Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.

Blessed Osanna d'Andreasi
Other Renaissance Italian
Dominican Women Mystics

Osanna d'Andreasi

St.Catherine of Siena provided Dominicans, especially Italians, with a new model of spirituality which was not only mystical but political, directly concerned with the reform of Church and State. A century after her death this model was strikingly exemplified by Dominican men such as St. Antoninus and Jerome Savonarola concerning whom there is a wealth of recent literature, but comparatively little attention has been given to Dominican women contemporary with Savonarola who just as faithfully followed in Catherine's footsteps. One of these on whom we are best informed is Osanna D'Andreasi, but contemporary with her are Blessed Columba of Rieti and Blessed Stephana de Quinzani.

Our information on Osanna is derived from two contemporaries who knew her and who wrote immediately after her death. One biography is by the Master of the Dominican Order and a very notable Thomistic theologian Sylvester of Ferrara (1505) and the other (1507) by the Olivetan (reformed Benedictine) monk Jerome who, in the last years of Osanna's life, became her spiritual son and intimate confidant. His biography is remarkable because it consists largely of a detailed reportage of his conversations with Osanna, and to it is appended in Jerome's Latin translation twenty-four letters from the saint, with documents certifying their authenticity. Jerome tells us that Osanna was very reluctant, even with him whom she completely trusted, to speak about her spiritual experiences; but he repeatedly describes how he patiently and tactfully kept questioning her until he managed to elicit a great deal of information for, as he says, his own "spiritual consolation and inspiration." This process was made difficult by the fact that Osanna was liable to pass into an ecstatic trance whenever she began to speak of God!

Osanna was born in 1449 in Mantua of aristocratic parents, Nicolaus and Agnes. Mantua, the hometown of Virgil, is located in northern Italy on the Mincius, a tributary of the Po, and was at that time an independent state ruled by a Marquis of the Gonzaga family. Osanna was one of large brood, but from an early age sought solitude. She told Jerome that at the age of five or six she had her first mystical experience, a vision of the Trinity, the nine choirs of angels and the whole material creation and then of Jesus as a child her own age, carrying His Cross. Later she again saw Him in the family garden among the grape vines. Although she tried to get her girl companions to love Jesus as she did, she soon found that she must keep these experiences to herself and became so withdrawn that her mother (who always treated her kindly) was greatly troubled, and her father harshly rebuked her and begin to think that she was an epileptic, since he found her absorbed in trance-like prayer.

Her parents died during her childhood and she became responsible for the household and the other children which she managed with great prudence and became noteworthy for her hospitality to the poor. Nevertheless, in spite of all these domestic responsibilities she continued to experience an intense mystical life. While her father still lived she avoided marriage by taking a vow to wear the Dominican habit for a time, but following a revelation made to her in prayer she did not make profession as a Dominican, even in the Third Order. Her father gave her no education, considering this was not good for a woman, but she managed to learn to read and write and her letters show that she was acquainted with some of the writings of the Fathers of the Church. At the age of eighteen she experienced mystical espousal to Jesus.

For twelve years thereafter she prayed constantly that she might be permitted to share in Christ's sufferings for the sake of the Church and of Italy which was torn by feuds and wars. Finally, when she was thirty she received the stigmata on her head, then her side, and finally on her feet. She also had a vision in which her heart was transformed and divided into four parts. For the rest of her life she experienced the Passion in a more intense way on Wednesday's and Friday's. In her case the stigmata do not seem to have bled, but simply to have appeared as red, intensely painful swellings. She kept them hidden from everyone except her servants, but at times the pain in her feet was so great that she was unable to walk. For years also, like St. Catherine, she lived on almost no food at all. In speaking of these matters to Father Jerome she insisted on the utmost secrecy.

Nevertheless, the reputation for her sanctity spread because of her works of charity and her constant prayer which sometimes, much to her embarrassment caused her to fall into escstasy at Mass. As a result people begin to visit her for spiritual counsel and report that she sometimes proved a true prophet about their affairs. These rumors resulted in considerable critical opposition from the Dominican Friars of Mantua who, however, ceased to criticize her when they knew that she was under the direction of one of their number, Dominic de Crema, who kept a record of her experiences which unfortunately was lost at his death.

In 1498 when Osanna was 49 Father Jerome introduced himself to her. He had long observed her praying in Church and had been profoundly impressed by her total absorption in contemplation. In fact it was this inspiration that had let to his own monastic vocation. Between them there grew up a deep relationship. She saw in him, as she frequently repeats in her letters, a spiritual son "conceived in the Blood of Christ," who in the last years of her life provided her with an understanding friendship which she had never known and which at last made it possible for her to speak of her experiences to someone whom she could fully trust to understand her. On his part as a monk still young but very much occupied in the business of his reformed Order and often traveling, he found her a much needed encouragement to his own spiritual growth. His account of her sounds somewhat naive and uncritical, but honest and rather over-curious. In one of her letters (n. 25) we find that he wanted her not to call him by his official titles. In another (n. 43, the last we have) he begged her to tell him his faults, and she replies that he deserves not to be criticized but praised.

