Saint Catherine of Siena: The Iconography

In Rome, the natal day Not the birthday but the day this saint died and was “born again” into Heaven of Catherine of Siena, Virgin of the Third Order of St. Dominic, famous for her life and miracles. Pope Pius II put her name among the Virgin Saints. – Roman Martyrology for April 29

In portraits, St. Catherine of Siena appears as at right in the black-and-white habit of the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic, the society of Dominican tertiaries to which she belonged. In rare cases she will be wearing a crown of thorns (example). The flowers seen at right happen to be roses, but usually they are lilies. History knows her as Catherine Benincasa, the persuasive mediator who negotiated peace between Florence and the papacy and who was behind Pope Gregory XI's decision to return the papal court to Rome after its long stay in Avignon. (Less persuasively, she also urged on Gregory and his successor a thorough reform of the clergy.)

But in art and literature she is better known for her intense mystical experiences. These were detailed shortly after her death in a biography by Raymond of Capua, her confessor.1 Some of the most notable experiences narrated by Raymond include:
  1. The saint's mystic marriage to Christ (image)
  2. Her exchange of hearts with the latter (image)
  3. Her reception of the stigmata (images by Giovanni di Paolo and Domenico Beccafumi)
  4. A Communion miracle (images by Domenico Beccafumi and Giovanni di Paolo)
  5. The revival of her dead mother by Jesus upon the prayers of Catherine (image)
  6. The exorcism of a child from the city image)


The iconography associates St. Catherine with the rosary, even though this prayer is mentioned neither in Raymond, nor in the bull of canonization in 1553, nor indeed anywhere in the Acta Sanctorum's section on this saint.2 Catherine is sometimes portrayed with St. Dominic receiving the rosary from the Virgin and Child, as in the second picture at right and this example. In one painting she appears to be actually stringing a new pair of rosary beads by hand, an activity still practiced today by many Catholic laywomen.

In 1999 Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Catherine of Siena one of the patron saints of Europe. The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva has a painting of her in this new role which may influence her iconography in years to come. In it she stands in a ring of stars and putti above a map of Europe. She holds a book and a lily stalk, and a dove descends upon her.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-16


St. Catherine's portrait in a Dominican church in Italy. (See the description page.)

The Virgin Mary Giving the Rosary to St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Siena (See the description page)



  • Dominican habit (white, with black mantle)
  • Lilies, or rarely roses
  • Cross or crucifix
  • Crown of thorns (rare)


  • Lived 1347-1380
  • Feast day: April 29 or 30


1 See the entry for Raymond in this site's bibliography.
2 Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 3, 851-978. The bull is on pages 973-976.