The Basilica of San Domenico and Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

One of the major draws of Siena is the church that houses the head of Saint Catherine of Siena.  She is a patron saint of Italy, a patroness of Europe, and she is one of a handful of women who were named Doctors of the Catholic Church. (Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Avila are two others.)

It’s confusing when you are walking through the city because there is a magnificent basilica made in pink, blue and white marble.  It is spectacular and breath taking.  It’s the Duomo of Siena.

That’s not it.

If you ask someone where St. Catherine’s church is, you will become more confused.  They will answer, “Domenico” because they are being helpful.  However, my Italian is not fantastic, so when I was listening for  “Caterina” all I heard was “Domenica.”  This word means Sunday.  Wha???  Is it closed?  Do we wait until Sunday?

This is where it pays to do your homework, my babies.  The Church WITH Saint Catherine is The Basilica of San Domenico.  Oooohh.  That’s why I can’t find it. Via Campo Regio is the nearest street.  While it is sometimes called, “Cateriniana” this Gothic church was built starting sometime around 1226.  Saint Catherine did not die until April 29, 1380, and it was some time after that her head was returned to Siena.

So.  In order to view the head of this amazing woman, you need to say, “Dove’ Basilica di San Domenico.”  Like all of the roads in Italy, they tease you into insanity.  Via Campo Regio.  Say it with me, now!  It’s confusing and nothing seems to go straight left or right.  The roads kind of bump up against a building and then vanish into a piazza.  This road is the closest to the building, but if you try and put the church into a GPS it will tell you “Piazza San Domenico.”

Whew, you made it!!!  An aside.  Before you go in, there’s always a bunch of vendors nearby selling beautiful scarves.  You won’t know you need it until you see it.  The dress code here requires arms and legs covered so you can rationalize buying said scarf.

It is here that one can find the side altar, Cappelle della Volte, which is the melodious Italian name for The Chapel of the Head (Face.)  Ever the macabre ones, the Italians managed to smuggle her head out of Rome and return her to her home town.  They could only get the head….and a thumb.

The rest of her is buried in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  This is Italian for Saint Mary’s Over Minerva.  When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity under Constantine, the Roman gods, well, were ruined.  They put Saint Mary’s OVER Minerva.  That’s what “sopra” means, above, on top of,that sort of thing. (That’s another church for another day.)

In this beautiful church, you can feel a tangible connection to Catherine.  This woman overcame sickness and death, marriage and heartache to become one of the greatest vessels the world has known to carry The Gospel.

Leave a Reply