Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi

The Making of a Counter Reformation Saint

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Clare Copeland
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The religious reformations of the 16th century resulted in a reevaluation of saints in Christianity. While tradition and canonizations—the official recognition of a person as a saint—had been the ways in which Catholicism supplemented its roster of these holy persons, the creation of the Congregation of Sacred Rites in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V overhauled this process. Modifications to the canonization procedure continued throughout the subsequent decades and centuries. The 17th century was a crucial time for these changes, which are examined at length by Clare Copeland in her book Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: The Making of a Counter-Reformation Saint (1566–1607), concerning a Carmelite nun from Florence.

Saints are persons who both exemplify a religion and are regarded as having greater proximity to the divine than most believers. Catholicism has long stressed the importance of these holy men and women to the faith, since they are models to emulate through their exceptional virtue. Saints also petition God on behalf of supplicants to intercede and answer prayers in the form of miracles. Healing someone of a physical ailment, exorcising the possessed, or inducing a spiritual change, whether through apostasy or the abandonment of a worldly existence, are examples of how saints intervene in the affairs of the living. During their lifetimes, potential saints exhibit peerless Christian virtue and interact with the divine through prophecies, visions, and ecstasies. Traditional overviews of canonizations tend to privilege the role of popes in the recognition of saints. Instead, as Copeland argues, closer attention must be placed on the agents who advocated on behalf of their candidates. The author proficiently navigates through the rotating cast of supporters of the Carmelite nun, most of whom were staunchly local.

Maria Maddalena was linked closely to Florence; it was where she was born, entered the cloister, and died. The city thus developed a close relationship with her. The Medici ruling family, for example, supported her cause of canonization. But far more important were the sisters of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Maria Maddalena spent the entirety of her life as a nun. Her Carmelite sisters realized the importance of documentation to a holy person’s reputation for sanctity. They recorded statements Maria Maddalena made during her ecstasies and other curious episodes that happened during her lifetime. After her death, the women of Santa Maria degli Angeli were intermediaries who allowed access to Maria Maddalena’s body, supplied interested parties with relics, collaborated with her biographers, gathered reports on her miracles, and lobbied powerful persons and families to support her cause. These cloistered women were not solely responsible for the canonization of Maria Maddalena, but their involvement was as significant as the popes who considered her sainthood.

Copeland combines a chronological examination of the canonization process from Maria Maddalena’s lifetime with her final recognition as a saint by Pope Clement X in 1669. Along the way, we see the bucket brigade of collaborators who worked with the sisters of Santa Maria degli Angeli to have Maria Maddalena designated as a saint, including the Jesuits, the Medici, a Flemish merchant in Naples, and the Pacs of Lithuania. Most prominent of these agents, as examined in chapter 7, was the powerful Barberini family, which included popes, cardinals, and nuns at Santa Maria degli Angeli. These women petitioned their siblings and relatives to create a Carmelite sister-house in Rome, the Santissima Incarnazione or Le Barberine. The result was a conduit between Rome and Florence, which further aided the cause of canonization. Though in convents and technically shuttered off from the world, the Carmelite nuns were actively involved in the process to have Maria Maddalena named as a saint.

One of the strengths of Copeland’s book is her ability to weave together disparate topical strands into a coherent and cogent whole. For example, a recurring theme is the divisions within the Carmelites that resulted in some unwillingness by the male members of the Order to involve themselves in the canonization efforts. Some of this was due to the formation of the Discalced Carmelites associated with Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) in Spain, which broke away from the Carmelite Order. Some of the monks regarded Maria Maddalena and her peers at Santa Maria degli Angeli as yet another female splinter group. They feared that recognizing the sanctity of Maria Maddalena would legitimate any fractures in the Order, although this assessment was unjustified.

Copeland also integrates other canonizations, successful and unsuccessful alike, into her narrative, which conveys the challenges to having someone recognized as a saint during the 17th century. For every Ignatius Loyola or Rose of Lima whose sainthood was confirmed, there were the stalled and abortive processes for Bernardo de Monroy and Margherita da Cortona (151–52).

Well-researched, clearly argued, and beautifully written, Copeland in her case study of the canonization of Maria Maddalena provides an exemplary framework with which to examine sanctity through the acknowledgment of devotional practices and objects along more secular maneuvering with political and ecclesiastical elites. Key also is the central place of women in the interpretation of sanctity and lobbying for the official recognition of sainthood. While there are moments where narrative is prioritized over analysis, this is a minor complaint about Copeland’s monograph, which ought to be essential reading for scholars, students, and interested readers in Catholicism and its relationship with its saints, especially on the topics of canonizations, miracles, and holy women.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan E. Greenwood is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clare Copeland is an independent scholar.


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