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  • Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena: Emotion, Devotion and Mendicant Spiritualities in the Late Fourteenth Century
  • Constant J. Mews

This essay examines how Dominicans focused their late fourteenth-century struggle to redefine spirituality around the cults of St. Thomas and St. Catherine of Siena. The relics of the Angelic Doctor were translated from the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova to Toulouse in 1369 through the efforts of French Dominican Master, Elias Raymundus. However, the translation was then countered by Raymond of Capua through the active promotion of the much more affective spirituality of Catherine of Siena. The contest came to a head when Raymond overthrew Elias Raymundus as Master of the Order at the General Chapter of Pentecost in 1380, just after the death of Catherine of Siena at thirty-three. Catherine’s intensely emotional style of spiritual writing is much more closely connected to her understanding of the influence of Thomas Aquinas than often realised and its promotion by Raymond of Capua marks a shift away from a purely cerebral approach to theology.

Sometime in the late fifteenth century, Lorenzo d’Alessandro da San Severino (1445–1501) painted a devotional image, now in the Brooklyn Museum, probably to be carried in procession for a convent of nuns in the Marche region (Paciaroni 11–13).1 To the right of the cross, where we might expect to see the Virgin Mary, we see Catherine of Siena, offering her heart to Jesus, while to the left, in place of John the evangelist, we see Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). The reverse of the processional image is similarly unconventional. It shows St. Dominic as the mother of mercy (an image normally reserved for the Virgin Mary), surrounded by admiring nuns. Its message is clear: Catherine, canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461, had attained equal status with Thomas, canonized in 1323 as a [End Page 235] result of active support from his Order, and in particular of his devotees in the court of Naples (Robiglio 44–45). The presentation of Catherine as a saint of equal stature as Thomas Aquinas raises an important question about how she came to attain this status. In conventional memory, Catherine is recalled as a mystic and visionary of modest family origins, whose lack of formal book learning did not prevent her from dictating in Italian a vast body of letters of spiritual edification, rich (some would say excessive) in emotive rhetoric about being washed in the blood of Jesus. Thomas by contrast, from an aristocratic Neapolitan family, is remembered as a great scholastic, although also famed for his devotion to Corpus Christi, for the feast of which he composed a new liturgical Office (replacing that of Juliana of Cornillon) in 1264 (Gy 223–45; Mulder-Bakker 102–17). How did Catherine of Siena, so devoted to the blood of Christ, come to stand alongside Thomas Aquinas, devotee of the body of Christ?

Most studies of Catherine of Siena have tended to focus on her, not in relation to Thomas, but as a mystic, whose cult was initially promoted by her ambitious confessor, Raymond of Capua (c. 1330–99), through his Legenda maior (Luongo; Parsons; Hamburger and Signori). Raymond started to write the Legenda maior soon after her death on April 30, 1380 at the age of thirty-three and after years of acute physical mortification, and completed it by 1395. Catherine had been largely reliant on consuming the Eucharist, which she was (unusually) given access to a daily basis. I wish to argue, however, that Raymond’s promotion of her highly emotive form of devotion, centred around the blood of Christ, needs to be seen as a response to an already established Dominican movement in the fourteenth century to promote devotion both to Thomas Aquinas and the cult of Corpus Christi. In her recent book, Wonderful Blood, Carolyn Walker Bynum focuses on blood piety in northern Germany in the fifteenth century, arguing that the cult of the blood of Jesus (which saturates late medieval piety) cannot be interpreted simply as the product of excessive emotionalism, or as an instrument of clerical control. Such piety, she argues, involved thinking through theological issues of redemption and sacrifice in a much...


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