These letters were written to him during his frequent travels and absences from Mantua and sometimes at considerable intervals when she excuses herself for not writing because of her many visitors. "If I were a man I would leave Mantua so as to be free of these visitors" (n. 21). They confirm the main impressions one receives from his reports of their conversations in the biography. Although Sylvester of Ferrara in his more objective biography attractive reports that one of the reasons she had so many visitors was the attractive joyfulness and kindness of her manner and her gift for consoling and encouraging those she counseled. The inner life she reveals to Jerome is of intense and constant physical and inner suffering lightened only by sublime experiences of union with God which she cannot describe except in broken and inadequate language. She suffered profoundly from her sense of the misery of Italy at this time, the degradation of the Church under the pontificate of Alexander VI, and her intense longing for God.

The letters do not give us the insight into Osanna's skill as a spiritual director that we find in St. Catherine's letters to very diverse types of people. Osanna does not seem to have been so concerned to advise Jerome as to comfort and encourage him and to express her love for him. In Letters 32 and 33, however, in reply to his questions she advises him not to speak much in prayer but rather to seek cleanness of heart and to seek to grow in the love of God. He should question himself often as to whether his love of God is sincere. In giving this advice she quotes phrases from the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite on silence in prayer and the effects of genuine love. In the last of her letters (n. 43) written on the feast of the Ascension, Osanna tells Jerome that to ascend with Christ it is above all necessary to descend through true humility. She confesses that she regards herself as the lost sheep, the prodigal son, who at the end of her life must come before the Lord with empty hands. Throughout her letters and her conversations we find a profound humility, a deep concern for the Church and the land, and a constant desire to suffer for their conversion, along with her tender love and concern for her spiritual son.

Isabella d'Este

Jerome in recounting his visits with her repeatedly mentions that their conversations were unfortunately interrupted by the arrival of the Marchessa of Mantua to talk with Osanna. Who was this Marchessa so eager for the mystics advise? It was no other that one of the most famous ladies of the Renaissance, Isabella d'Este. Isabella (1474-1539), daughter of Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara, from one of the oldest noble families in Italy, had been given an exceptionally fine education and grew up a highly intelligent and beautiful woman. She was given in marriage to Gianfrancesco Gonzaga who became Marquis of Mantua, was a brilliant mercenary general who eventually disgraced himself and proved unfaithful to Isabella, so that she separated from him and became in effect the ruler of Mantua. As a politician she proved herself an astute diplomat who managed to maintain the independence of her state at a time of constant warfare.

Isabella gathered around herself some of the greatest artists of the day and men of science and letters. She was an insatiable collector of works of art of which she was a discriminating judge. Her great collection after her death was eventually sold to King Charles I of England, and pieces from it are now scattered through the museums of the world. She originally housed it in what she called her "Little Studio" and her "Grotto". She was also considered the fashion-setter for aristocratic women throughout Europe and her letters and accounts show her great extravagance in clothes as well as in art. These letters show her great vitality, wit, worldliness and yet her capacity for friendship, love and tenderness. Her cynicism seems excusable when we read of the milieu of greed, violence, perjury, and treachery in which she had to live in the time of the infamous pope Alexander VI and his murderous son, celebrated by Machiavelli, Caesare Borgia and his sister Lucrezia who became Isabella's sister-in-law! It was this brilliant, famous, and complex Isabella d'Este who regularly visited Osanna to ask for her prayers for her family, her problems of state, and her own spiritual welfare. Unfortunately we do not know what passed between them in the troubled years before Osanna's holy death in 1505 at the age of 56. What we do know is that Isabella managed to live out her own life honorably in the midst of so much that was dishonorable, with an unbroken spirit and success in her difficult office of ruler. In her old age she is reported to have said to her son and successor Frederico, "I am a woman, but I have learned to live in a man's world." Did she gain some of that courage from Osanna who seems to have been her spiritual older sister?

Lucia of Narnia

This relationship of a civil ruler to a mystic is only one example of what seems to have been a normal state of affairs in Italy at this time. Isabella's father, Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara, had a similar relation with Blessed Lucia of Narnia (1476-1544). Lucia also had her first mystical experiences as a child. Forced by her guardians to marry a Count Pietro of Milan she explained that she had previously vowed virginity and eventually he permitted her to separate and himself became a Franciscan. She joined a Group of Third Order Dominicans at Viterbo and soon received the stigmata which in her case were fully visible, and were verified by a papal physician and others. Controversy soon arose concerning her sanctity, but Ercole strongly believed in her and established a new convent at Narni, requesting his daughter-in-law Lucrezia Borgia to find candidates for it. The townsfolk of Viterbo, however, did not want to lose their own mystic and a little war was fought out before Lucia was allowed to go to Narni.

