Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

St. Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena

May 6, 2007

The bells of San Domenico church just sounded for their 9am ringing. This is one of Siena’s landmark churches, just a bit more than a football field’s length from our apartment, with its massive orange-red brick presence standing 6 or 7 stories tall, and the bell tower higher than that. This church dominates one entrance to the city and its bells punctuate the mornings: at 7am, 7:30 and 9:00, again at 12:00 – cheery, raucous, though no doubt there is pattern in this ringing (a “tune”) that means something, even if we cannot decipher it, except as a call to mass.

This is a church of the Domenican order (following rule of St. Benedict, 5th C and the first “order” of monks recognized by the Catholic church). Built in the 1100’s, it was probably on a site where a smaller church stood, and before that it was likely a Roman temple – this is a common pattern. In fact, Siena’s main cathedral is known to have been built over the Roman temple of Minerva which stood there – sadly, no trace remains of that temple.

In San Domenico, cavernous and immensely tall inside, is a side chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in the late 1200’s. She was born just a block or two from here, and thus San Domenico was her family’s church. Caterina Benincasa was from a middle class Sienese family, practical-minded business people in the cloth trade. But from early childhood Caterina was unusual and drawn to religious observance and visions. After much protest, her family consented and allowed her to follow a religious life. She became a Domenican “tertiary” (not a nun, a sort of lay associate of the Domenicans).

In her short life (she was not yet forty when she died, essentially starving herself to death) she visited and discussed theology with numerous popes, and worked hard to end the schism that divided the papacy between Avignon and Rome. She wrote hundreds of letters, about 370 of which survive – testament to her political action and strong and somewhat odd religious beliefs (blood was a particular fixation). Today, Catherine is patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis) and of the entire European Union. She was reportedly the most important and powerful woman of the entire middle ages.

Some of the many miracles attributed Catherine happened in San Domenico, including her receiving the stigmata (scars and marks similar to those Jesus suffered on the cross). Her chapel at San Domenico houses relics including her head and one finger (this is Italy!), plus items such as a small whip she used on herself.

The Benincasa family house eventually had a shrine and small church built over it – but some of it is preserved, including part of the kitchen and, most moving, Catherine’s bedroom. After her religious visions began she was allowed to live in a small stone room, sleep on the floor with a rock for a pillow, and to pray day in and out. The room, decorated with a few of her things, sits screened off from the rest of the house, which has been painted with frescoes depicting main points of Catherine’s life.

This past April 29th, Catherine’s feast day was celebrated in Siena with costumed processions through town to her chapel in San Domenico. That evening we went to a gala ceremony in Siena’s main square, Piazza del Campo where throngs of onlookers watched the 17 Contrade (district guilds) march in with elaborately costumed flag and drum corps, past formations representing every branch of the military standing at attention. On the podium in front of Siena’s renowned 13th century town hall, the Cardinal and Bishop were holding up the reliquary with Catherine’s finger to bless them.

Our photos show San Domenico as viewed from our front window. Also here is the procession along the street below our bedroom window with Siena’s Bishop and Cardinal, Anne standing at the window watching things while grading papers from one of our classes here, and in no. 245, our 2nd floor apartment, which is on the corner, the window is open (just behind the flagpole) — odd to be so bound into a brick and stone urban setting, but quite in the midst of it all too, interesting new exp. for us. And several of the flags and ceremonies for Catherine in the piazza on the 29th.


May 14, 2007 - Posted by | About Tuscany, Art and the Arts

1 Comment »

  1. Hi, do you remember our daughter Amanda? She was studying in Siena in 2005. We had a wonderful dinner at your house. She returned to Siena to get married in May 2007. You can see pictures at Webshots.com under Melielo. Wish we knew you were still there then!!

    Happy New Year!!! Great site you have created!

    Comment by Bonnie M | December 29, 2007 | Reply

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