image).

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 (example). In one painting she appears to be actually stringing a new pair of rosary beads by hand, an activity practiced by thousands of devout women through the centuries.

In portraits, Catherine appears as at left, 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.

In 1999 John Paul II proclaimed St. Catherine of Siena one of the patron saints of Europe.  (The others are St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. Bridget of Sweden, SS. Cyril and Methodius, and St. Benedict.) The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, governed by the Dominicans, has a painting of her in this new role which may influence her iconography in years to come.

Feast day: April 29

At left, portrait by Giovanni di Paolo

Other images:
St. Catherine Receives the Stigmata, Beccafumi
Christ Gives St. Catherine Communion
The Virgin Appears to St. Dominic and St. Catherine
 In a painting of Our Lady of the Rosary

See the pages linked in paragraph 1 above for relevant quotations from Raymond of Capua. The English translation of his Life of St. Catherine of Siena is not online, but it is in print and can be purchased through bookstores or online booksellers.



1Raymond of Capua
2Acta Sanctorum April vol. 3, 851-978. The bull is on pages 973-976.