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The saint who would interrupt Mass with a public confession of her wickedness

St Margaret of Cortona (February 22) lived as a mistress to a nobleman for nine years

By on Friday, 22 February 2013

St Margaret of Cortona hired a woman to lead her around Montepulciano 
with a rope around her neck, crying out: ‘Look at Margaret, the sinner’

St Margaret of Cortona hired a woman to lead her around Montepulciano with a rope around her neck, crying out: ‘Look at Margaret, the sinner’

Margaret of Cortona (c 1247-97) has been called the Second Magdalen – although there is nothing in the gospels to cast any aspersion on Mary Magdalen’s morals.

A peasant’s daughter, Margaret was born at Lavinio, in Tuscany. Her mother died when she was only two, and her stepmother proved antipathetic. The girl did, however, possess the trump card of beauty, and after catching the eye of a local nobleman she eagerly played it.

He carried her off to his castle in Montepulciano, where she lived as his mistress for nine years, bearing him a son. Even at this stage, though, Margaret found ways of helping the poor. And when moralists lectured her on her abandoned ways she laughed, telling them that she would end up as a saint.

Perhaps this happened sooner than she might have wished. One day she was sitting in her chamber when
a favourite hound came in whining and led her into the forest, where she found her lover’s corpse.

He had been mysteriously murdered and in the upshot Margaret had no choice but to leave her life of corrupted luxury.

She returned with her son to her father’s house, but though the old man proved amenable, the stepmother remained inflexible.

It did not help either, at least from the worldly point of view, that Margaret insisted on indulging in ostentatious public penances for her abandoned life in Montepulciano. She would appear in church with a rope around her waist; she would kneel at the church door so that all might look down upon her; and, as if that did not suffice, she would interrupt Mass with a public confession of her wickedness.

It is easy enough to understand why her father and stepmother eventually drove her and her son from the house. The outcasts found refuge with the Franciscans at Cortona. Still, however, Margaret’s self-dramatising instincts were not exhausted.

She cut her face lest her fatal beauty might lead more men to their ruin. Then, returning to Montepulciano, she hired a woman to lead her by a rope around her neck, and to cry out: “Look at Margaret, the sinner.”

Once her son had grown up, Margaret was admitted to the Third Order of St Francis. As the years passed she became more and more of an ascetic and recluse. She did, however, acquire a confessor who conveyed the supernatural communications she enjoyed to the world at large.

Her body lies in a silver shrine above the high altar in St Basil’s, Cortona. In 1901 Edith Wharton published a poem purporting to be spoken by Margaret on her deathbed:

…Suppose my lover had not died,
Think you I ever would have left him living,
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret?

  • mortimer zilch

    wow. Love of Jesus is the key.

  • Parasum

    Thanks for putting me off St.Margaret of Cortona :( Saints who indulge in exhibitions like that, or are self-flagellators, or or lick the wounds of lepers, or are weirdos of some other kind, show that holiness is plainly not for anyone who isn’t a nutcase.

    “It did not help either, at least from the worldly point of view, that
    Margaret insisted on indulging in ostentatious public penances for her
    abandoned life in Montepulciano. She would appear in church with a rope
    around her waist; she would kneel at the church door so that all might
    look down upon her; and, as if that did not suffice, she would interrupt
    Mass with a public confession of her wickedness.”

    ## “[T]he worldly point of view”, tallies, so far as it goes, with the teaching of Christ. He was rather opposed to ostentatious displays of piety, and denounced the doers of them as “hypocrites”.

  • Sculpture

    I know. How exactly is self-harming saintly? Is this what the Catholic Church advocates? A lot like that female saint who “fended off the rapists” and is now the patron saint of rape victims.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    Parasum wrote: “holiness is plainly not for anyone who isn’t a nutcase.”

    It’s true that quite a number of the saints – but by no means all of them – went to extremes in the pursuit of conquering their own appetites and preferences and in showing their love of Christ by their love of their neighbor, especially the poor and those who suffer.

