6.7 Hidden Treasure: the Oratory of San Bernardino

This itinerary features a wonderful place in the city, virtually unheard of despite being located in the historic centre, the Oratory of San Bernardino adjacent to the Basilica of San Francesco in the Terzo di Camollia.


It is fairly well known that Siena is ‘divided’—although perhaps the more correct term is ‘united’—into seventeen contrade (districts), the same contrade that meet/clash twice a year in Piazza del Campo during the Palio.

What is less well known, however, is that Siena is also divided into three ‘thirds’—three areas of the city that correspond to the administrative division of the Middle Ages and which bear three significant names from Siena’s past:

Terzo di San Martino, which includes the contrade of Civetta, Leocorno, Nicchio, Torre, and Val di Montone

Terzo di Città, which includes the contrade of Aquila, Chiocciola, Onda, Pantera, Selva, and Tartuca

Terzo di Camollia, which includes the contrade of Bruco, Drago, Giraffa, Lupa, Istrice, and Oca.

After that brief digression about the terzi and the contrade—essential information for understanding Siena—let’s return to the subject of San Bernardino (St Bernardine).

Who was Bernardine?

Much of what is known about his life’s work has come down to us through the canonisation process.
Bernardine was a Franciscan friar who distinguished himself as a great orator; he even popularised the monogram of Christ, an antique symbol consisting of three letters: IHS (Iesus Hominum Salvator), which became known as the Bernardine monogram since he used to carry it, painted on a wooden tablet, during his well-attended sermons.

Bernardine was born in Massa Marittima on 8 September 1380—the same year that St Catherine died—to Tollo di Dino di Bando, a member of the noble Albizzeschi family from Siena, and Nera di Bindo, a member of the noble Avveduti family from Massa Marittima.

At the age of six, he was orphaned when both parents died and was taken in by an aunt named Diana; unfortunately, in 1391, she also passed away and the young Bernardine was once again left alone. He moved to Siena, where he was entrusted to his uncle Cristoforo who, being childless, raised Bernardine with great love and devotion, as if the child were his own.

From a young age, Bernardine showed a certain inclination towards asceticism, which led to his decision to join the Compagnia dei Battuti della Beata Vergine at the Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala, becoming a councillor soon after.

It was during those years that Bernardine demonstrated his devotion to his neighbour by looking after the sick for four months during the virulent plague of 1400.

According to the accounts of the canonisation process, at the age of twenty two he received the habit from Fra’ Giovanni Ristori in the Basilica of San Francesco and, two months later, entered the Ordine dei Frati Minori Osservanti, a suborder of the Franciscans founded around 1368 by Paolo Trinci da Foligno.

However, as Siena was not home to any convents of this new branch of the order, which followed the rule of San Francesco (St Francis) to the letter and created religious communities with a decidedly hermitic stamp, Bernardine moved to the Colombaio Monastery on Mount Amiata, living in poverty and self-denial.

After taking his vows in 1403, he devoted himself to study—from the great Fathers of the Church to contemporary thinkers—and to preaching, travelling around northern Italy, going as far as Canton Ticino.

From 1423 onwards, as Bernardine’s fame as a rousing orator spread, he was accused of heresy on several occasions, allegations generated both by his constant urging of the rich to renounce their wealth and take a vow of poverty, and by his devotion to the name of Jesus—expressed, as mentioned before, by the monogram ‘IHS’, a symbol already prevalent in Christian iconography but which Bernardine employed repeatedly, referring to it as the ‘voice of Christ’.

As a result of such claims, he was denounced as a heretic before Pope Martin V, but Bernardine, who was protected by powerful friends, was acquitted and even received approval to use the monogram in public.

Bernardine was a key figure in the tormented 15th century of Siena, characterised by noble families battling each other, merchants increasingly eager to seize power, and more and more impoverished workers. Seeking to follow in the footsteps of St Francis, Bernardine attempted to speak to the masses, to make God’s presence felt among the people, encouraging them to base their lives on essential values such as poverty and humility, and vigorously opposing the ambitions of the wealthy families who aspired to raise the names and coats of arms of their own houses ever higher.

A bronze paving stone in Piazza del Campo, directly in front of the entrone (entrance), marks the place from which he used to preach; so popular were his sermons, attracting thousands of people to the square, that some were even transcribed in typescript form by several of his followers.

