April 29th is the feast day of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80), one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic Church.
Catherine was born on March 25th 1347, to Giacomo di Benincasa, a cloth-dyer, and his forty-year old wife, Lapa Piagenti, in the city of Siena. One of twins, she was her mother’s twenty-third/fourth child. However, Catherine would prove to be quite different from her many siblings. She had her first vision of Christ when she was five or six years old. At the age of seven she vowed to dedicate the whole of her life to him and fourteen years later she had a vision in which she became his bride. However, instead of a gold ring, the groom placed his prepuce on her wedding finger. Catherine became a tertiary nun of the Dominican Order and was instrumental in restoring the papacy to Rome. In 1309, as a result of a conflict between the papacy and the French Crown, the pope and his court had moved to the city of Avignon, where it remained until 1377.
Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa died in Rome on April 29th, 1380, and was interred in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The marble effigy of St Catherine has been attributed to the sculptor Isaia da Pisa (active 1447-64).
On October 13th, 1383, Raymond of Capua, Catherine's confessor and biographer, knowing how much it would have pleased her fellow citizens, if she had been buried in the city of her birth, decided that at least part of her should return home. And so he removed her head and dispatched it to Siena. There, it was carried through the streets in procession to the church of San Domenico, where it remains to this day. Catherine’s own mother, who lived until she was almost ninety years of age, walked in the procession behind the venerated relic of her daughter.
The much revered Sacra Testa (Holy Head) is housed in a tabernacle in the Cappella di Santa Caterina. The tabernacle was carved in 1466 by Giovanni di Stefano, while the walls of the chapel were frescoed by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as Il Sodoma.
St Catherine was canonised by Pope Pius II on June 29th 1461. She was proclaimed a patron saint of Italy in 1939, and of Europe in 1999.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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