The head of Saint Catherine of Siena displayed at the Basilica of San Domenico. / Image credit: Giovanni Cerretani via Wikipedia
One of the most captivating displays of saintly relics is at the Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico in Siena, Italy, a town about 45 miles (72km) south of Tuscany. Worshippers and tourists who visit this search can see the mummified head of Saint Catherine of Siena behind a locked, gilded grate. Catherine of Siena (March 25, 1347-April 29, 1380), who was known for her incredible religious visions, was also an influential church reformer and distinguished papal ambassador
Catherine was born to family of 25 children in the town of Siena in central Italy. She became deeply religious at a young age and was known to donate her family’s food and clothing to the poor, sometimes unbeknownst to her family members. As a teenager, she became a tertiary member of the Third Order of Saint Dominic, which allows for simple vows and living outside of a convent or monastery, and helped the poor and sick in her community.
She claimed to have had vivid religious visions throughout her short life starting at around six years old. When she was about 20 or 21 years old, she professed to be in a mystical marriage with Jesus and wore an invisible wedding ring. Some versions of this story say that the ring was bejeweled and others say that it was made out of Jesus’ skin. In 1375, she maintained she received the stigmata, marks on the body that correspond to the location of wounds Jesus sustained during the crucifixion, though these marks were only visible to her.
St Catherine fainting from the stigmata by Il Sodoma, Church of Saint Pantaleon, Alsace, France. / Image credit: Ralph Hammann via Wikimedia Commons
Catherine was used as a diplomat to help mend the rifts in the Catholic Church. She traveled to Pisa in 1375 in an attempt to keep that city loyal to the Italian Papal States, territories in Italy under the direct rule of the Pope from the 8th to the 19th centuries. It was here that she said she experienced the stigmata in 1375. In the summer of 1376, she visited Pope Gregory XI in Avignon, where popes resided starting in 1309, and urged him to return the papacy to Rome. The fact that Pope Gregory XI came back to Rome in 1377 is attributed, in large part, to Catherine’s diplomatic efforts. Pope Gregory XI asked her to help broker a peace between Rome and Florence during the War of the Eight Saints in early 1378, though she had to leave early because she was nearly assassinated. Catherine moved to Rome in 1378 when Pope Urban VI asked her to persuade church leaders that he was the legitimate Bishop of Rome.
Early in 1380, Catherine told the Blessed Raymond of Capua, a leading member of the Dominican Order and her spiritual director, that she was not able to eat or swallow water. She soon lost the use of her legs. Catherine died on April 29, 1380, at the age of 33-years-old, in Rome shortly after suffering a major stroke.
The National Stroke Association states that visual hallucinations, paralysis, and difficulty swallowing, also known as dysphagia, are all post-stroke conditions. It’s possible Catherine had a stroke months before she died because she experienced trouble eating and walking long before she passed. But, since she claimed to have experienced lucid visions as a little girl, it’s possible she had strokes throughout her life.
Legend of a Divine Head
Catherine of Siena was buried at the cemetery near Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Raymond of Capua wanted to send part of Catherine’s body back to Siena to assuage her family and the Sienese. This was a task that he undertook secretly because he didn’t have permission to disperse her remains. Raymond got his chance in 1383 when Catherine’s tomb was moved inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It was then that he arranged for her head to be removed and brought to Siena.
Sarcophagus of St. Catherine beneath the High Altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. / Image credit: Hreid via Wikipedia
Officials of the Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico say when Catherine’s skull was detached, it separated easily from the vertebrae because rainwater had seeped into the grave and sped up decomposition.
According to legend, the people entrusted with this macabre job barely escaped. The head snatchers were stopped by guards as they tried to leave Rome so they prayed to Catherine for help. Miraculously, when the guards checked the thieves’ suspicious bag, all they saw was rose petals. It was only when the head was delivered to Siena did the rose petals change back to Catherine’s head.
St. Catherine’s mummified head was placed in a gilded bust and displayed in the Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico. When the basilica had the skull x-rayed in 1947, church officials discovered that there were no vertebrae attached to the back of the skull. This finding gave a bit of credibility to the story of how her head was removed from the rest of her body. Officials also saw that the skull had smaller, smoother features associated with female remains. When church workers opened the saint’s tomb inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 1855 they saw that her head was indeed missing from the rest of the body.
Catherine’s skull wasn’t the only body part removed from her grave in Rome. Parts of her body were distributed amongst churches throughout Italy. In A Corpse: A History, Christine Quigley states that three of Catherine’s fingers and her left foot are at a church in Venice, a Roman church has a hand and a shoulder blade, and a church in Florence has a rib.
She was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461. But because St. Catherine of Siena made considerable contributions to the church in the 14th century, she was give title of Doctor of the Church in 1970.