St. Catherine of Bologna

Updated 12-02-12 of Bologna /Caterina Vigri /Vegri (1413-1463)


Catherine Vigri was born and died in Bologna but spent most of her life in Ferrara. She was raised at the court of Nicholas III d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara, whom her father served as a diplomatic agent. Ferrara had spent much of the preceding century defending itself from Milan and Venice, so a period of relative peace allowed the Este family to do what the other northern courts were doing: trying to compete with Florence as a cultural center.

In this environment Catherine apparently received a humanist education; we know that she learned Latin, music, and the art of manuscript illumination. She was educated with Margaret d'Este, Nicholas' daughter, and was one of her attendants until 1427, when Margaret was married. After Margaret's marriage and the death of her own father, Catherine joined a community of about 15 lay women in Ferrara. The women wished to join one of the established religious orders but disagreed as to which.

Twenty years earlier a Frenchwoman, Colette of Corbie, had established a reformed branch of the Poor Clares, the order that had been founded by Clare of Assisi 200 years earlier but that had, over the years, grown far away from Clare's vision. Word of Colette's reform had spread to Italy, and Catherine and some (but only some) of the other women in her group wished to join the Reformed Poor Clares. The disagreement among the women was severe: first, in 1431, the bishop briefly disbanded the entire group; a year later, Catherine and some of the others were professed as Poor Clares, although not according to the reformed Rule; then in 1434, 14 nuns, including Catherine, were absolved by the pope of unspecified crimes involving "apostasy." It wasn't until the following year that the new monastery was officially allowed to follow Colette's reformed Rule.

During her years in Ferrara, Catherine acted as mistress of novices, and it was in this capacity that she began to write Le sette armi spirituali (The seven spiritual weapons). By 1450 the Ferrara monastery had grown to include 85 women, and in 1456 Catherine was sent to found a new house in Bologna, Corpus Domini. There she became abbess and stayed until her death. Before she died, she gave her nuns her manuscript to be read by them and to be shared with the nuns at Ferrara. Le sette armi spirituali was printed by the Bolognese nuns in 1475 (one of the earliest printed works in that city) and was frequently reprinted during the 1500s.

Some of Catherine's other works, as well as her hymns (laudi) and letters, have been published but not yet translated. Among these are I dodici giardini (The twelve gardens), on the stages of growth in love of God; Rosarium metricum (a Latin poem); and I Sermoni (a collection of sermons that Catherine gave to her nuns at Corpus Domini in Bologna). Six years after Catherine's death, her secretary, Illuminata Bembo, wrote Catherine's biography, Specchio di illuminazione (Mirror of illumination), which includes the words of as well as anecdotes about the abbess.

Catherine also produced frescoes, free-standing paintings, and illuminated manuscripts; the frescoes are gone, but some of her other art has survived (see one online). When art scholars write of her work, they usually use her family name, Caterina Vigri.

Le sette armi spirituali seems to be almost two separate documents. The first six chapters and the start of the seventh are very practical and down-to-earth, intended for newcomers to the religious life. This part is brief, the organization is clear and easy to follow, and the dominant image is that of the almost constant warfare familiar to the courtier families from which her novices had come.

The rest of the long Chapter 7 and Chapters 8-10 describe Catherine's visionary experiences and her attempts to make sense of them. Like Chapters 1-6 they are addressed to the novices, but content and structure are quite different. For the modern reader, the last chapters are perhaps the most interesting because of what they reveal of Catherine's internal conflict.


1. In English:

(a) A 1998 translation of Le sette armi spirituali, by Hugh Feiss and Daniela Re, The Seven Spiritual Weapons; the introduction by Feiss and Marilyn Hall provides a valuable review of Catherine's life and chief work (for excerpts from the translation, see below, under "In print").
(b) From another translator, halfway down the page, a passage from near the start of Le sette armi spirituali, which names the seven needed weapons.

2. In Italian:

(a) Links to the preface and ten parts of Le sette armi spirituali, based on the 1985 edition of Cecilia Foletti.
(b) Near the end of an essay on Catherine, the closing sentence of I dodici giarini, "Di dunque e fa palese alla mendicita...."
(c) A link to the text (or to a PDF file) of a 1713 collection, Rime scelte de' poeti ferraresi antichi e moderni; there use your browser's search function to go to "Catarina" (note spelling) for six laudi.
(d) Anoter hymn, on the birth of Jesus, "Ancoi e nato el nostro signor bello."

