Siena Stories and Tips

In Search of Saint Catherine of Siena

The Birth-House of Saint Catherine Photo, Siena, Italy

Considering that Siena was the birthplace of the patron saint of (among other things) nurses, firefighters, television, Italy, Europe, and Allentown, Pennsylvania I really expected the town to make a big thing of it. Assisi for instance is pretty much a town devoted to the life of Italy's other patron saint, Saint Francis. Yet if it were not for my intellectual curiosity I would probably not have known that Saint Catherine of Siena existed. The saint I heard most about during my stay was the four day festivities for Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.

Catherine was your typical rebellious teenager. Her parents wished for her to live (to quote Wikipedia) 'a normal life' and get married; instead she devoted herself to acts of piety - praying, meditating, closing herself off from the world. Then at the age of 19 she announced that she had entered into a 'mystic marriage' with Jesus Christ. She claimed to have experienced a series of visions. Today she would probably have been locked up (she is also the patron saint of people ridiculed for their piety); instead Florence appointed her their ambassador to the Papal States. There she proved to play a central role in persuading the Papacy to return from Avignon to Rome. It was in Rome that she died of a stroke in 1380, and it is there that her body is buried. Well, most of it...

It was at the age of 16 that Catherine took the Domenican habit, and she is associated with the vast Basilica di San Domenico (Piazza San Domenico) where she attended church. It is a big barn of a place with angry violent stained glass. Here you can see an image of Saint Catherine - the only one painted of her while she was alive - kneeling with lily. They also have relics of the saint: a wizened finger, the chain she used to mortify herself with, and - in a side chapel - her head. The head is now shrunken, withered and pale, but still wears its nun's wimple. Nowhere did I see any material or signs promoting this connection.

There are some signs, though understated ones, to the Sanctuary and Birth-House of Saint Catherine on Costa di Sant'Antonio. A twentieth century courtyard with a loggia down the side and a complete lack of crowds makes you at first wonder if you have got the right place. Under the first arch you come across the heart of the small complex - she obviously came of a rather grand family. Two baroque chapels face each other, with only a bare handful of pilgrims. Go down the stairs by the gift shop to the Oratory. There are some charming pictures of the young woman here. In one she gives away her clothes, in another she cuts off her hair, in another she is little pink clad girl floating up the stairs, like something from the Exorcist.

Even in the Pinacoteca Nazionale St Catherine does not appear often - and certainly fewer times than her Alexandrian namesake. This can be explained by the later date of her canonization I suppose - by 1461 the golden age of Siena and its art was already slipping past.

I'm not really sure why I went looking for reminders of Siena's most famous inhabitant, nor what I expected to find. But this low-key treatment was certainly not it. I suppose Siena has treasures and wonders enough of its own in the purely physical, and so might feel it does not need the spiritual element that such a major religious and historical figure would present. Leave that to other less worldy cities such as Asisi (St Francis), Padova (St Anthony) or Santiago de Compostela (St James).

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