No visit to Siena Italy is complete without a visit to one of the great gothic churches, Basilica of San Domenico Siena. Built starting from 1226-1225 A.D., the church overwent a major overhaul in the 14th century, to make it the amazing gothic structure that it is today. This beautiful example of gothic architecture is most famous for it’s connection to Saint Catherine. Set high on a hill, this amazing structure is home to amazing art from artists like Francesco di Vannuccio, Raffaello Vanni, and Benedetto da Maiano, just to name a few.
The most notable artifact at Basilica San Domenico is, without a doubt, the head of Saint Catherine. A legend in her own time that died at the young age of thrirty three from a stroke, Catherine claimed to have a mystical marriage with Jesus. Her letters to Pope Uban IV are said to be among the most important of Tuscan literature. Upon her death in 1380, the people of Sienna wished to have her body, but knew they could not smuggle her corpse out of Rome. They decided to compromise and try to smuggle only her head to Siena.
The miracle they said, came when upon searching the bag containing the head, the guard saw only rose petals and allowed the parcel to carry on to Sienna whereupon the head, once again appeared in the bag. Becasue of this story, pictures of Saint Catherine often depict her holding a rose. The right wall of the nave at Basilica of San Domenico in Siena houses an altar in which the late saint’s head and thumb remain to this day.
Lovers of religious history and art will be thrilled by a painting of Saint Catherine thought to be the only accurate portrait taken of the women in her lifetime. A visit to Italy is about art and religious history, and indeed Rome, but beyond Rome is Siena, and in that amazing little city, overlooking much of Siena from a hill, rests an old Gothic Church that any visitor to Italy will remember for a lifetime. Bring your Rosary!