3. Art by Caterina Vigri:

(a) A painting of Mary and the child Jesus with an apple.
(b) Two pages of a manuscript of Vigri's breviary; we aren't sure if the lettering is her work, but the miniatures are.

4. Another painting, "Saint Ursula and Four Saints." Long believed to be by Vigri, the work is now generally attributed to the workshop of Giovanni Bellini. It is given here because you will find it named in older references to her art; for example, see its description at #54 in a early 1900s catalog of one of the rooms in Venice's Accademia.

6. Essays:

(a) From the "Monastic Matrix" site, a brief profile by Natasha Roulehich, describes Catherine's life and works.
(b) A link to the text of the 1995 volume of Annali d'ltalianistica: there, on pp. 219-43, you will find Jane Tylus' essay, "Mystical Enunciations: Mary, the Devil, and Quattrocento Spirituality," which discusses the role played by the mother of Jesus in the latter part of Le sette armi spirituali, and what it reveals of Catherine's life and of the changes in Marian devotion.
(c) "Breaking the Silence: The Poor Clares and the Visual Arts in Fifteenth-century Italy" (1995), by Jeryldine M. Wood, includes a discussion of Catherine's art and writing (unfortunately, the illustrations of the original article are not included online)
(d) A link to the text of Laura Marie Ragg's collection of biographies, The Women Artists of Bologna (1907); the first is on Catherine. Ragg's essay quotes extensively from Le sette armi spirituali and Illuminata Bembo's Specchio di illuminazione, and gives a prose translation of one of Catherine's laudi, "Anima benedetta" (with the original given in an appendix).

6. Reviews (for information on the books' treatment of Catherine, see "Secondary sources"):

(a) Zrinka Stahuljak on the 2005 essay collection, Saints, Scholars, and Politicians: Gender as a Tool in Medieval Studies.
(b) Carol Lazzaro-Weis on the 2000 essay collection, A History of Women's Writing in Italy; and another review, by Laura A. Salsini.
(c) Ann Roberts on Wood's 1996 study, Women, Art, and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy.

7. A bibliography of editions of Catherine's writings; and elsewhere, after a brief biography and list of editions, a 5-page bibliography of studies through 2009.

8. Contemporary images:

(a) A miniature of Catherine, made at Ferrara about six years after her death by Guglielmo Giraldi.
(b) And within 20 years of her death, a Flemish panel-painting, "Saint Catherine of Bologna with three donors" (the Colettine reform, of which Catherine was a part, was more successful in Flanders than in Italy).

In print

[Hugh Feiss and Daniela Re have translated Le sette armi spirituali. The introduction is divided into two parts: Feiss gives information on Catherine's life and something of the political background; then Marilyn Hall looks at the work for evidence of clinical depression in Catherine. The notes and bibliography are brief but useful. The text and introduction are available online:]

The Seven Spiritual Weapons / Catherine of Bologna; Translated, with notes by Hugh Feiss and Daniela Re (Peregrina Translation Series; 25). Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Peregrina Publishing Co., 1998. (103 p.: ill.)
LC#: BX2349 .C37 1998

"Come to the dance singing of love."

[From the Preface:]

In the name of the eternal Father and of his only begotten Son Christ Jesus, of the splendor of the Father's glory, for love of whom, with jubilation of heart, I cry, saying to his refined servants and spouses:

Let every lover who loves the Lord
Come to the dance singing of love,
Let her come dancing all afire
Desiring only him who created her
And separated her from the dangerous worldly state. [pp.31-32]

"...assaulted by their own will and by how they see things."

[But in order to participate in the dance, the religious must live a life of obedience.
Catherine knows the difficulty of doing this, and so she will give her novices the needed weapons:]

...I have written here below... some counsels to comfort those persons who have entered the noble battle of this obedience and, being strongly attacked and assaulted by their own will and by how they see things or how things appear to them, are very sad, thinking that, by this, they lose all the merit of obedience. [p.32]

"Let her first take up the arms necessary...."

