Siena, one of the oldest cities in Italy, was the home town of Catherine, one of the towering female Christian figures of the Middle Ages and one of only three women to be designated as a Doctor of the Church. During her years as a Dominican disciple, she used Siena as a base for her travels throughout Italy and France, where she worked diligently to achieve peace among the region’s many petty states and Church factions. Already a popular pilgrim stop in the Middle Ages, Siena’s association with Catherine made the Basilica of San Domenico and other places associated with her life an important pilgrimage destination in its own right. As the shrine of one of Italy’s two patron saints, it is one of the most beloved shrines among Italian Catholics.
Catherine of Siena, a patron saint of Italy, was one of the most important Christian women to live between ancient Roman and modern times. The 23rd of 25 children, she was born in 1347, just in time for the arrival of the Black Plague. She was a devout Christian from an early age, and was known to fast regularly and have visions of Jesus and of St. Dominic. After a brief inquisition by the Dominicans in 1374, she proved herself a faithful Christian, and soon rose to prominency among the locals of the Church of Siena. So popular and respected did she become that she was designated an ambassador-at-large in Northern Italy, working tirelessly to effect peace among the warring city states.
Her greatest achievement was that of prevailing upon the Pope in Avignon to return the Papacy to Rome in 1377. She spent most of the rest of her life in Rome, working to reconcile the various factions of the Church. During this period she became known as a theologian and a prolific writer. Throughout her life her fasts and other acts of piety became more extreme, until in her thirties her diet consisted solely of Communion bread. She died at the relatively young age of 33, probably due to anorexia.
Catherine was interred in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome, at first in the cemetery, but later inside the cathedral. However, so popular had she become in her home town that after her canonization, her head was removed and placed in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena. Her relic remains split between the churches to this day.
The Basilica of San Domenico is one of the most important surviving Dominican churches of the late Middle Ages. For centuries it was a popular stop on the pilgrim road to Rome. Religiously it is still the most important church in the city, if not the most prominent. Today it is somewhat out of the way, especially for the mainstream tourist crowds; however, it it still very popular among Italian pilgrims, especially Dominican nuns.
The Basilica of San Domenico dates from the 13th century, but was substantially renovated and enlarged in the 14th century. The red-brick structure is more Gothic than anything else, though its appearance is far from typical. While the building is large enough to dominate the neighborhood, it has a blocky structure that lacks adornment and elegance. However, it is surrounded by groves of pine trees which help to improve its overall appearance.
The interior is more impressive, but similarly odd for a church of the era. The towering nave, without aisles, constitutes a single, unobstructed open room. The white-washed walls are pierced with huge windows that give the church considerable light. The ceiling is supported by exposed wood beams. On the whole it is more reminiscent of a medieval banquet hall than a church. A chapel which looks as though it had been lifted out of a magnificent Baroque-era church somewhere else seems out of place. It is here where the head of Catherine of Siena is kept.
The Basilica of San Domenico is on the northwest outskirts of the historic city center of Siena, approximately 145 miles north of Rome. It is open from March through October 7:00am-6:30pm; and from November through February 9:00am-6:00pm. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.basilicacateriniana.com (official website)
Siena is a city of churches, including many that date from the 15th century or earlier. The main church is the Cathedral of Siena, but there are also two full-fledged basilicas, the Basilica dell’Osservanza and the Basilica of San Francesco. For those visitors who want more of Catherine, the Sanctuary of Santa Caterina encloses the house in which she lived. And of course, her body is interred in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.