Catherine of Racconigi

The constant interference by the Duke with this new convent soon led to internal troubles in the community. It seems that he liked to show off his own prize mystic to visitors. Finally the sisters demanded that the bishop send Dominican nuns to reform the convent in the manner of the cloistered Second Order. These reformers deposed Lucia as prioress and placed her in solitary penance for the remaining 39 years of her life! After her death, however, the belief in her sanctity revived. During her time of total isolation she is said to have received miraculous visits from another contemporary Dominican mystic Blessed Catherine of Racconigi (1487-1547) who was born in Piedmont of working-class parents, became a Dominican Tertiary, and received the stigmata invisibly. The Dominican Friars of her home town did not believe in her, and she had to find refuge in Recconigi where she became the counselor of both the poor and the gentry. A special feature of her penitential life was constant prayer for soldiers dying in battle.

Columba of Rieti

Contemporary with Osanna was Blessed Columba of Rieti (1467-1501) who at her death appeared to Osanna in a wonderful vision to prepare her for the last difficult years of her life and for her death. She lived first as a recluse in her father's house, but at nineteen entered the Third Order of St. Dominic. Leading a group of women on pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Oak at Viterbo she began to work miracles of healing and exorcism and the fame of her sanctity spread through the countryside. The citizens of Narni (the same were later to battle over the retention of Lucia of Narni) tried to kidnap her for their town, but she escaped and eventually went to Foligno. The bishop, however, ordered her to go to Perugia and found a Third Order convent, which she did but only against the vehement objections of the citizens of Foligno and of Rieti who wanted her for their own towns. For eleven years she was prioress in Perugia where she acted as local spiritual counselor and prophetess, dying at the age of thirty-four. At one time Alexander VI consulted her and received a severe warning and admonition to repent.

Magdalen Pannatieri

Still another mystic of this type was Blessed Magdalen Pannatieri (1443-1503) who was born at Trino, near Vercelli, who also belonged to a chapter of the Third Order, notable for her work as a catechist in a little school prepared for her by the Dominican Friars in their church. She was considered by the townsfolk as the protectress of the city and her intercession in prayer was sought by them in their many troubles. he is said to have prophesied the coming French invasion which devastated the countryside but spared her town.

Stephana de Quinzani

Blessed Stephana de Quinzani (1457-1530)of Brescia was the daughter of a pious man who was a member of the Dominican Third Order which she eventually joined. She lived a life of severe penance, and suffer a dark night of the soul for forty years. A special influence in her life was a vision of Blessed Matthew Carrieri (d.1470) a heroic Dominican friar of Mantua who once offered himself to be sold into slavery to ransom others from the Muslims and who had received the stigmata. After her vision of Matthew Stephana herself received the stigmata. She was said to be gifted with profound theological understanding and the power to read the hearts of the many who came to consult her, among whom where Osanna herself and St. Angela Merici, founder of the Ursulines.

Dominica of Paradiso

Finally there is Dominica of Paradiso (near Florence) (1473-1553) who was also an ecstatic and stigmatic who for ten years tried to enter different communities but was rejected from each. Finally she had a vision of Columbia of Rieti at her death and founded a convent of the Dominican Third Order where she remained prioress for forty years.

When we compare this group of mystics all of whom flourished in the last quarter of the fifteenth century we note many similarities. Their mystical experiences began very early and their devotion to the Infant Christ is a notable feature. All of them experienced constant ecstasies and visions. Most of them received the stigmata and all believed that their vocation was to live a life of severe penance and interior suffering in union with the Crucified in intercession for the reform of the Church and the pacification of war-torn Italy. All were members of the Dominican Third Order as laywomen, although several eventually founded communities of conventual life. The fact that they did not live in strictly cloistered conditions made it possible for them to act as spiritual counselors to many who visited them. All were regarded as possessing prophetic gifts. As a result they seem to have become important institutions, as it were, of the cities in which they lived, often the occasion of controversy, but highly respected by many as protectors, intercessors, and guides of the city.

The accounts we have of them, while in some cases, as in that of Osanna, very trustworthy, are so filled with the marvelous that we today are uncomfortable with them. We can't help but wonder if these women were hysteric, highly suggestible, conforming to a pattern of sanctity which was fashionable in Northern Italy at that time which was in many ways a time of troubles, and the object of a superstitious veneration and trust. Isabella d'Este may have consulted Osanna much as we know she habitually consulted her court astrologer. The reports of the stigmata, in particular, are in most cases not very well verified -- those of Lucia of Narni being an exception.

Nevertheless, anyone who reads Jerome of Mantua's interviews with Osanna and her own letters cannot help but be struck by the profound, theological spirituality which they manifest, which has much in common with that of the great St. Catherine of Siena. May it not be that at a time when the Italian clergy was in so sad a state and when the luxury and violence of the Renaissance had made it so necessary for the people to receive the ministry of hope and consolation, that the merciful God did endow these women with prophetic gifts, confirmed by miraculous signs, to provide that so needed ministry? Moreover in most of these cases the authenticity of their lives was subjected to the severe testing of much controversy, persecution, and investigation by skeptical priests, including Dominican Friars well acquainted with inquisitorial methods.

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