14.12.13, Hamburger and Signori, eds., Catherine of Siena

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Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby

The Medieval Review 14.12.13

Hamburger, Jeffrey F., and Gabriela Signori. Catherine of Siena: The Creation of a Cult. Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts, 13. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. ix, 338. ISBN: 9782503544151 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Jeffrey Hamburger and Gabriele Signori’s fascinating collection of essays focuses on the medieval cult of St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), a tertiary of the Dominican order engaged in the struggle to bring the papacy of Pope Gregory XI back to Rome from Avignon. Born to a modest family, she began to see visions and practice extreme austerities from her earliest childhood. At the age of sixteen she took the habit of the Dominican tertiaries. In 1366, she experienced what she described in her letters as a "mystical marriage with Christ," which later became a popular subject in art. Other miracles recounted in the biography written by Raymond of Capua, her confessor and spiritual director, include her experiencing the stigmatization and her receiving communion from Christ. In the early 1370s, she began dictating letters to various confessors. These letters, of which more than three hundred have survived, are considered among the great works of early Tuscan literature. She died in Rome in 1380 and, after a controversial campaign, was canonized by the Sienese pope Pius II in 1461.

Notwithstanding the wealth of studies on Catherine of Siena, this book is among the first attempts to consider the development of the cult of this important female saint, patroness of Europe, in the pre-modern world, and provides a lucid and engaging study of its rhetorical, theological, and cultural significance. The various essays explore the development of the cult from the fourteenth through the sixteenth century in such places as Italy, the German Lands, England, and Bohemia, and reference a vast range of primary sources including sermons, rhetorical treatises, juridical documents, historical chronicles, and visual images in order to construct their rich arguments.

A great deal of research has been devoted to the study of medieval female saints. In 1981 André Vauchez published a voluminous essay on canonization procedures, which dealt at length with female sanctity. Modern gender studies have added a new emphasis and have focused attention on women in the hagiographic tradition. Groundbreaking works include Carolyn Bynum’s Jesus as Mother, which explains the feminization of religious diction, and Holy Feast and Holy Fast, which deals with the importance medieval women placed on food and fasting. Gabriella Zarri has done important work on female saints from the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Other substantial contributions to the literature on female saints can be found in various conference proceedings.

Most contemporary studies focus on the cults of medieval female saints immediately following their canonization, although some follow the cult of a particular saint beyond the Middle Ages. The case of St. Catherine of Siena is a notable example of the latter, and has been the subject of much scholarly attention. Gerald Parsons has examined the role, function, and significance of the cult of St. Catherine as a form of civic religion from the fourteenth through the twentieth century, the spread of her cult, and her role as patroness of Siena, all of Italy, and then of Europe. He has also explored specific aspects of depictions of St. Catherine in paintings and sculptures, especially where they were central to the development of her cult as an expression of civic religion. A particularly important recent publication is A Companion to Catherine of Siena edited by Carolyn Muessig, George Ferzoco, and Beverly Mayne Kienzle (Brill, 2011), which offers an extensive treatment of her cult. Many of the included essays examine Catherine’s role as a church reformer, a peacemaker, a preacher, an author, and a stigmatic. The book looks at the manuscript tradition of Catherine of Siena and deals with the reception of her texts and the diffusion of her cult.

The present volume considers the role of texts, translations, and images in various media in constructing and spreading the cult of St. Catherine of Siena in the late Middle Ages and compares it with the cult of St. Francis of Assisi, taking account of such themes as the imitation of Christ and her stigmatization. A suggested thesis is that it was Raymund of Capua (d. 1399), the master general of the order, who first developed the foundation for the spread of Catherine’s cult by writing the authoritative biography, but it was only the following generation that succeeded in establishing and disseminating it more broadly by means of their copies, adaptations, and translations. The question of how to create a cult, which stands at the center of the volume, thus presents itself in terms of the challenge of rewriting a legend for different audiences. The various contributions consider the role not only of texts in many different vernaculars but also of images, whether separately or in relation to one another.

The volume includes fourteen essays divided into three sections. The introduction by Hamburger and Signori provides a lucid exposition of the essays that follow and describes the earliest literary sources relating to the saint and the attempts of her followers and first biographers to canonize her and spread the cult. The next three chapters, by Kraft, Hohlstein, and Zarri, in the section entitled "Canonization, Cult, and Relics," are dedicated to the earlier stages of the cult, to the arguments between supporters and opponents of Catherine, to the importance of the saint’s miracles, to the significance of her relics for the promotion of her cult, and to the reception of the cult by individual nuns and by female medieval communities in Tuscany.

The next section, "Manuscripts and Prints," which includes essays by Brakmann, Frazier, Luongo, Nocentini, and Scultze, explores the manuscript tradition concerning the saint in German translations, among humanist scholars, in print culture in Venice, and in Italian translations. These offer detailed and careful analyses of the textual traditions regarding St. Catherine in several European languages.

The third section, "Catherine in Words and Pictures," with studies by Bose, Ganz, Mooney, and Tylus, examines the centrality of St. Catherine in the English mystic tradition, the importance of her depictions in texts and pictorial images in Germany, and finally explores questions regarding her literacy and authorship in depth.

A final contribution by Herzig explores Catherine’s reception on the other side of the Alps in Bohemia among the Dominicans.

On the whole, the articles are impressive in the breadth of their scholarship and for the various lenses they engage to examine the cult of St. Catherine. All in all, they offer us a rich picture of how the cult of this particular saint was spread in word and image by distinct media within diverse contexts to a range of audiences.

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Author Biography

Nirit Ben-Aryeh Debby

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev