8.3 The Caterinian way

Contemplata aliis trader: Catherine and the Dominicans

A woman of exceptional charisma, St Catherine of Siena has always held an irresistible fascination for people who have encountered her. Her energy, her love, her attention to the needs of the poor and the sick, her joy, and her profound peace have all drawn men and women to follow her, to walk the same steps, the same path that enabled her to live with such intensity.

Born in 1347 to the dyer Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa di Puccio de’ Piacenti, Catherine had her first vision of Christ at the age of seven. The experience marked her life so profoundly that she decided to take a vow of perpetual virginity, choosing to consecrate herself solely to Him, against the wishes of her family. At the age of sixteen, she entered the Terz’Ordine Domenicano (Third Order of the Dominicans) and spent her life in penance and prayer. At the age of twenty, she learned to read, dictated her first letters, and began her charitable work with the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. Her work attracted the first disciples, who were mockingly called ‘caterinati’ (Catherinites). When the notoriety of her sanctity spread, she was the subject of an intense activity of spiritual counselling towards all sorts of people: nobles and politicians, artists and common folk, the pious, and clergy, including Pope Gregory XI, who was living in Avignon at the time and whom Catherine energetically and effectively exhorted to return to Rome. Her appeals were then extended to the princes and politicians of the Europe of her time, torn apart by internal struggles, to commit themselves actively to restoring peace and building a society based on Christian values. Following the death of Gregory XI, his successor Urban VI was opposed by the College of Cardinals, who elected Clement VII as antipope, thus initiating the Western Schism. Catherine exerted all her might to have Urban VI’s authority recognised and was consumed with grief for the divided Church, dying on 29 April 1380 at the age of 33. She was proclaimed a saint in 1461 by Pope Pius II of Siena, patron saint of Italy by Pius XII, Doctor of the Universal Church by Paul VI, and patron saint of Europe by John Paul II, bearing witness to a spiritual greatness that has transcended the centuries.

The saint’s footsteps have indelibly marked the very ‘stones’ of the city of Siena, its streets and buildings, such that today it is possible for everyone to follow in her footsteps, both physically and spiritually. Although consecrated to God, Catherine participated fully in the social life of her time, making her an excellent guide for entering into the spirit, splendour, culture, and power of 14th-century Siena, one of the most distinguished cities in Europe during that period.

This itinerary will lead you on a discovery of the sites in the city most closely linked to the figure of Catherine, retracing through them her extraordinary human and spiritual life.


The imposing bulk of the Basilica of San Domenico provides a visual image of the influence of the Dominican friars in the Siena of St Catherine. The settlement of the Dominicans in the city was mainly due to the presence of the Studium, the present-day university, and to the fact that the Order, founded by the Spaniard Dominic of Guzmán in the early 13th century, set itself the task of fighting heresies and pursuing the salvation of souls through education and preaching. Thomas Aquinas, the most illustrious Dominican friar, saint and Doctor of the Church, stated in his most famous work that the contemplative life is better than the active one, but what is even better is to transmit to others the things that one has contemplated (Contemplata aliis tradere). Precisely as a result of the charisma of teaching, the presence of the Dominicans is recorded in the main European cities where universities are located.

Both the church and the convent were completed around 1265. The enormous basilica had to satisfy the need for a new evangelisation and therefore had to be able to accommodate the many people who came to listen to the sermons of the friars, also called preachers. St Dominic and St Francis themselves had created an original way of religious life, suited to the new merchant cities: their friars did not produce the necessities of life themselves, like the monks, but depended on the generosity of the people among whom they lived – they were “mendicants”. The convents were built on the outskirts of the cities, in the outskirts where the poorest were relegated; the size of their churches was designed precisely to accommodate the great mass of common people at celebrations.

In this church, which overlooks the Fontebranda district where she lived, Saint Catherine attended Mass countless times and experienced some of the key moments of her mystical experience. Here, at a very young age, she put on the habit of a Dominican tertiary, or ‘mantellata‘, resolving to devote her entire existence to God. In the so-called Cappella delle Volte (Chapel of the Vaulted Ceiling), she withdrew daily to pray and was frequently seized by ecstasies, during which she used to lean against the octagonal pillar that still stands on the open side of the chapel. I Dialoghi della Divina Provvidenza (The Dialogues of Divine Providence), her most important doctrinal work, are the result of her continuous conversations with Jesus Christ in this very place, which were faithfully transcribed by her disciples.

Entering the chapel and turning to the left, one can see the painting of (Santa Caterina e una Devota) (Saint Catherine and a Devotee) by Andrea Vanni. This is a fresco originally situated on the adjacent wall, in the corner of the church, which was removed and moved to its present location in 1667. The exceptional importance of this painting lies in the fact that it was painted when Catherine was still alive: it is therefore rightly considered to be her vero imago (true likeness), a realistic portrait of her features. This is further corroborated by the fact that Andrea Vanni was a faithful disciple of the saint, who also wrote some of the letters of her Epistolary to him. In the fresco, Catherine is shown wearing a white habit and the black cloak of the mantellate; she holds in her hand a lily, the symbol of purity, which would become her traditional iconographic attribute over time. Observing her hands, one notices that they bear the stigmata: an important detail that makes it possible to establish with certainty that the painting was executed after 1 April 1375, when Catherine received the stigmata in the Church of Santa Cristina in Pisa. The young woman kneeling in an attitude of devotion is a disciple, the symbol of all Catherine’s spiritual children, both past and present, and of all those who wish to learn about her life, her works, and her message of peace.

On the opposite wall are two paintings depicting the principal miraculous occurrences inside this chapel, as reported by Catherine’s biographer and confessor, Raymond of Capua, in the Legenda Major: in one, the Saint gives her clothes to Jesus, who appears to her in the guise of a pilgrim. Recognition of Jesus in the poor is a common trait in the lives of many saints, motivating their outburst of charity. In the second depiction, Jesus returns to Catherine the rosary cross she had given him. Both canvases are the work of the Sienese artist Crescenzio Gambarelli, dated 1602.

The remaining paintings in the chapel retrace other moments in the Saint’s life. On the sides of the wall opposite the entrance are two canvases by Crescenzio Gambarelli, both dated 1602, depicting Santa Caterina che Recita l’Uffizio (Breviario) in Compagnia di Gesù (Saint Catherine Reciting the Breviary in the Company of Jesus) and La Morte della Santa (The Death of the Saint). In the central part is the Apparizione di Santa Caterina a Santa Rosa da Lima (Apparition of Saint Catherine to Saint Rose of Lima), the work of Deifebo Burbarini from Siena.

Lastly, in the centre of the right wall is an important work painted by Mattia Preti between 1672 and 1673, depicting the solemn historical moment when Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini of Siena, blesses his nephew Francesco Piccolomini, archbishop of Siena, after handing him the bull of canonization of Saint Catherine, the official declaration of her sainthood (29 June 1461).

Along the right wall of the basilica is the magnificent Chapel of Saint Catherine, built in 1466 to house the saint’s head, the most precious of her relics, brought to Siena from Rome following her death in 1380.

The magnificent marble altar in the centre of the back wall was sculpted by Giovanni di Stefano. The venerable head is located inside the central recess, protected by a golden grille. Over the centuries, the relic has undergone many unfortunate episodes, but has remained intact. In 1531, it risked being destroyed by a violent fire that broke out in the basilica, until one of the friars, Guglielmo da Firenze, threw himself into the flames and saved it. In May 1609, after a procession, the inhabitants of Fontebranda tried to take it away for safekeeping in their district; there followed a number of clashes until the Collegio di Balìa intervened and had the sacred head returned to San Domenico. Nearly two centuries later, in 1798, the relic was surprisingly unharmed by an earthquake that damaged the basilica; it was then relocated to the Duomo, inside the Piccolomini Library, and was returned to its rightful place on the occasion of Sunday in Albis in 1806.

A few decades after the construction of the chapel and the marble altar, the painted decoration of the walls began. In 1526, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, known as Il Sodoma, painted two of his most renowned masterpieces on the sides of the altar, the Svenimento Mistico (Mystic Fainting) and the Estasi della Santa (The Ecstasy of the Saint), which testify to the intensity of Saint Catherine’s prayer. The fainting was not a ‘sentimental’ excess, but a failing in the presence of the greatness of God’s love, while the ecstasy consists of being completely absorbed in His contemplation. Despite the narrowness of the available wall surface, the artist managed to give these scenes an extraordinary monumentality, combining the perfection of the drawing and the masterful combination of colours with a solemn and measured compositional structure. Il Sodoma is also responsible for the large and crowded fresco on the left wall, depicting the Decapitazione di Niccolò di Tuldo (Beheading of Niccolò di Tuldo). The episode is narrated in one of the most significant pages of the Epistolario. In 1377, Niccolò di Tuldo, a gentleman from Perugia, was unjustly condemned to death by the Sienese magistrates on charges of espionage. Once in prison, he fell into a state of deep despair and was visited by St Catherine, whose words comforted him to such an extent that he was able to accord his own will to the divine plan, allowing himself to be led to the scaffold ‘like a meek lamb’.

The painting on the opposite wall was done in oil by another great Sienese painter, Francesco Vanni, between 1593 and 1596. The scene, set in a loggia, shows Saint Catherine freeing a possessed woman from the devil, amid the amazement of a diverse crowd of onlookers, made up of nobles, clergy, beggars, and commoners, as if to emphasize the universal character of her message.

Also along the right side of the church, inside a reliquary inserted in the wall, are other relics belonging to the saint. By ‘relics’ (from the Latin reliquus: remains), we mean what remains of the body of people who were recognised as having extraordinary virtues of holiness. Over time, the term was also extended to clothing and objects that came into direct contact with the saints. The shrine contains the relic of Catherine’s thumb, preserved in a crystal and silver reliquary. During the annual celebrations in honour of the saint, it is brought to Piazza del Campo and used to impart the blessing to Italy and Europe, of which Catherine is the patron. The reliquary also contains some objects that came into contact with the saint: the chalice with which she received the Eucharist from Jesus, the cords with which she used to discipline herself three times a day, and the sacred stone that was placed on the portable altar so that, wherever she was, a priest could celebrate Holy Mass and administer the sacraments to her. This stone is said to have been splattered with the blood of Thomas Becket when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, where Catherine was on a pilgrimage. Finally, in the centre of the shrine is the embossed bronze bust in which the saint’s head was originally kept, and which is now located in the nearby chapel.


Why is the most representative place of the saint her home and not a convent? The answer lies in Catherine’s belonging to the Dominican Third Order. After taking the habit of the tertiary, or mantellata, Catherine continued to spend her life in her natal home, in accordance with the new way of living her consecration to God, first introduced by Saint Francis and then also accepted by Saint Dominic: the institution of the Third Order was in fact a response to all those lay faithful, both men and women, who wished to live an intense Christian life without living in a convent like the friars. Belonging to the Third Order offers, in other words, the possibility of practising faith in the wider world. The figure of Catherine is an emblematic example of this: spending her life within the walls of her home and on the streets of the city rather than in a convent, being a laywoman rather than a nun, did not prevent her from entering into deep communion with God and living according to his teachings.

The various rooms that make up the Shrine allow us to enter Catherine’s intimacy, starting with the Oratorio della Camera (Oratory of the Bedroom), the space most closely linked to the first phase of the Saint’s life, where, little more than a child, she withdrew in isolation, devoted to contemplation and penance. Here, at the age of seven, she made a vow of perpetual virginity, at the same time renouncing all material pleasures: she began to deprive herself of food and sleep, to wear the cilice and to undergo flagellations.