    Think about it, though: In our own contemporary world, the area of competitive sports, men dose themselves with very dangerous prescription drugs in order to enhance their performance, and then lie about it and get into trouble. Is that “nuts”? In the fashion world, female models, at the peak of their youth and beauty, literally starve themselves to remain thin, and they ingest powerful medications to keep their hunger at bay. Some use chemical bleaches and dyes and oven-hot curling irons and blow dryers until their lovely hair acquires a straw-like texture, and they must use wigs. Some have their molars removed so as to have the hollow-cheeked look, and submit to liposuction to remove any lingering stubborn fat deposits. Is all that “nuts”?

    I don’t argue that we ought to imitate what the over-the-top saints did. That is not for us. I want to remind everyone that when we hear of people who want to reach the competitive top of their game resorting to extreme measures to do so, we are fine with that. Why is it different for the saints?

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    Saint Maria Goretti is the patron saint of rape victims, although she was killed by the  would-be rapist, when she refused to submit to his attack. It was not because she fended off the rapist however, that Maria was canonized, but because, later, in the hospital, when the priest asked the dying girl if she could forgive her murderer, Maria replied, “I do forgive him and I want him to be happy with me in Heaven.” Her assailant, Alessandro Serenelli, took no responsibility for his crime, at first blaming Maria for her own death, arguing that if she had “co-operated” on the fatal day she would still be alive. (Much as many modern feminists view the matter) In prison, Serenelli gradually grew to repentance, became a model prisoner, and upon his release, went to Maria’s mother to beg her forgiveness for taking her daughter’s life. Signora Goretti embraced the man, and Serenelli retired to work as a humble laborer at a monastery for the rest of his days. It is said that he listened to the proceeding of Maria’s canonization on the monastery radio, with tears streaming down his face.

    Many people criticized Signora Goretti also for embracing Serenelli. “Why should anyone embrace the man who murdered their child. I would never do that!”

    Why should anyone ask Maria if she could forgive her murderer? Why should she? Doesn’t she have every reason to be full of hate and bitterness toward him, as she lay dying? Why should an example like this be held up as an example to emulate?

    Maria is an example to emulate because she imitated another dying person, a person who was beaten, whipped, and nailed to a cross, and who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christ forgave and to a heroic degree. Maria did, too. That is why she is a saint, and the patroness of rape victims.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    The saint for the majority of us is someone like Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), who deliberatley hesitated when asked to perform an errand in the convent garden, knowing that her companion was longing for some exercise. While the other sister ran joyfully to the task,Therese, who remained behind, was rebuked for her apparent unhelpfulness, but Therese only smiled and kept silent, in imitation of Jesus who remained silent when accused and blamed.

    There was another sister in Therese convent, a sister whom several of the nuns felt had an unbearable personality. Therese also felt this way about her, but made a point of always behaving so amiably and so graciously toward this difficult sister, that Therese’s own sisters by birth (who had entered the same convent) at last became somewhat offended, and demanded to know why Therese was so affectionate toward the unpopular young woman “more so than you are with us, who are your own sisters, after all!” Therese set aside her own dislike so as to please Jesus, her “Beloved Spouse.”

    When she died, one of the other sisters in the convent remarked that it would be difficult to know what to put into the obituary to be circulated among the other convents of her Order, since “Sister Therese never really did anything that anyone noticed.”

    Therese’s little way of pleasing Jesus in everyday things is, a way of sanctity for souls who are not capable of great marvels and accomplishments, is outlined in her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.”

  • bt

    There is a difference between those who display false piety to raise their stature among those around them, and those who recognizing their own sinfulness perform public penances such as when Peter fell to his knees and said to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

  • Snowkey

    How was she even made a saint? she reminds me of the Pharasees that Jesus mentioned, who loved to show everyone how “holy” they were. A little too much “pride” for my taste. I suspect she wouldn’t past muster today with the 2 miracle requirements.

  • Cindy Nartker

    I agree with your blog !  To measure our own practices (daily devotions) with another  would be contrary to the way I believe God’s  viewpoint on  actions of the heart more than others.

