Saint of the Day – 9 March – St Catherine of Bologna OSC (1413-1463) – aged 49 – Religious Poor Clare nun – born on 8 September 1413 at Bologna, Italy as Caterina dei Vigri and died on 9 March 1453 at Bologna, Italy of natural causes. Patronages – Bologna, Against temptations, Artists, Liberal arts.
Catherine came from an upper class family, the daughter of Benvenuta Mammolini of Bologna and Giovanni Vigri, a Ferrarese notary. She was raised at Niccolo III’s court as a lady-in-waiting to his wife Parisina d’Este (d. 1425) and became lifelong friends with his natural daughter Margherita d’Este (d. 1478). During this time, she received some education in reading, writing, music, playing the viola, and had access to illuminated manuscripts in the d’Este Court library.
In 1426, after Niccolo III’s execution of Parisina d’Este for infidelity, Caterina left court and joined a lay community of beguines living a semi-religious life and following the Augustinian rule. In 1431 the beguine house was converted into the Observant Poor Clare convent of Corpus Domini, which grew from 12 women in 1431 to 144 women by the end of the century. Sister Caterina lived at Corpus Domini, Ferrara most of her life from 1431 to 1456, serving as Mistress of Novices.
She was a model of piety and experienced miracles and several visions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Thomas Becket and St Joseph, as well as future events, such as the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
She wrote a number of religious treatises, lauds, sermons and copied and illustrated her own breviary (see on the right).
In 1455 the Franciscans and the governors of Bologna requested that she become abbess of a new convent, which was to be established under the name of Corpus Domini in Bologna. She left Ferrara in July 1456 with 12 sisters to start the new community and remained abbess there until her death on 9 March 1463. Caterina was buried in the convent graveyard but after eighteen days, a sweet smell emanated from the grave and the incorrupt body was exhumed. It was eventually relocated to a chapel where it remains on display, dressed in her religious habit, seated upright behind glass. A contemporary Poor Clare, Sister Illuminata Bembo, wrote her biography in 1469. A strong local Bolognese cult of Caterina Vigri developed and she became a Beata in the 1520s, but was not Canonised until 1712 by Pope Clement XI.
Catherine’s best known text is Seven Spiritual Weapons Necessary for Spiritual Warfare (Le Sette Armi Spirituali), which she appears to have first written in 1438 and then rewritten and augmented between 1450 and 1456. Although she probably taught similar ideas, she kept the written version hidden until she neared death and then handed it to her confessor with instructions to send a copy to the Poor Clares at Ferrara. Part of this book describes at length her visions both of God and of Satan. The treatise was circulated in manuscript form through a network of Poor Clare convents. It was first printed in 1475 and went through 21 later editions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including being translated in Latin, French, Portuguese, English, Spanish and German. It therefore played an important role in the dissemination of late medieval vernacular mysticism in the early modern period.
In addition, she wrote lauds, short religious treatises and letters, as well as a 5000-line Latin poem called the Rosarium Metricum, the I Dodici Giardini and I Sermoni. These were discovered around 2000 and described by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi – as “now revealed in their surprising beauty. We can ascertain that she was not undeserving of her renown as a highly cultivated person. We are now in a position to meditate on a veritable monument of theology which, after the Treatise on the Seven Spiritual Weapons, is made up of distinct and autonomous parts – The Twelve Gardens, a mystical work of her youth, Rosarium, a Latin poem on the life of Jesus and The Sermons, copies of Catherine’s words to her religious sisters.”
St Catherine represents the rare phenomenon of a fifteenth-century nun-artist whose artworks are preserved in her personal breviary. She meditated while she copied the scriptural text, adding about 1000 prayer rubrics and drew initials with bust-portraits of saints, paying special attention to images of Saints Clare and Francis. Besides multiple images of Christ and the infant swaddled Christ Child, she depicted other saints, including Thomas Becket, Jerome, Paul, Anthony of Padua, Mary Magdalene, her name saint Catherine of Alexandria. Her self-taught style incorporated motifs from needlework and devotional prints. Some saints’ images, interwoven with text and rubrics, display an idiosyncratic, inventive iconography.
Other panel paintings and manuscripts attributed to her include the Madonna and Child (nicknamed the Madonna del Pomo) in the Cappella della Santa, a possible portrait or self-portrait (?) in the autograph copy of the Sette Armi Spirituali, a Redeemer and another Madonna and Child in her chapel.
A drawing of a Man of Sorrows or Resurrected Christ found in a miscellany of lauds has also been attributed to her. St Catherine is significant as a woman artist who articulated an aesthetic philosophy. She explained that although it took precious time, the purpose of her religious art was “to increase devotion for herself and others”.