Catherine of Bologna


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St Clare (1194—1253) Italian saint and abbess


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Franciscan abbess (1413–63).

Artist and writer as well as a saint, Catherine is an impressive example of a specially gifted and devout later medieval woman. She was born at Bologna, the daughter of a professor of jurisprudence. She became the special friend of Margaret, daughter of the Marquis d'Este, sharing her education in both Latin and the art of illumination. She could then have been married to Robert Malatesta, prince of Rimini, but she had decided to consecrate her life to God in the religious life.

After her father's death she joined a group of Augustinian tertiaries at Ferrara. For five years she suffered agonies of doubt and despair, questioning of the truths of faith, and uncertainty about the future of the community. At this time she was the community's baker and feared that the glare of the oven would ruin her sight. Soon she became novice-mistress and wrote a treatise On the Seven Spiritual Weapons, largely autobiographical. Written in 1438, it was first published in 1475, and translated into other languages. At different times of her life she experienced visions and revelations, one of which was of the Virgin Mary who offered her the Infant Jesus to caress.

Her community had adopted the strict Rule of St Clare in 1432; Catherine and others asked for strict enclosure. In spite of local resistance this was granted, and later confirmed by Pope Nicholas V in 1452. The community grew quickly and foundations were requested elsewhere in Italy, notably at Bologna. Catherine was chosen as superior, in spite of her protest that she was ‘not fit to look after the chickens, how much less to care for those consecrated to God.’ The party of sixteen nuns arrived in Bologna in 1456. Very soon adjacent properties were bought to accommodate the new novices.

Her overwhelming kindness was the quality which attracted her most closely to her community. She frequently and devotedly visited the sick and like many true mystics she abhorred external publicity for visions. But by 1463 her health had been undermined, partly by austerities. She spoke her farewell to the community for three hours. The main emphasis was on love. ‘It is impossible to please God without it. Bear each other's burdens, forgive any wrongs committed, enduring with inexhaustible patience whatever results from differences of temperament.’ After her death on 9 March her face became as fresh as that of a 15-year-old. Her body was buried without a coffin and remained in the ground for eighteen days. The cures reported led to it being exhumed. It was found to be incorrupt and was buried in the convent chapel in Bologna. Canonized in 1712, she is honoured with Fra Angelico (John of Fiesole) as a patron of artists. Her miniatures are preserved in her convent, while two larger paintings by her are in art galleries in Bologna and Venice. Feast: 9 March.

Bibl. SS., iii. 980–2;H.S.S.C., vii. 273–4;B.L.S., iii. 84–8.Life by A. Curzola (1941).

Subjects: Christianity.

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