Friday, 15 March 2013

Francis and Catherine

On Wednesday, the world witnessed white smoke emerging out of a certain chimney in Vatican City. I must seize the opportunity to pop in Italy for a while as I hadn’t started blogging yet when we spent our latest holiday there one and a half years ago. (We are missing it!)

The new Pope of Argentinean origin, the first non-European Pope in almost 1300 years, took the name of Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was regarded as a promising sign. It remains to be seen whether the hopes for reform raised by his election will be met during his reign.

Saint Francis of Assisi (San Francesco d’Assisi) (1181-1226), also called ‘Il Poverello’ (the poor man), lived in poverty devoting his life to helping others and cherishing all forms of life on earth. As he is the patron saint of animals, environment and ecology, he is often depicted with a bird, a wolf or a fish. He founded the Franciscan Order and followed the teachings of Christ in Christ’s own way, not inside a monastery but preaching among people and giving up all worldly possessions. One of his important teachings was that you should not consider your way to be the only way to God. An ecumenical saint is a saint very much to my liking.

Saint Francis is one of the two patron saints of Italy, the other one being Saint Catherine of Siena (Santa Caterina da Siena or Catharina Senensis) (1347-1380). She is my favourite saint because she is female and often depicted holding a white lily, because I love Italy (and Siena and Rome, in particular), because she is also one of the six patron saints of Europe, and because she is the first one I ever learned anything about. And probably also because of the wonderful statue of her by Piazza Pia in the park surrounding Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome.

The statue is so beautiful and delicate, with the airy long cloak she is wrapped in and the lily in her hand. Seen from another angle, however, she seems to be carrying the weight of the whole world on her slender shoulders as the block of stone she is carved in has been left untouched at the back. This may very well be the sculpture I like the most of all that I have ever seen. Perhaps even more than the Michelangelos and Rodins.

The monument in white marble also includes four reliefs about the life of Saint Catherine. It was made by Francesco Messina and inaugurated in 1962 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of her canonization. Both the symbolism of the statue and the location of the monument at the end of Via della Conciliazione leading straight to St Peter’s Basilica celebrate her life most appropriately.

Saint Catherine worked to gain peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and the papacy that had remained in Avignon since 1309 because of the conflict between papacy and the French crown. She wrote to kings for peace and was also in correspondence with the Pope calling for reforms. In 1376, she was sent to Avignon as ambassador of the Republic of Florence to make peace and convince the Pope to return to Rome. She didn’t succeed but didn’t give up hope and continued to walk every day to St Peter’s Basilica to pray for the Pope’s return, from her Roman home that was close to the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. According to legend, she had impressed the Pope so much that in about six months after her visit the papacy returned to Rome.

Over the years, Saint Catherine ate less and less claiming that she was unable to. Because of the fasting she died after a stroke at the age of 33. Most of her remains lie in a sarcophagus beneath the high altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the church that now has the sculpture of an elephant carrying an obelisk standing in front of it. Her head was taken to Siena and is kept inside a bust in the Basilica of San Domenico.

Although I prefer the life of regular mortals, with the limited knowledge of a Lutheran and despite everything told in the above paragraph, Saint Catherine of Siena remains my favourite saint. 

Photos of stained-glass windows and the two photos below: Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

Basilica of San Domenico in Siena.


  1. Joskus sitä tuntee itsensä suunnattoman pieneksi niinkuin näidenkin kuvien jälkeen, mielettömiä lasimaalauksia ja teoksia, kaunista.

    1. Minäkin usein hämmästelen, että kaikilla muillakin on ja on aina ollut vain ne samat 24 tuntia vuorokaudessa, jotka itseltäni katoavat jonnekin. Ei sillä, että haluaisin olla mitään muuta kuin tavallinen itseni, mutta kuitenkin.