Bernardine died in 1444 in L’Aquila, where he was also buried.

He is often depicted as an elderly man with the typical physical traits of the greyhaired—rather small eyes, a sparse beard, a receding mouth, and a protruding chin—but which are based on actual characteristics taken from the death mask that was made before his burial.

His cult is still very much alive in Siena, second only to that of St Catherine. Since the city did not yet have an Ordine dei Frati Minori that followed the reformed Franciscan rule, he founded one on the site where today stands the basilica known as ‘dell’Osservanza’, so named by the community of friars who settled there in celebration of the memory of St Bernardine.

Piazza San Francesco

Now to the oratory. By walking along via di Banchi di Sopra, then turning onto via dei Rossi and continuing straight on, you will reach the small building dedicated to the saint, which is located just to the right of the Basilica di San Francesco, a church in which, along with important works of art, the so called ‘Sacred Particles’ (sacred hosts) are housed.

We are just outside the old city walls, in the area that serves as the border between the Giraffa and Bruco contrade, once bitter rivals and now ‘only’ hostile neighbours.

For those coming to this area for the first time, it will be rather difficult to identify the oratory, since the building almost blends into the façade, squeezed as it is between the door of the convent—now a university faculty—and the Carabinieri headquarters. The building has retained its Renaissance style, and was dedicated to San Bernardino of Siena in 1450, the year of his canonisation.

The Oratory of San Bernardino

The building consists of two nuclei. The first houses the Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art), an institution established in 1980 with the aim of valorising and promoting the great heritage of medieval and Renaissance works of art from Sienese places of worship, in the former premises of a 13th century Confraternita di Santa Maria Vergine.

The second nucleus, the chapel dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli, was entirely frescoed in the early 16th century with Storie della Vergine by Domenico di Pace, known as Beccafumi, Girolamo del Pacchia, and il Sodoma—an artist encountered in the previous chapter dedicated to Monte Oliveto Maggiore.

The Stairs 

Going up the stairs, three 17th century paintings by the Sienese artist Bernardino Mei can be admired, including San Galgano in Preghiera, which depicts San Galgano in prayer, cheek resting on his sword, stuck in a rock to reproduce a cross, and Santa Caterina d’Alessandria e la Traslazione delle Reliquie di San Bernardino, an event which took place in 1610, when the saint’s diaphragm was brought to Siena and is now kept in the sacristy on the upper floor, together with the knife used for the operation and the small bag that contained it.

Also along the stairs is a painting of Sant’Anna che Insegna a Leggere alla Vergine by Alessandro Franchi, a 19th century artist previously encountered in chapter five, which is dedicated to St Catherine (he was the artist who frescoed the Oratory of the Bedroom with stories from the life of the saint).

The Chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli

At the top of the stairs, on the right, is the Chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where two great 16th century artists painted, il Sodoma and Beccafumi, the two individuals who represented the pinnacle of Renaissance painting in Siena before the fall of the Republic.

Both were grand connoisseurs of the technical revolution that took place in the artistic and philosophical fields of their time—the former being particularly sensitive to Raphael’s innovations in the Stanze Vaticane (‘Raphael’s Rooms’ in the present day Vatican Museum) and the latter to the Mannerist imagination of the Florentine sphere. In my opinion, they were unrivalled in interpreting the demands of the late Renaissance in Siena.

Il Sodoma from Vercelli was a painter who, before coming to Siena, had an important formative experience in Milan, where he was influenced by Leonardo’s atmospheric discoveries; at the same time, he observed with particular interest the ‘sweet’ manner of Perugino’s painting. The synthesis of the knowledge he gained during his travels led him to acquire an unmistakable style. The same might also be said for his appearance, since the chronicles tell us stories of an extravagant man who used to be accompanied by pets such as badgers, without the slightest concern for what people said about him. The fact that he was someone who cared little about how he would be labelled is evident from his nickname—il ‘Sodoma’ (the ‘Sodomite’)—which he even used to sign his works. When he was called upon to fresco the oratory in Siena, he had recently returned from Rome, where he had collaborated on the project for the frescoes in the Stanze Vaticane and had also decorated some rooms in the Villa Farnesina, commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi.