[She lists the seven weapons:]

Whoever from deep within her noble and zealous heart wished to take up the cross..., let her first take up the arms necessary for such battles...: first is diligence; second, distrust of self; third, confidence in God; fourth, memory of his passion; fifth, memory of one's own death; sixth, memory of the glory of God; seventh and last, the authority of Holy Scripture as it gives the example of Christ Jesus in the desert. [p.33]

"...our adversary, like a wicked traitor, assails us from ambush."

[Catherine's novices need weapons because they are fighting a war with the devil, who for Catherine was very real. Most of the first six chapters describe how the devil will try to conquer and how the appropriate weapon will defeat him. For example, on the first weapon, "diligence":]

The first weapon I call zeal, that is solicitude in doing good.... but with discretion, so that when our adversary, like a wicked traitor, assails us from ambush, we can defend ourselves. By "from ambush," I mean, when under the appearance of good, he wishes to kill you, for there is as much danger in too much as in too little....

...[W]hen the enemy sees that he cannot impede the servant of Christ from doing good, he will seek to entice her with doing too much. So exercise all the virtues in proper measure that the weapon of true and diligent discretion may be exercised for our salvation and for the praise of Christ. [p.35]

"Test... whether it is a good or a wicked spirit before you listen to him."

[Chapters 7-10 make up over three-fourth of the work; here Catherine describes the efforts of the devil against her desire to be an obedient religious and against the plans for the reformed monastery. She starts:]

Of the seventh weapon I will elaborate more at length. I will do this in order to make clear a very subtle trick played on one of the first sisters by the enemy of our salvation. This is the reason that I have been moved to write the present little book as a warning and instruction for all the novice sisters who are here at present or will follow in the future in this monastery....

The seventh weapon... is the memory of Holy Scripture which we must carry in our hearts and from which, as from a most devoted mother, we must take counsel in all the things we have to do.... With this weapon, our savior Christ Jesus conquered and confounded the devil in the desert....

And be on guard that you are not deceived by the mere appearance of good, for the devil sometimes appears in the appearance of Christ or the Virgin Mary or in the shape of an angel or a saint. Therefore, in every apparition that might occur, take up the weapon of Scripture which shows how the mother of Christ comported herself when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. She said to him, "What is this greeting?" Follow her example in every appearance and feeling, and you will want to test much better whether it is a good or a wicked spirit before you listen to him. [pp.41-42]

"...she should abandon the soul of her own senses and of her own opinion."

[Perhaps the most interesting passages in this section show Catherine trying to deal with her own internal conflict during her group's first years. She favored joining the reformed Poor Clares; her first superior did not. Catherine therefore disagreed with much of what the superior was doing, yet felt an obligation to obey her. The result was two visions --- apparently of Mary and of Christ --- which urged an unthinking and undiscerning obedience:]

[The apparition of Mary] wished to say that she [Catherine] should abandon the soul of her own senses and of her own opinion. Because of this, with all her zeal she renewed her effort to obey her superior without any discernment or care for herself....

Still by means of this her enemies sought to deceive her and began to send into her heart various and new thoughts against obedience so that judgments and murmuring entered her mind regarding almost all the things done or said by her superior....

"I cannot restrain the thoughts which come to me."

[Next was a vision of Christ on the cross; just before this passage, the apparition had called Catherine a thief:]

She understood that he said this because of the thoughts of infidelity which she had in her heart against her abbess..., and she answered: "My Lord, what should I do because I do not have my heart in the control of my free will and I cannot restrain the thoughts which come to me?"

He answered saying: "Do as I tell you; catch your will, memory and intellect and make sure that in no matter you do something other than the desire of your elders."

And she said: "How must I do this when I cannot retain the intellect which discerns or the memory which remembers?"

And he answered: "Place your will in theirs and think that their will is yours and do not wish to exercise memory or intellect in any matter other than theirs."

And she even said she could not do that, aware that she did not have her heart subject to her freedom....

She, believing he was Jesus Christ, kept her mind on these things and thought about them often. Nevertheless,... as soon as her abbess ordered some exercise or said something, it seemed that a thousand judgments came to her mind: "This matter would be better if it were thus and so," and many thoughts of infidelity and contradiction of which she never spoke.... [pp.45-46]

" order to make her come to a greater knowledge of herself."

