Happy Feast of St. Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena, illustration from The Golden Book of Famous Women,
Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, (1872-145), British Museum, London, UK

Have you ever seen this illustration? Neither had I until seeing in it in the April 2022 issue of Magnificat. Of course, no one has ever seen all the amazing art that has been created but once in a while a piece of art, like this, comes before us and we are taken aback. Here is a Catherine, Doctor of the Church, a solitary woman standing before a group of powerful men; holding her own.

Her bio is familiar to us, one of 26 children born to her mother (though at last 1/2 died in infancy), she was a mystic from her youth, a Dominican laity from the age of 16, and later in life a vocal advisor and critic of both secular politicians and Church officials. This illustration seems perfect for a woman whose conversations with God are recorded in her Dialogue, where we can find Him telling her, “I am who I am, you are she who is not.”

Critiquing the illustration for the Magnificat, professor of art, Elizabeth Lev, says this, “For the Catholic eye, there is more to this image than a woman taming the papal court. Catherine’s life was marked by a series of men – scholars, prelates and nobles – who had heard of her fame and sought her out as either a kind of curiosity or as a woman who needed to be put in her place. With her simple certainty, profound wisdom, and evident special graces, she confounded her detractors and even converted some to her service.”

Their looks are either quizzical, or demanding or dismissive. Where any of them swayed? Of course, some surely were as some continued to be. Her designation as a Doctor of the Church reminds us what she wrote, what she says, remains of value for us for all time.

And what has she written? “So let your heart hold back no longer. Let the city of your soul surrender – for Christ has set fires everywhere, and there is nowhere you can turn, physically or spiritually, without encountering the fire of love.”

I love thinking of those words and pondering this picture. Her side-eye, her downward glance seems to be directed at us as well as those men. How are we with God? Have we abandoned the city of our own souls and set up our tents in the world? I know I am as guilty as the next of finding my phone more easily than my rosary.

But not today. Today in honor of St. Catherine of Siena, I will spend some time exploring the city of my soul more closely. I will pray Jesus help me to do as she proclaimed, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the whole world on fire.”

Sunflower, Faith, Wreath I,
Catherine of Siena

If you would like to explore Miss Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale’s amazing book, you can find it here:


She is illustrating some fictional women such as Hester Prynne written by Nathanial Hawthorne and sharing poetry such as from Samuel Coleridge.

Her beautiful illustrations of our saints – Joan of Arc, page 60, St. Catherine, page 168 and St. Clare, page 180.

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