Beccafumi, on the other hand, was a full fledged Sienese artist, a spokesman for a renewed artistic culture that the city proudly displayed. It seems that he took his nickname from the surname of the owner of the farm, Lorenzo Beccafumi, where his father worked; his actual name was Domenico di Pace. Seeing the young man’s artistic talents, Lorenzo decided to look after Domenico and offered him the opportunity to study. When he was commissioned to fresco the Oratory of San Bernardino, Beccafumi was not as well-known as his Piedmontese rival il Sodoma, but his signature style was already quite well defined, as demonstrated by the series of classical references in the background architecture of the scenes, his undefined faces, and the grace and elegance that distinguished him from the start; later, he would develop a chiaroscuro technique that can be considered both gloomy and fairy tale like at the same time. There are nine scenes represented here, including the altarpiece.

Those by il Sodoma are: the Presentazione al Tempio, the Visitazione, the Assunzione, and the sublime Incoronazione delle Vergine with St Thomas receiving the Sacred Girdle. Beccafumi, on the other hand, painted the Sposalizio della Vergine, the Morte della Vergine, and the altarpiece with the Vergine e Santi.

A third artist completed this cycle—Girolamo del Pacchia, a Sienese painter who lived in the 15th– 16th centuries, working alongside his two colleagues and learning much of their craftsmanship—who here depicts scenes that are more recognisable than those of the other two artists, namely the Natività della Vergine with its marked domestic connotations, and the Annunciazione.

The Museo Diocesano E d’Arte Sacra

On the other side of the floor is the Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra, a place abounding with works of art from the Sienese School which date back to its beginnings.

Focusing on the works produced in the century covered by this series, we cannot fail to mention San Giorgio che uccide il Drago (St George slaying the Dragon), painted by Sano di Pietro in 1444 and displayed here. The fact that this altarpiece was commissioned by the Tolomei family is evident when looking at the dragon, whose body and wings are studded with crescent moons, an insignia of the Sienese family.

The family commissioned the work for an altar in the Church of San Cristoforo, the same church that played a fundamental role in the history of Siena as the meeting place of the city government before the construction of the Palazzo Pubblico in the 14th century.

Sano di Pietro was an artist working at the height of the 15th century and was particularly active in Siena, with a vast body of work that can still be seen in many of the city’s churches and museums.

Other pieces not to be missed on this floor include the Madonna del Latte, a sculpture by Antonio Federighi, a key artist involved in the 15th century renovation of the Duomo, and the wooden Pietà, carved from a single tree trunk, by Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta, an artist who liked to sign his name pittore (painter) when he sculpted and scultore (sculptor) when he painted. Among his many works at Santa Maria della Scala are a fresco in the Pellegrinaio, all of the Arliquiera, and the bronze Cristo Risorto on the altar of the Church of the Santissima Annunziata.

The last work of art from the 15th century for us to look at is the Annunciazione by Matteo di Giovanni, dated 1455-64.

This is a work created more than a century after the celebrated one by Simone Martini—a masterpiece from 1333 that was commissioned for the Siena Cathedral and is, alas, now housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) in Florence—and yet Matteo di Giovanni’s painting emulates the earlier piece in every way, so much so that it looks like a copy.

Matteo di Giovanni is also known in Siena under the nickname ‘Matteo delle Stragi’, because he was the creator of no less than four works on the theme of the Strage degli Innocenti (Massacre of the Innocents), three of which are preserved in Siena (the Duomo, Santa Maria della Scala, and Santa Maria dei Servi) while the other can be found in the Museo di Capodimonte (Capodimonte Museum) in Naples.
It is interesting to note that the altarpiece, so closely linked to Gothic style and 14th century decorativism, is actually the work of Matteo di Giovanni, an artist who was generally attentive to Renaissance innovations. 

Thanks to the work’s excellent state of preservation, we can deduce that Simone Martini’s Annunciazione must have featured the same carpentry (the wooden structure supporting the altarpiece) as in this version by Matteo di Giovanni (the Uffizi painting was refurbished in the 19th century).

This concludes the chapter devoted to the Oratory of San Bernardino and the 15th century works on display. I recommend taking the time to look at the other masterpieces in the museum as well.

Text by Ambra Sargentoni (Ambra Tour Guide) Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello and
Laura Modafferi
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena, Leonardo Castelli Graphics: Michela Bracciali

I Comuni di Terre di Siena