restricted access St. Catherine of Siena and the Spectacle of Public Execution
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St. Catherine of Siena and the Spectacle of Public Execution

In what is undeniably one of her most famous and startling letters, St. Catherine of Siena describes to her confessor Raymond of Capua how she converted and then accompanied an Italian to his execution. The young Perugian was probably Niccolò di Toldo, beheaded in Siena in 1375 as an alleged agent of the papal governor.1 Catherine visits him in prison, assists him on the scaffold, and then receives his head in her hands as the executioner severs it from his body. Catherine’s role in Niccolò’s death is charged with multiple complex meanings and associations. Recent scholarship has interpreted the letter in light of its political, erotic, and authoritative connotations, and assigns various roles to Catherine. One scholar sees Catherine attributing to herself the function of a priest as she brings Niccolò to confession and communion, and then blesses him on the scaffold.2 Another observes that she casts herself as both friend of the “bride” as well as the “bride of Christ” at this “metaphorical wedding.”3 Still another maintains that Catherine transforms Niccolò’s final moments into the closing actions of a sacra rappresentazione (holy performance).4 While I value this prior criticism, I argue instead that, first and foremost the event is best understood as a theatrically [End Page 43] orchestrated medieval execution. This dramatic spectacle of public death determines and shapes how Catherine is portrayed, either by herself or by her biographers, in the narration.

The method of Niccolò’s slaying was commonplace. Both hanging and decapitation were ordinary public forms of capital punishment in medieval Italy. Execution in Italy, as in the rest of Europe, was brutal and cruel. The aim of the frightful penalties meted out on criminals was twofold: retribution and deterrence. The ritual of execution was a “scene” on public display—in order to deter crime it had to be performed before an audience of gaping onlookers.5 Ironically, Raymond omits the story of Niccolò’s beheading while the Dominican friar Tommaso d’Antonio of Siena (“Caffarini”) includes it in his Legenda of Catherine.6 Catherine herself tells us only about the Niccolò affair.

The story of Catherine’s presence during Niccolò’s decapitation is in fact an example of a successful “comforting” ritual.7 Commonly carried out by members of medieval confraternities who aided criminals about to be publicly executed, the practice had already become institutionalized in Siena long before Niccolò’s demise. Indeed, Catherine performs it with Niccolò. The comforter’s main function was to strengthen the condemned prisoner in the time remaining before his impending doom. Since the eternal salvation of the prisoner was paramount, the comforter was to prepare him to make his last Confession and receive the Eucharist. If the prisoner was unremorseful, the consoler attempted to move him to penance. Catherine’s own narrative reveals several examples that clearly show her as a comforter. The most obvious characteristic is Catherine’s unique mission on Niccolò’s behalf during his last hours—she visits him in prison and assists him. According to Tommaso of Siena, initially Niccolò had refused to see either a priest or brother about the salvation of his soul because of his great desperation. Of course, all of this changes after Catherine’s visit. Catherine reports, “I went to him and he was greatly consoled. I took him to hear Mass and he received Holy Communion, which he hadn’t received in a long [End Page 44] time,” and that “he was so comforted and consoled that he confessed his sins and prepared himself very well”(109).8 Niccolò even rested his head on her breast, no doubt as she offered him support.

In general, the comforter was to urge the prisoner to see that, although his situation was regrettable, such was the will of God. No one may go against Divine Will, so the sentence must be accepted. The comforter exhorted the condemned to recall that even Christ, though innocent, was bound, humiliated, and executed like a common criminal. Yet he was humble and offered no excuses in his own defense. Catherine, too, must have convinced Niccol...