St Catherine of Siena
Epistole devotissime

Venice: Aldus Manutius, IX 1500, 2° woodcut drawings by Benedetto Bordon?
Windsor, The Provost and Fellows of Eton College, Co.2.05

The Epistole devotissime, published in 1500 and dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, exemplify the energy and inventiveness displayed by the innovations introduced by the Aldine Press in that period. Not only is this edition of St Catherine’s correspondence one of the first of Manutius’ publications in the vernacular, but it also includes the first example of cursive script in the woodcut depicting St Catherine at f. 10v. The Sienese saint is pictured frontally, with her arms outstretched and holding her saintly attributes: in her right hand, a book open at the words, “iesu / dol/ce / iesu / amo/re” (sweet / Jesus / loving / Jesus), together with a lily, a crucifix and a palm leaf; in her left, a radiant heart with the word “iesus” – also in cursive script – inscribed within it and a scroll bearing the words “cor mundum crea in me deus” (God, create a pure heart within me) in Roman capitals. Two angels hold three crowns over the saint’s head and a cartouche just above the heart reads: “Dulce signum charitatis / Dum amator castitatis, / Cor mutat in Vergine” (Sweet sign of charity / and at the same time lover of chastity, / change the Virgin’s heart) in Roman characters. over this framed composition runs an inscription in Roman capitals: “Transit ad sponsum tribus exornata coronis” (She went to her spouse adorned with three crowns). The iconography is associated with the advancement in Venice of the worship of St Catherine, which was actively pursued by Tommaso da Siena, called Caffarini, between 1394 and 1434. It is distinguished by the sheer range of meanings it manages to convey through a skilful selection of attributive symbols: the crowns stand for the incidental saintly qualities – martyrdom, virginity, doctrine –, the lily symbolises virginal purity, the crucifix adherence to Christ’s message and the book doctrine and spiritual teachings, while the palm leaf is a further allusion to martyrdom, even when bloodless (Giunta 1988, pp. 76–82, 95–97). It should be pointed out that in the illuminated or printed representations of St Catherine the book is generally closed; the reason for showing it open in this case probably has to do with the desire to create a space within the composition where the new cursive script could be shown off. The woodcut itself displays the clean, elegant line typical of the so-called “classical style”, echoed by the pose, with the saint portrayed with her feet pointing outwards and her weight on only one leg, the other being slightly bent under her robe. At the same time, the dark areas where her cape is raised slightly by her arms already hint at the transition to the new “hatched style”.

Catalogues: istc ic00281000; Renouard 1834, pp. 23–24, no. 2; Scapecchi 2013, p. XXII, no 38.

Chiara Ponchia