Catherine of Sienna

A Life of Passion and Purpose

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André Vauchez
  • Mahwah, NJ: 
    Paulist Press
    , May
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780809153411.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this short biography renowned scholar of Christian spirituality in the middle ages, André Vauchez, makes the life of Catherine of Siena accessible for scholars of religion, medievalists, and the general public alike. Although he acknowledges that aspects of Catherine’s personality can appear “unattractive to modern sensibilities” (xv), Vauchez presents her as a woman of great passion and conviction. Despite his obvious admiration for Catherine, Vauchez offers a nuanced and balanced view of her life as he carefully integrates her political activities with her vibrant spirituality.

Vauchez begins his study with a biographical sketch that masterfully weaves together different sources on Catherine’s life while providing ample historical context. The greatest strength of this chapter is that it doesn’t idealize Catherine. Vauchez acknowledges that she had a naïve understanding of ecclesiastical politics and the conflicts between nations. Her numerous letters to rulers and members of the Church hierarchy demonstrate that she could be very harsh in her criticism of their failings. Furthermore, Vauchez points out that most of the issues Catherine advocated for ended in failure. Gregory XI did return to Rome, but despite the common perception that he was persuaded by Catherine’s letters, scholars now agree that she had little to do with the decision. The crusade that she tirelessly promoted never happened and her hopes for reform in the Church were dashed by Urban VI’s obsession with solidifying his own authority during the Great Schism. Despite these failures, Vauchez argues that Catherine can be admired for her indomitable spirit and her innovative spirituality. As a laywoman of humble origins who remained unaffiliated with a religious order, Catherine demonstrated that contemplation was attainable for everyone, independent of “social condition or any form of religious life” (31). But Vauchez is careful not to separate her spiritual life from her political engagement. He reminds the reader that “it is the love of Catherine for Christ that was at the root of her zeal for the reform of the Church and the society of her day; and one cannot separate these two aspects of her personality without the risk of missing what is essential” (67).

In his chapter, “Becoming Saint Catherine of Siena,” on the history of Catherine’s sainthood from her death to the present day, Vauchez details the growth of her cult in Venice, its expansion and promotion by the Dominican order, her eventual canonization in 1461, and the dissemination of her writings. When describing her later legacy, Vauchez does not shrink from describing the way she was exploited by Italian militarists during World War I, and later by the fascists, starting in the 1920s. Especially of interest to specialists in medieval and religious studies will be his brief history of the scholarship on Catherine of Siena. Unfortunately, Vauchez’s treatment of “historiography of feminist inspiration” is reductive and dismissive (85). While he devotes over a page to the work of Robert Fawtier, feminist scholarship on Catherine of Siena is given one sentence. Vauchez writes that feminist historians “emphasized the charismatic gifts of these women while presenting these gifts as a kind of compensation for—or even as a form of revenge by—these creatures who had been excluded” (85). It is problematic to reduce feminist scholarship to the emphasis of charismatic gifts, especially in a book targeted to a general audience that may be unaware of the many contributions made by feminist scholars.

The third chapter compares how Catherine was depicted by her hagiographers as opposed to how she depicts herself in her own writings. Vauchez captures well the conflicts faced by her spiritual director and hagiographer Raymond of Capua, since many of the gifts Catherine possessed were “at odds with the notion of femininity prevalent in the culture of the time” (88). Vauchez emphasizes that Catherine’s hagiographers “buried the highly political combat” that characterized most of her public life in order to depict her in a way that conformed to the stereotype of female holiness. His discussion of Catherine’s writings is as well balanced as his biographical sketch. Vauchez states that Catherine is not theologically original and critiques her “highly questionable” ecclesiology (99). Despite these flaws, Vauchez states that “her work has value especially because of the ardor that animates it” (99). He points out that “her purpose is not to innovate but to actualize and make her message accessible by presenting it as something living” (99).

In the final chapter, “In Search of Catherine: An Unconventional Personality,” Vauchez explores Catherine’s personality, legacy, and mystical theology. At first glance, the chapter appears disorganized since it covers diverse, unrelated themes including holy anorexia, whether Catherine is a feminist, authorship, and Catherine’s influence on the Dominican observant movement. But each section contains insightful analysis of different aspects of Catherine’s personality and legacy. If the chapter appears disorganized, it is only because Catherine herself is complex and full of contradictions. The reader is left with admiration for this outspoken woman who Vauchez characterizes as “the first person in the Middle Ages [sp] … to try to establish a link between mysticism and politics” (155-56).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christina Llanes is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

André Vauchez is a historian, member of l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, and Former Director of l'Ecole française of Rome, a medievalist with an international reputation.

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