Headless nun: why Catherine of Siena deserves a big thumbs up

It’s a bit of a shock to walk into a church and find yourself meeting the dead stare of a severed head.

The Catholic church isn’t known for shying away from dark imagery, but a mummified head from 650 years ago is an exceedingly strange contrast against the stately backdrop of an Italian brick church. The city of Siena, nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany, is widely considered to be a jewel of the region: more manageable than Florence, less touristed than Pisa, and rightly famous for its incredible Duomo. But the surprise star attraction of this city is its icon, Saint Catherine of Siena, whose preserved head adorns the central altar of the Basilica of San Domenico.

One of the Catholic church’s leading ladies, St Catherine was a philosopher, altruist, activist and reformer. The young Catherine shunned the marriage she was destined for, depriving herself of food and shearing off her own hair in protest. When finally free to pursue her own path as a nun, Catherine took to Siena’s hospitals and poorhouses, attracting male and female devotees who supported her quest to reform the clergy. Despite spreading a message of total love for God, Catherine was hauled up in front of the religious orthodoxy at the time, who were suspicious that she might not be toeing the official line. Catherine was undeterred: she wrote a huge volume of correspondence with the church’s leading figures, acted as an ambassador to the Pope, and influenced politics far beyond any other woman of her time.

No wonder a squabble ensued for the mortal form of St Catherine. Following more periods of intense fasting in Rome, St Catherine finally expired, and her head was removed from her body and smuggled back to Siena. And there it stays: displayed behind a criss-cross of protective bars, offset by dazzling gold, jewels and frescoes, the head is there for anyone to see. While devotees praise the serene expression and apparent incorruptibility of these remains, non-religious bystanders consider it a macabre display. Whatever your reaction, it’s very moving to stand in front of this relic (certifiably authentic, as the many signs surrounding the altar sternly assure us).

So what happened to the rest of St Catherine's body? The headless cadaver stayed in Rome, but Siena’s Basilica also has her mummified thumb, displayed proudly upright in a gilt goblet-shaped display. If St Catherine’s formidable life story isn’t enough inspiration, you can be cheered on by a literal thumbs-up from the lady herself. An inspirational sight for the dark at heart, if ever there was one.


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