  • Cindy Nartker

    Thank you for posting such clarity !  I intend on printing your remarks , to have 
    multiple copies on hand 

  • Prudenter

    public sin requires public penance…Learn your faith…

  • EnTeaJay

    Confession of one’s sins in such a public and humiliating way is not hypocritical or like the pharisees. Nor can we be historical revisionists or judge someone from the 13th century with 21st century parameters. What Jesus referred to as hypocritical were those who acted piously and holier-than-thou when in reality they were whitewashed tombs. Margaret of Cortona gained nothing worldly from her public humilliation. On the contrary she lost all worldly support, even her father deserted her. But in a very sinful age she put herself forward as an example of the depths to which sins of the flesh lead.
    So Parasum, you are turned off by these extreme shows of mortification? Does that mean then that you also reject St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Jerome, St.,Augustine, St. Ignatius Loyola, Don Bosco, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Rose of Lima, St. Martin de Porres, St. Teresa of Lisieux, St. Anthony, St. Martin, etc., etc., because they also practices “extreme” forms of mortification?

  • Sculpture

    Sorry but cutting your face because you are a beautiful woman is horrific and should never be consider a saintly act. It is a grave offense to women to say these things. No, Saint Maria Goretti should not be the patron saint of rape victims. Whether you like it or not, it sends out a very negative message to women who have actually been raped. It is more likely to make them feel ashamed than to relieve their suffering.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    Maria’s story “is more likely to make rape survivors feel ashamed than to relieve their suffering”?
    Not necessarily. I have encountered rape survivors who were further brutalized after the fact by family members who blamed the victims for the attacks. “You enticed him” or “you shouldn’t have been dressed so provocatively” or “you shouldn’t have been alone with him,” and so on have been some of the deplorable accusations these women and girls have suffered. Saint Maria is an example of an unimpeachably virtuous young woman who nevertheless fell into the clutches of a man overcome by his own lustful desires; she thus stands as a witness in testimony against those who arrogantly assume that any female similarly attacked must herself have behaved in an untoward manner.
    The notion that Maria’s decision to undergo martyrdom by resisting her attacker rather than submitting, would somehow represent a fresh source of shame to rape survivors strikes me as rather far-fetched. Unless we also hold that our military establishments act cruelly by honoring the heroism of the soldier who threw himself onto a just-landed grenade-bomb to save the lives of his comrades, lest any veterans who had an opportunity to do so, but did not imitate his example, should feel ashamed of their failure to take the same action.
    The real objection to Maria’s story by many, I suspect, is the fact that in this culture, the Catholic Church continues to teach and to honor sexual restraint, the sanctity of marriage, and Christian family life, and that Maria’s life and death were, in their way, a heroic witness to all three. Saint Maria’s life and death have inspired millions of young people to imitate her in revering the virtues of faith and chastity, while her prayers and example have also been a comfort to those struggling to come to terms with life after a sexual assault.

  • Vanna


  • Sculpture

    “The notion that Maria’s decision to undergo martyrdom by resisting her attacker rather than submitting, would somehow represent a fresh source of shame to rape survivors strikes me as rather far-fetched.”

    Really, it seems quite straight forward: She resisted her attack and preferred to die rather than be raped. Therefore actual rape victims who hear this will probably feel ashamed because they were not able to resist and according to this saintly act, it would be better if they were killed rather than raped.

  • rosemarie kury

    I think that in the times that Margaret lived, public displays of Penance was often the case.  Confessors would tell public sinners (that created a scandal to do things like this.  Remember too, the woman who poured perfumed expensive oil on Jesus’ feet in repentance?  I believe that Margaret was sincere, and from doing a little more reading about her than the article reported, she was very popular with men.  Now, probably she’d be considered crazy, but don’t you feel sometimes sorrow for a sin that you wish you could do more in repentance?  I for one would rather get humiliated like that then suffer the consequences of your sins in Purgatory.  

    I’d like to see some of our fellow politicians who declare themselves “Catholic” yet freely endorse “freedom of choice”, same sex marriage, etc. repent like this, but afraid that will never happen.

  • Emmy Johnson

    It makes it seem that rape makes her a sinner and a worse sin than commiting murder. Many raped victims get both raped and murdered for trying to resist, they don’t have the choice.

  • Cindy Nartker

    Rosemarie,  I also agree  with the logic of your blog; especially the accountability  of our
    polititicians and that is the object for much needed prayers.

