Daughter of Giacomo Benincasa and of lapa Piagenti. The Glory of Siena. The Angel of the People of Fontebranda. Gem of the Third Order of San Domenico. Counsellor of Popes. Born, 1347; Died, 1380; Canonised, June 29, 1461.
The courtyard of the house of Giacomo Benincasa, in the Contrada dell'Oca at Siena, in the year 1837. The floor of the courtyard is of stone; in the background, along the side of the hosue, ascends a flight of stone steps; a doorway at the foot of the stairs stands open.
In the courtyard stands Lapa Benincasa talking to two of her neighbours. The costumes of the three women are like those in the old engravings in the Vita di S. Caterina da Siena by Beato Raimondo da Capua: they wear long full skirts and short pointed bodices cut so as to leave the neck exposed, with a V-shaped opening in front fastened across with a lacing; loose wide sleeves reach to the elbow over tight long sleeves to the wrist. Their hair is parted and drawn smoothly back from the face, and they wear long veils, of a lighter shade than their dresses, which are of soft dull colours.
Lapa (looking back through the open door into a room beyond). No, my little Caterina is not here, but she will soon come, for it is almost the hour of Ave Maria, when she always climbs this stair, kneeling upon a seperate step, dear child, each time she says the Angelic Salutation, - such is her own pretty fancy, I often await her here at the time, for I love to watch her at her prayers, she is so happy then. (She comes nearer and lowers her voice impressively). Sometimes I think the angels themselves must lift and carry her (*); indeed one day it seemed to me as I watched her mounting, that her little feet never once touched a step, - I thought she floated up the stairs, like some blessed spirit of Heaven, and I was terrified, I could not even call to her for fear. But when I looked again, there stoode my baby on the floor above, smiling at me, and then she ran away, - so simply, singing.
The First Neighbour. And thou sawest noone with her?
Lapa. Such blessed visions are not for me. And yet I think my child does talk with angels. The Second Neighbour. Why, they must love her as we do, Lapa. How the tender little one has grown in grace and wisdom!
The First Neighbour. How joyous she is! How loving and how sweet with all, and how beloved by all, the holy, happy child!
Lapa. And so prudent in her speech! Could you but hear her words as I do, daily.
The Second Neighbour. The daughter of Giacomo Benincasa could learn to speak only in purity and gentleness, - all our Siena knows the spirit of his house.
Lapa. Yea, but her speech is wise too and holy far beyond her age. In this her fifth year, think you, from her infant lips fall words so sweet, so delicious, so just, that we her parents, yea, all her elders who hear her, stand amazed, and we never tire of listening. Frequently do I forget all else, and lose myself in contemplation of that shining grace reflected in her joyous presence, in her actions, in her every movement.
The First Neighbour. It is for this excessive joyousness of hers that thou dost call her in the Graak manner, Euforosina?
Lapa. It is, - an already she has learned to love her holy namesake. But, hark! Angelus Domini.
The Angelus is heard, rung by the bells of San Domenico. The three women fall on their knees, - their bakc to the stairway, - and make the sign of the cross. Lapa commences to recite the Angelus in Latin, the two neighbours making the responses: Lapa. "Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae".
The Neighbours. "Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto".
Lapa. "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, etc.".
Meanwhile angels are heard singing the Ave Maria, and the baby Caterina runs through the open door, her little hands outstretched, her eyes shining, - she is looking upward and smiling happily. Her dress is white and reaches to her feet, falling over a girdle by which it is caught up round her waist; on her head is a white kerchief, knotted at the back of her neck: her golden hair frames her face beneath the kerchief and falls from under it in soft curls below her shoulders. She makes the sign of the cross reverently, then joins her tiny hands, and kneeling on the lowest step of the stairway, bows her head as she commences to say the Hail Mary. After a moment's interval two angels appear on the stairway above her, one on each side; their flowing robes are of softest grey, their wings are beautiful shades of violet, their fair hair seems to float round their shoulders. Bending forward with tender grace, they lift the child and place her gently on the step above. The singing of the Ave Maria continues, and the bells are still ringing the Angelus as the scene closes.
At a point in the old Contrada Valle piatt (now della Selva) of Siena opposite that slope of the city which rises above Fontebranda to the church of San Domenico. A steep street takes a sharp turn to the right and leads down to the Contrada dell'Oca, just outside a gateway in a high enclosure (*); the descent is bounded by the top of th city wall.
