The Catholic Church is no stranger to the macabre, and holy relics are no exception. One of the most captivating displays of saintly relics within the Church is the severed head of Saint Catherine of Siena.
“We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” – Saint Jerome
Saint Catherine of Siena was a legendary mystic who is attributed with many miraculous occurrences throughout her short life. She was well known for receiving the stigmata, having divine visions, and even on occasion having the ability to levitate while praying.
Saint Catherine died at the age of 33, and was laid to rest in the cemetery near Santa Maria sopra Minerva church in Rome. However, her devotees couldn’t bear to see her final resting place so far from her hometown. Blessed Raymond of Capua arranged to send her body back to Siena, but had to do so in secret as he didn’t have permission to disperse her remains.
In 1383 when her tomb was being relocated from the cemetery to within the church, Raymond of Capua seized the opportunity. Realizing he would be unable to smuggle an entire body past Roman guards, he arranged for her head to be removed and brought to Siena. Tradition says when her skull was detached, it separated easily as rainwater seeping into the grave sped up decomposition.
According to tradition, just as her head was being carried out of Rome in a paper bag, guards stopped the thieves and demanded to see the contents. They prayed to Saint Catherine of Siena and asked for protection. Miraculously, when the guards looked to see the contents of the suspicious bag, inside they found only rose petals. When the head was delivered to Siena, the rose petals materialized back to Saint Catherine’s head – the reason why she is often depicted with a flower.
Her head was placed in an ornate gilded reliquary within the nave of the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena, where it remains today. When the remains were x-rayed in 1947, they found no vertebrae attached to the base of skull, lending credence to the theory of how it was removed from her body.
Saint Catherine of Siena was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461. In 1970, she was given the title of she was give title of Doctor of the Church because of her considerable contributions to the church in the 14th century. Today thousands visit Siena ever year to view one of the most macabre relics within the Church.