The Truth About St. Catherine’s Preserved Head

Born in 1347 in Siena, Tuscany, St. Catherine is known for her mysticism and for being one of the patron saints of Italy (via Britannica). According to Strange Remains, Catherine became deeply religious as a child and had visions that started when she was only 6 years old. By the age of 21, she claimed to be spiritually married to Jesus after having a vision of him placing a ring on her finger. Per Atlas Obscura, the ring was only visible to her and was said to have been made out of Jesus’ foreskin.

Later, Catherine alleged that she received the stigmata, though only she could see the marks on her skin. The National Catholic Register states that Catherine joined the Third Order of the Dominicans as a teen. She took a vow of virginity and dedicated herself to prayer, along with helping the poor and sick. As Catherine’s notoriety grew, she became a highly sought-out spiritual director as she traveled to promote church reforms and peace within the Papal States. Catherine also urged Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon, France, and return to Rome.

St. Catherine's remains can be found throughout Italy

By 1378, St. Catherine herself was living in Rome (via Strange Remains). Soon after, she told her spiritual leader, Raymond of Capua, that she could not eat or drink. She later lost the use of her legs, and on April 29, 1380, Catherine died at only 33 years old from a stroke. She was buried in Rome, but Raymond wanted to send her back home to Siena. The problem? He didn’t have permission.

In 1383, Catherine’s tomb was moved into a basilica, and Raymond, realizing he could not smuggle out her entire body, decided to take just her head. According to Atlas Obscura, the smugglers entrusted to do the job almost got caught. After they put Catherine’s head in a paper bag and tried to leave Rome, they were purportedly spotted by guards. The smugglers prayed for Catherine to protect them, and when the guards checked the paper bag, legend has it that all that could be found were rose petals. By the time they returned to Siena, her head had allegedly reappeared.

Catherine’s mummified head and her right thumb are now both located at the Basilica San Domenico in Siena, Italy. For reasons unknown, “The Corpse: A History states that her three fingers and left foot are in Venice, while a rib can be found in Florence. However, the rest of her body is said to be still in Rome. Per the National Catholic Register, Catherine was canonized in 1461 and was later declared a doctor of the church for her contributions (via Britannica).

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