Two children are coming down the street: one is the little Caterina Benincasa, the other, her favourtie brother, Stafano, who is a year or two older than his sister. She is dressed in a simple white robe reaching to her feet, and fitting close at her waist without a girdle, the wide loose sleeves fall to her elbow; she wears a kerchief on her head as in the earlier scene. Stefano has on a simple dark tunic, which reaches just below his knees; it is cut low round his neck, and the sleeves fall loose to his elbow, - his legs and feet are bare; his hair clusters in short curls round his head. He leads a little dog by a cord fastened to its collar.
Stafano has preceded Caterina in the descent of the street, and has gone some distance ahead of her before he realises that she is not following him; he turns back to see her standing with her hands raised and extended, looking out across the city wall towards San Domenico, with a most pure and loving expression. He hesitates a moment in wonder, and then runs back to her, crying; -
"What dost thou there, dear Sister, why dost thou not come with me?"
As she seems not to hear him he touches her arm to call her attention, and she starts as if waking from a dream and drops her eyes. In a moment she raises her head, and gazes out in the same direction as before, but with a look of pain and disappointment buries her face in her hands and begins to weep betterly, and Stefano exclaims in distress: -
"Little sister mine, dearest Caterina, why weepest thou?".
Caterina (in grief, but without anger). Ah, if thou hadst but seen the great beauty that I saw, thou wouldst not have done so to me!
Stefano (beginning to cry). But what wrong have I done thee?
Caterina. Nay, dearest brother, mine was the wrong, - to take my eyes from such a heavenly vision for even a moment, in response to any earthly call. When I looked again it had vanished. But so I deserved to lose it.
Stefano. What vision? What sawest thou? Tell me of it!
Caterina. The king of Heaven! Christ Himself! There, in the clouds above the church of San Domenico!
(The little boy runs to the city wall, pulling his dog after him and leaning over, looks up in a vain attempt to see the vision. He turns back to listen to Caterina, who speaks as if inspired).
"Exalted on an imperial throne He sat, most regally and spendidly adorned, wearing pontifical robes, - and all round about His sacred head shone the light of Paradise".
Stefano drops the cord he is holding, and forgetting his little dog, folds his hands against his heart and draws near Caterina with wide startled eyes, as she continues the marvellous description.
"O either side stood the Holy Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, one on His right hand, the other on His left, and beyond Saint Paul, Saint John the Evangelist, whom Our Lord so loved. And raising His hand Our Lord Jesus blessd me as I looked".
Stefano. Sister, Sister! Let me too see them! Show me our dear Blessed Lord and the Holy Apostles!
Caterina. (caressing him). Alas, dear brother, I see them now no more! But let us pray here, together to Our Lord, and ask Him to keep us always good and pure, so that we may one day see Him and His Blessed Mother, and all the holy saints and angelss in Heaven.
The children kneel down side by side, make the sign of the cross, and comence to say the Our Father in Latin. As the scene closes they are praying very fervently: "Pater noster, qui es in coelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum, adveniat regnum tuum", etc.
A small bare room in the house of Giacomo Benincasa. On a slightly raised platform is a little table made to resemble an altar and covered with a white cloth, on which stands a Crucifix; befor this kneels Caterina, praying, with outstretched hands. She is now in her twelfth year. Over a white dress she wears a white mantle with long loose sleeves which is open in front and fastened round her waist by a girdle; her hair is parted and smoothed back in soft coils. At the door of the room is her father, an elderly man wiht grey hair and beard, gazing in at Caterina with an expression of reverent amazement; as he sees a dove of most exceeding whiteness hovering above her head.
The courtyard of the house as in the first scene. Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa are listening with earnest attention to their daughter-in-law Lisa, as she speaks with deep feeling and says to Lapa:
"Why wilt thou persist in this treatment of Caterina? Be assured thou wilt accomplish naught by it. Thou hast made her in truth a drudge in her father's house, - the hardest tasks are hers, harsh words and abuse are all her portions, - but what has this availed? She yet finds time for the service of Heaven. Driven even from her own poor little room, denied all liberty, all privacy, all life apart, she has conceived the sublime thought of making a secret inner shrine of her heart, where she may withdraw with her soul from the shock and combat of the world and find herself with God. So will it ever be. No severtiy however extreme can change her mind and heart. An end then to thy cruelty!"
Lapa (greatly agitated, and weeping bitterly). But so I may yet force her to what is surely best for her. There is no other way. Words can not move her, - not mine indeed, and thou knowest that even our poor Bonaventura could not prevail, yet how Caterina loved her! But since this dear sister's death she insists even more obstinately than before that she will not think of marriage. Beautiful as she is, so young, so lovely, - what mother would not grieve for this, and lament as I do?
