Marie d'Oignies|| Angela of Foligno || Umilta of Faenza
Birgitta of Sweden || Catherine of Siena || Julian of Norwich
Gambacorta || Francesca
St Birgitta giving her
Birgitta, Revelationes, Ghotan: Lübeck, 1492.
Bishop Hemming and St Birgitta, Diptych, Finland
This is what she wrote in a vision about and to King Magnus. In it she sees a lectern and a book. 'For the appearance of the lectern was as if it had been a sunbeam [of red, gold, white]. . . . And when I looked upwards, I might not comprehend the length and breadth of the lectern; and looking downward, I might not see nor comprehend the greatness nor the deepness of it . . . After this I see a Book on the same lectern, shining like most bright gold. Which Book, and its Scripture, was not written with ink, but each word in the book was alive and spoke itself, as if a man should say, do this or that, and soon it was done with speaking of the Word. No man read the Scripture of that Book, but whatever that Scripture contained, all was seen on the lectern. Before this lectern I see a king . . . The said king sat crowned as if it had been a vessel of glass closed about . . .'
She continues to describe how the king's glass globe is protected by an angel but threatened by a demon . . . 'This living king appears to you as if in as it were a vessel of glass, for his life is but as it were frail glass and suddenly to be ended'. She continues by speaking of how this king knowingly sins but that if he repents he can be saved by the angel from the fiend. Beside him is a dead king above whom is writing describing his lust, his pride, his avarice. . . but the writing is blankly gone from the part that should have proclaimed his love of God.
'Then the Word speaks from the lectern, saying "[What you see is the Godhead's self. That you cannot understand the length, breadth, depth and height of the lectern means that in God is not found either beginning or end. For God is and was without beginning, and shall be without end "]. Also the Word spoke to me and said "[The Book that you see on the lectern means that in the Godhead is endless justice and wisdom, to which nothing may be added or lessened. And this is the Book of Life, that is not written as the world's writing, that is and was not, but the scripture of this Book is forever. For in the Godhead is endless being and understanding of all things, present, past and to come, without any variation or changing. And nothing is invisible to it, for it sees all things "]. That the Word spoke itself means that God is the endless Word, from whom are all words, and in whom things have life and being. And this same Word spoke then visibly when the Word was made man and was conversant among men'. She adds to the King that she is giving him the Word's words, adding that 'few receive and believe the heavenly words given from God, which is not God's fault, but man's'.
Later, she writes 'I saw an altar and a chalice with wine and water and bread and I saw how in a church of the world a priest began the mass, arrayed in a priest's vestments. And when he had done all that belonged to the Mass, I saw as if the sun and moon and the stars with all the other planets, and all the heavens with their courses and moving spheres, sounded with the sweetest note and with sundry voices.'
St John writing the Apocalypse, Hans Memling, St John's Hospital, Bruges
In another vision, at the end of her life, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, she sees the judgement of her wicked son Charles where her prayers and her tears for Charles cause the devil to have amnesia concerning her son's sins. First the book in which the fiend has written them down suddenly has blank pages instead of writing, then the sack in which he has placed them is empty when turned inside out, then the devil himself forgets them totally from his memory and goes wailing off to Hell, cursing Birgitta.
Much of Birgitta's visionary imagery comes from law courts, for her father was the King of Sweden's law man and her husband was likewise a law man. She both prophesied and wrote following the Black Death of 1348 when Doomsday, Judgment Day, seemed particularly near. She told King Magnus that the Black Death would happen, then left for Italy, Sweden being too dangerous for her. Birgitta set up her household in Rome, living in prayer and constantly receiving visions, having male secretaries assist her, one of them a Spanish Bishop, Alfonso of Jaén. In the last year of her life she journeyed to the Holy Land, preaching on her journey in Naples and Cyprus, prophesying the 1452 Fall of Constantinople. Her massive book of the Revelationes, which is really Julian's title of 'Showings', was copied out in illuminated manuscripts, then in print, and treasured throughout Europe.
At her death Alfonso of
Queen Joanna of Naples, Queen Margaret of Sweden, the Emperor
Bohemia, and Cardinal Adam
of England, a Benedictine from Julian's Norwich, all sought
canonization as a saint.
Catherine of Siena, The Orcherd of Syon (Dialogo) , London: Wynken de Worde, 1519
ope Gregory XI sent Alfonso of Jaén to Catherine of Siena at Birgitta of Sweden's death. At that point Catherine, who had previously been illiterate, proceeded to write important letters to Popes and Emperors, Kings and Queens and even to the condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, on the need for peace. We do not think of her as part of the Dominican-inspired Friends of God movement across Europe but this act clearly places her in that context. Pope Urban VI wanted her to have Birgitta's daughter, Catherine of Sweden, accompany her to carry out diplomacy on his behalf with Queen Joanna of Naples.
Catherine had been the twenty-fourth child of a Sienese dyer. Everyone had wanted her to marry but she refused, having made a vow of chastity, and instead sought to enter the Dominican Third Order, which only admitted women who were widows. She won. As a Dominican Tertiary she cared for the sick and dying, including criminals condemned to death in Siena. She was surrounded by disciples, one of them an English hermit, William Flete, whose work, The Remedies Against Temptations, Julian quotes and uses in the Showings, another a lawyer Cristofano Di Ganno, who later translated Birgitta's Revelations into exquisite Italian, another a painter, Andrea Vanni, whose delicate portrait of her survives, indeed in the very place of her major visions in San Domenico, Siena.
Andrea Vanni, St Catherine of Siena, San Domenico, Siena
Her confessor and biographer was Raymond of Capua who became head of the Dominican Order. Pope Urban VI leaned heavily upon her for his own survival. Severely anorexic, she died at the age of thirty-three, collapsing under the weight, she said, of the Church.
Besides her Letters she had also written, or, again, rather dictated, the Dialogo, the Dialogue between God and his Daughter, Catherine's Soul, in which he tells her that his Son is the bridge between God and man, a bridge that is like a stair, beginning first with the affections, then love, then peace. He adds that his Son's 'divinity is kneaded with the clay of your humanity like one bread'. This work, likely through Cardinal Adam Easton of Norwich who knew all three women, influenced Julian's Showings, her 'Revelations'. A most beautiful manuscript of the Dialogo was translated into Middle English for the Brigittine nuns of Syon Abbey and called the Orcherd of Syon. It was printed by Wynken de Worde, Caxton's successor, again with that title, in 1519. It is illustrated above. Its exemplar may well have been a manuscript Adam gave Julian.
Julian's manuscripts, like
of Catherine of Siena, are copied out again and again in the
Abbey , the Abbey deliberately founded in England in
St Birgitta's Rule by Henry V, in response to her desire for
England and the rest of the world. Interestingly, both Julian
and Syon Abbey (1434) were visited by an indefatigable woman
of fourteen, Margery Kempe.
for the conversation between Julian and Margery.
These women, who left all to
Christ in their love of God and their neighbour in God's
to each other across the map of Europe and did much for the
and the state of the Church. When one reads their canonization
witnessing their miracles it is to find that the miracles
centre on the
powerless, on women and on children, on the condemned and the
on servants and nuns, and that these may well respond with
healing because their saviour is a member of their own
society. What is also characteristic of this network is that
it is as
were a 'literacy campaign', in which women, barred from
education, are the writers of Sybilline books of prophecy
powerful even than those written by men. They are writing,
has said, 'revealed theology'. Saint
of Siena, socially the least in this group, we do not
proclaimed by the Church a 'Doctor of the Church', the equal
Saints Jerome and Gregory. Let us call them very
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