Do you know about the Holy Head of St. Catherine of Sienna?


Catherine of Sienna (March 25, 1347-April 29, 1380), who was known for her incredible religious visions is also one of the greatest Doctors of the Church.Do. you know about the Holy Head of St. Catherine of Sienna?

When the beloved holy woman died in Rome at the age of 33, her devotees couldn’t bear to see her laid to rest so far from her hometown. So thieves snuck into Rome and smuggled her head and thumb back to Siena. Apparently, when guards stopped them and searched the bag holding her disembodied head, they prayed to Catherine and a miracle turned her remains into rose petals. Upon arriving back in Siena, her body parts re-materialized.Legend of a Divine Head

Catherine of Sienna was buried at the cemetery near Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.  Raymond of Capua wanted to send part of Catherine’s body back to Sienna to assuage her family and the Sienese.  This was a task that he undertook secretly because he didn’t have permission to disperse her remains.  Raymond got his chance in 1383 when Catherine’s tomb was moved inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  It was then that he arranged for her head to be removed and brought to Sienna.

Sarcophagus of St. Catherine beneath the High Altar of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome. Image credit: Hreid via Wikipedia (license CC BY-SA 3.0)

Officials of the Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico say when Catherine’s skull was detached, it separated easily from the vertebrae because rainwater had seeped into the grave and sped up decomposition.

According to legend, the people entrusted with this macabre job barely escaped.  The head snatchers were stopped by guards as they tried to leave Rome so they prayed to Catherine for help.  Miraculously, when the guards checked the thieves’ suspicious bag, all they saw was rose petals.  It was only when the head was delivered to Sienna did the rose petals change back to Catherine’s head.

St. Catherine’s mummified head was placed in a gilded bust and displayed in the Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico.  When the basilica had the skull x-rayed in 1947, church officials discovered that there were no vertebrae attached to the back of the skull.  This finding gave a bit of credibility to the story of how her head was removed from the rest of her body.  Officials also saw that the skull had smaller, smoother features associated with female remains.  When church workers opened the saint’s tomb inside the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 1855 they saw that her head was indeed missing from the rest of the body.

Catherine’s skull wasn’t the only body part removed from her grave in Rome.  Parts of her body were distributed amongst churches throughout Italy.  In A Corpse: A History, Christine Quigley states that three of Catherine’s fingers and her left foot are at a church in Venice, a Roman church has a hand and a shoulder blade, and a church in Florence has a rib.

She was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461.  But because St. Catherine of Sienna made considerable contributions to the church in the 14th century, she was give title of Doctor of the Church in 1970.