  • Martin

     You should know that St. Margaret of Cortona’s body remains incorrupt until this day.  If she is good enough for God, she’d be better be good enough for us…

  • Art B Moreno

    This is the converted response of Sculpure:

    Sorry but allowing yourself be killed because you are humble and holy man should never be considered a saintly act.  It is a grave offense to men to believe these things.  No Jesus should not be the savior of the world, etc.  Sculpture’s mind is of this world and do not yet know that life on earth is temporary.  Like the Pharisees shouting “If you are God why don’t you come down of that cross and save yourself?” Sculpture can not see the value of love towards others and the love of Jesus to our God the Father.  This is what drove St. Goretti to forgive and for Jesus to die for all of us, even if He is God.  While Sculpture is of this world, he will not see the things that Sts. Maria Cortona, Goretti, Our Lord Jesus and all the saints see in their short sojourn in this earthly life.  I will pray that you will before your earthly journey ends.


  • Ar B Moreno

    Ops.  It is St. Margaret Cortona, not Maria Cortona.  My apologies.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    Sculpture writes: “Therefore actual rape victims who hear (about Saint Maria) will probably feel ashamed because they were not able to resist and according to this saintly act, it would be better if they were killed rather than raped.”

    It is possible that survivors may feel that way. But then again, they may not. You and I appear to be going around in circles on this score. You say yes; I say no.

    Rather than to continue to argue in a vaccuum, your next step would be to provide evidence in support of your hypothesis. I would like to see medical or psychological journals detailing studies on long-term and short-term mental health outcomes of sexual assault victims exposed to the example of women who resisted sexual assault, and a study of outcomes among a comparable group of victims not so exposed. The studies don’t have to be on the internet, (the National Library of Medicine is in an area I visit from time to time) but full citations are needed, of course. I would say, at least three studies, if you can manage them.

  • Marion_Upon_St_Blogs

    Interesting speculation, but I don’t agree. Please provide proof. (See above comment)

  • guest

    perhaps these politicians have found that god is telling them that the church’s position on same sex marriage is wrong?

  • Guest

     I can relate to what you have said in your post. Ten years ago I would have been in full agreement with you. In fact I thought of those saints who call themselves wretched and similar adjectives were nothing but exaggerators.  Then tragedy struck – death came a-calling for my husband – I was devastated. Long story short the experience brought me to a deep spiritual awakening and I studied Sts. Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as well as many others.  I learned from St. John of the Cross, that ostentatious public penances [one of the many spiritual pitfalls] were actually temptations from the devil – as the devil cannot tempt a person who is converted to God to commit sin, he will then tempt them to become overzealous in doing good, making them feel that they can never sacrifice enough.  While the latter is true, many simple souls fail to recognize God’s unfathomable mercy and as a result we have lost many a saint through these pious works.  St John of the Cross outlines the spiritual pitfalls that await all who are attracted to God and unless we know what these spiritual pitfalls are we become righteous judges of people’s characters.  His book on the Ascent of Mount Carmel will indicate to the reader of the reader’s spiritual maturity.  Teresa of Avila in her Way of Perfection gives good advice on spiritual warfare for those who embark on the journey to spiritual maturity.

    I can say with certitude that Christ’s denouncement of the public displays of religiosity does not apply to St. Margaret of Cortona… Why because even in private she led a life of reparation, whereas the ones Jesus denounced in the Bible did not.  Her intentions were pure and thus her body is incorrupt.  The body that let her to corruption was purified by her public penances.

    Please delve into the three ages of interior life – the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive ways.  It is worth the research and it the narrow path that God is inviting us to journey.  We discover ourselves in the process, get a good understanding of the human nature and learn what humility is all about. We also know the value of praying for our enemies, that to forgive is divine, and to leave all judgment of character to God. It is the best thriller awaiting anyone who sincerely desires to learn how to fulfill God’s Will in his/her life.

  • Guest

    “Whether you like it or not, it sends out a very negative message to women who have actually been raped.”

    Not necessarily Sculpture if they delved into the rationale of St. Maria Goretti with the eyes of faith.  They would learn to forgive their sexual predators as Maria and her mother did.  In so doing, they can embark on their own personal healing of mind and soul. 

  • guest-123

    That could only happen when night is considered
    day and day is considered night. Marriage is for both love and procreation and
    these two cannot be separated…every. Same sex couples will never, without outside
    assistance, procreate…just can’t happen; any more than church can change what
    a marriage is; no matter what politicians may say

  • Michael

    I imagine the scribes and pharisees muttered similar things when they saw Mary Magdelen washing Christ’s feet with her tears in a very public display of penance.