[For five years Catherine lived with the temptation to blind obedience and her despair over her intellect's refusal to give it; she finally came to regard the visions as diabolical visitations:]

This happened to the praise of the Lord God who does not abandon those who hope in him, who permitted her to have many great troubles because he wished to test her in this way and make her worthy of greater glory.

So he openly permitted that she would know how the above mentioned apparitions had proceeded from the devil and that God had permitted all that in order to make her come to a greater knowledge of herself.... [p.50]

"God alone can give understanding and strength against his enemies."

[Book 8-10 describe other spiritual and visionary experiences and give advice to Catherine's novices and fellow nuns (and to her abbess, no longer the one she had opposed). In Book 9, she returns briefly to her purpose:]

Now, beloved sisters, I have written these things principally for all my dear novices who are newly entered onto the field of the spiritual battle and for those who must succeed them in the future....

And therefore it was necessary that God let her [Catherine] be tricked by these enemies for a little while, so that then, humbled, she would careful to stand in in perfect fear and know that God alone can give understanding and strength against his enemies. [p. 82]

Secondary sources

[Jeryldine Wood's study has a chapter on Caterina Vigri as an artist. It includes nine reproductions: four paintings and five illuminations; the chapter and an appendix also give translations (and originals) from Le sette armi spirituali and passages of verse and prose attributed to Vigri in Illuminata Bembo's as-yet-untranslated biography. (See the book's table of contents online.):]

Wood, Jeryldene. Women, art, and spirituality: the Poor Clares of early modern Italy. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. (xiv, 272 p.: ill., maps; 26 cm)
LC#: BX4363.I8 W66 1996; ISBN: 0521496020
Includes bibliographical references (p. 259-268) and index

[Gabriella Zarri's essay in this history include a discussion of Catherine's Le sette armi spirituali as representative of a new form of spirituality; Zarri also describes the biography of Catherine by Bembo. (See the book's table of contents online.):]

A history of women's writing in Italy / edited by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood. Cambridge [England] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2000. (xvi, 361 p.)
LC#: PQ4055.W6 H57 2000; ISBN: 0521570883, 0521578132
Includes bibliographical references (p. 282-350) and index

[An essay in this collection, "Mystical Enunciations: Mary, the Devil, and Quattrocento Spirituality," by Jane Tylus, presents Catherine's deception by demons as representative of a crisis in Christian spirituality in the 1400s. The essay is accompanied by several illustrations, one an illumination attributed to Catherine. (The essay, although without the illustrations, is available online.) (See the book's table of contents online.):]

Women mystic writers / edited by Dino S. Cervigni (Annali d'italianistica; v. 13). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, c1995. (540 p.: ill.)
LC#: PQ4001 .A6 v.13; ISSN: 0741-7527
Includes bibliographical references. English and Italian.

[This collection contains an essay by Mary Martin McLaughlin, "Creating and Recreating Communities of Women: The Case of Corpus Domini, Ferrara, 1406-1452," which describes the early days of Catherine's first convent. (See the book's table of contents online.):]

Sisters and workers in the Middle Ages / edited by Judith M. Bennett... [et al.] Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. (299 p., [8] p. of plates: ill.)
LC#: HD1143 .S55 1989; ISBN: 0226042472, 0226042480
Includes bibliographies and indexes

[In Bert Roest's essay in this collection, "Ignorantia est mater omnium malorum: The Validation of Knowledge and the Office of Preaching in Late Medieval Female Franciscan Communities," Catherine's sermons addressed to her nuns are discussed and quoted briefly (pp. 76-80) to illustrate the role of Franciscan women as preachers (the first part of the article's title is a quotation from one of Catherine's sermons) (See the book's table of contents online.):]

Saints, scholars, and politicians: gender as a tool in medieval studies: festschrift in honour of Anneke Mulder-Bakker on the occasion of her sixty-fifth birthday / edited by Mathilde van Dijk and Renee Nip (Medieval church studies; 15). Turnhout: Brepols; Abingdon: Marston [distributor], 2005. (viii, 261 p.: ill.)
LC#:BR160.3 .S25 2005; ISBN: 2503516548
Includes bibliographical references and indexes


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