The mummified head of Italy’s second patron saint looks out with sunken eye sockets and 800 year old yellowed skin from within a reliquary in a chapel adorned with frescoes by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi or Il Sodoma, in the back of Siena’s cavernous Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico. Her head is separated by some 140 miles from her body, which rests in Rome – the Eternal City – in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
This is the Catholic Church at its most macabre. A morbid relic of not just a woman and a saint, but of the Church’s dark past. Curios like this are scattered across the globe, creating a theatre grotesque of Catholicism that lingers in the hidden corners of dark churches and antique Basilicas like this one in the grand Gothic city of Siena.
Catherine – saint of Siena – led a wonderful if somewhat curious life – full of piousness, religion, politics, philosophy and a rather large collection of slightly bewildering stories. We uncovered a few of these intrigues during a recent trip to the city and have added them below- starting at the top – or rather – the grisly end.
Saint Catherine’s Head
Though born in Siena, St. Catherine died in Rome in 1380 where she was buried – whole. It wasn’t until 1383, on the 13th of October, that Saint Catherine’s former spiritual advisor – the Blessed Raymond of Capua of the Dominican Order, decided to send, in secret, her head to Siena – at the same time her body was moved from its original resting place in the Cemetery of the Friars to the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
The story of the dark day in which her head was severed is an intriguing one. Apparently, in its original spot – the body of Saint Catherine was left overly exposed to the elements. The body had become damp and fragile because of damage from heavy rain waters – and therefore, it was easy enough, apparently with little violence, to simply remove the head from the body. There’s been minimal evidence provided, though there have been a series of tests carried out on the base of the skull which shows that the first few cerebral vertebrae, as well as the nerves and tendons had all but deteriorated to almost nothing – which would have facilitated an easy head removal.
Over the years the head of Saint Catherine of Siena has been involved in a controversy or two – the rascal. On the night of the 3rd of December, 1531 – the church and the holy head were almost destroyed by fire, and another time during a religious procession, locals from the Fontebranda district of Siena attempted to steal the head – though they dropped it in the middle of the road – a sign of resistance perhaps?
A Mystical Marriage
Catherine of Siena has a CV on par with that of Jesus himself. Birthed in Siena to lower-middle class parents and one of 26 children, Catherine showed from an exceptionally early age her devotion to the Church. She experienced visions, levitated, healed the sick, lived on a bread and wine only diet (the holy Eucharist), had visions of Christ, Mary and Satan, received the conveniently invisible stigmata and is one of the voices responsible for bringing the Papacy back from Avignon in France to Rome – though whether she was indeed responsible has been the source of much debate in recent years. Either way, she was heavily involved in politics – ensuring several cities remained neutral during Rome’s bitter rivalry with Florence (and others) during The War of the Eight Saints and later – helping at least as far as negotiations were involved to finally bring about peace.
Her political, personal and religious life has been written about extensively – both during and after her lifetime – the most notable of which is undoubtedly the works of Raymond of Capua. There’s also some intriguing evidence of Catherine’s personality, her teachings and work found in her four hundred letters – sent throughout the religious and political worlds of the time, her Dialogue, and her prayers. One of the most intriguing stories from Catherine of Siena’s past comes in the form of her marriage – described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus.
It was at the tender age of 21, in the year 1368 when Catherine experienced this “Mystical Marriage”. This itself isn’t the most surprising part though. No, this comes in a somewhat stranger form – the ring. Perhaps symbolic, maybe perverse – Saint Catherine was said to have received not a ring of beautiful jewels and gold, but instead a ring made from the foreskin of Jesus Christ. The saint herself mentioned this rather unsanitary ring in one of her letters.
Thou art a bride, for Christ in His circumcision showed that He would wed the human race.Saint Catherine of Siena
In The Life of St. Catherine of Siena by the Blessed Raymond of Capua – this is also mentioned alongside Saint Catherine’s statement that she was told by Christ to “leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world.” It was then, complete with, we hope, a symbolic and invisible foreskin-ring (much like Catherine’s stigmata, which she claimed was made invisible through prayers, Catherine was said to imply that the foreskin-wedding-ring was invisible), that Catherine rejoined her family and helped the ill and the poor – it was these pious activities that attracted her group of followers – eventually elevating her to sainthood.
The stories of Saint Catherine are varied and intensely interesting for anyone even remotely interested in the history of the Church and theology – and Siena – the city of Catherine’s birth is as good a place as any to begin learning about her. To see Saint Catherine’s head for yourself – pay a visit to the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico and work your way to the back right hand corner where you’ll find the a series of pretty chapels, Saint Catherine’s head and sometimes her finger – though it wasn’t there when I visited – perhaps they’re still searching for the ring?