Lisa. Lament, if thou must, but cease from thy severity towards her! Thou knowest well her firmness. What! is she less brave and resolute than when as a baby she set out courageously from the city through the Porta d'Ansano, (*) and followed the great road into the open country, even while she trembled with fear, - a tiny child quite alone, clasping a little bread roll, her sole provision, and hastening on to find some cave in a desert where she might imitate a hermit's life? Thinkest thou that years have shaken the strength of that baby soul, which no terrors then could daunt? Caterina will bear all, will suffer all, but she will never yield!
As Lisa finishes speaking, Caterina enters through the doorway, in which we had our first sight of her as a baby, - and comes quietly towards her parents. When Lapa sees her daughter she starts forward to speak, but Caterina prevents this by a gesture, throwing out her hands appealingly.
Her face is sad, but her step is firm and when she speaks her voice is determined, though very low and gentle.
Caterina. Dear parents, long have you and my brothers persecuted me, trying to force me to marry, and in all this time, through fear of failing in the reverence I owe you according to Divne precept, I have never told you plainly how bitterly you have made me suffer. Now that I am grown in years I see well that I must break my silence. Know then finally, that through divine inspiration, from my infancy I have dedicated myself to Christ and to His Blessed Mother, and that my soul has never inclined to an earthly spouse. This was my promise, and this promise I will maintain, whatever befalls, for in respect to this I am not bound to regard the wishes of father, or mother, or brother; - indeed Christ will be to me father, mother, and brother, in all, since I have chosen to give myself to Him. Be assured then that you may sooenr soften the hardest stone than root from out my heart this resolution so taken. Make of me, if you will, a servant or a slave here in the house, I will perform the most difficult service you ask of me, I will endure every trial, suffer every hardship; I am ready to obey you as far as lies in my power, until death. If you think to terrify me by turning me out of the house, abusing me and treating me with contempt, - not even so, I repeat shall you succeed in separating me from my sweet spouse; for He will not fail to provide His handmaid with a house, and with all that she needs, since, good and powerful as He is, He provides in His wisdom for you, and even for those who do not repay His benefits with gratitude. Decide then in regard to me, what treatment you consider just and right according to the will of God".
Caterina folds her hands, and waits for her parents to reply. Giacomo, greatly moved by the words she has spoken, says in answer:
"Never, dearest daughter, would our love of God permit us to oppose His divine will, by which it well appears thy pious resolution is prompted. Thy long patience and thy constancy have clearly proved to us that thine is no childish wish, but that it is indeed sanctified by the spirit of God. My conscience forbids my opposing thy saintly desire, hereafter. Follow this holy path since it best pleases thee, freely fulfill thy sacred vow, and may the Divine Wisdom guide and instruct thee. Far from opposing the will of God, I willlingly submit to it. No one henceforth shall disturb or hinder thee. Far from opposing the will of God, I willingly submit to thee. In strength and happiness of soul continue in the walk of holiness, and pray to thy Spouse, who in His goodness has chosen thee at so tender an age, that we thy parents at the hour of death may be made worthy of His promises".
Caterina falls on her knees before him with a smile of radiant joy, and he places his hand on her head, saying to Lapa: -
"Let no one dare heareafter to contradict this sweetest child of mine".
Caterina is lying asleep on the floor of her own little dark bedroom, her head pillowed on a stone; her beautiful hair falls loose about her shoulders, her hands are crossed on her breast. At the door of the room, - which she faces as she lies quietly sleeping, - there enter in procession, each wearing the appropriate habit, founders of various religious orders: first, San Benedetto with Santa Scolastica; then, San Francesco and Santa Clara, and finally San Domenico. Caterina smiles in her sleep as one after another bends over her with a questioning gaze, and then passes on and vanishes out of her dream; but when San Domenico approaches, although her eyes remain closed, she stretches out her arms towards the lily that he carries. He bends forward and places it in her hand, saying: -
"Be strong of soul whatever befalls thee. O best beloved of my daughters, for thou shalt without doubt be invested with this holy habit".
He points to his habit, and vanishes, as Caterina opens her eyes and rises to her knees. When she sees the lily that she holds, she kisses it with tears of joy, and clasps it to her heart as she kneels with uplifted eyes, smiling in perfect peace and happiness, while outside is heard the Sienese hymn "A Santa Caterina da Siena": "Su lieti cantiamo, etc.".
The hymn continues, and the scene changes. In a final tableau we see Santa Caterina wearing the habit of the Third Order of San Domenico and holding the lily in her left hand, while she extends her right hand to a votaress, who kneels devoutly before her, as in the countemporary portrait by Andrea Vanni in the church of San Domenico at Siena.