This period represents the starting point of that process of spiritual, but also physical, transformation which characterises Catherine’s life: like the beating of the heart, she first contracts, gathers herself to know Christ, and then opens herself to spread God’s grace throughout the mystical body of Christ which is the Church. Thus, from the beginning, the Saint’s body, which was forced to undergo the most severe privations, shrank and became smaller. Even the space in which she moves is marked by a progressive withdrawal: she locks herself up in her house, then she no longer comes out of her room, and finally, she walls herself up inside a spiritual cell built in the depths of her own soul, where there is continuous dialogue with Christ. Catherine, at this point, has nothing, is nothing, but precisely because of this she is susceptible to being completely reshaped by divine grace. Her new body is not regulated by biological rules, but functions according to the dispositions of the Absolute: it feeds on Eucharistic food and on the blood that flows from Christ’s side, it identifies completely with Him to the point of assuming His stigmata. He receives extraordinary abilities: levitation, invulnerability to fire, and the gift of performing miracles. The soul goes beyond the confines of the body, comes out of it, into ecstasy, and then re-enters it and goes out onto the streets of the world. Catherine left her cell, then her home, and finally Siena, to bring to all the love of Christ that she had known in her intimacy.

The Oratory of the Bedroom is a small room that was completely renovated in 1874, leaving only the cubicle, the small space where Catherine used to pray and rest, in its original state: the stone on which she used to rest her head is still visible inside, protected by an iron grille. The back wall of the oratory has a small altar that houses the beautiful panel with Santa Caterina che riceve le Stimmate (Saint Catherine Receiving the Stigmata), painted by Girolamo di Benvenuto around the beginning of the 16th century. The walls were frescoed by Alessandro Franchi with the collaboration of Gaetano Marinelli in 1896 and depict episodes from the life of the Saint inspired by the Legenda Major by Raymond of Capua.

On the floor above the Oratorio della Camera is the Oratorio della Cucina (Oratory of the Kitchen), which includes the space once occupied by the kitchen of the Benincasa family, the hub of domestic life. Through the grille placed under the altar, on the wall opposite the entrance, the remains of the ancient hearth are still visible: it was in this burning hearth that Catherine fell during one of her ecstasies, miraculously remaining unharmed. Within these domestic walls, the Saint spent the first phase of her life, amidst incessant prayer, penance, moments of contemplation, and conversations with the Eternal Father, until the moment when she was called by God to the concrete activity of supporting the Church and the Papacy, culminating in her journey to Avignon, the greatest diplomatic undertaking in 14th-century Europe, the fruit of which was to bring the papal seat back to Rome.

Nearly a century after Catherine’s death, between 1482 and 1483, the Confraternity named after her chose this space as the meeting place for the brothers, who soon afterwards placed on the back wall, above the altar, the panel painted in 1496 by the Sienese painter Bernardino Fungai. The central panel of the painting depicts the episode of the stigmatisation of the saint, the high point of her spiritual journey. At the time of its execution, the crucifix from which Catherine received the stigmata, now kept in the church in front of the Oratory, was still in Pisa and would be brought to Siena only a few decades later, in 1565. Few Sienese must have seen it before then. This explains why Fungai’s crucifix is depicted as a sculpture and not as a painted cross, which it actually is. The altarpiece also has a predella below with scenes from the life of Catherine and two side panels occupied by the figures of St Dominic and St Jerome, the work of Fungai himself. The upper part with the Eternal Father and two Prophets was added a few decades later, in 1567, by the Sienese Bartolomeo Neroni, known as Il Riccio.

Around the middle of the 16th century, the Confraternity decided to enlarge the oratory and to begin work on the furnishings and decorations under the guidance of Il Riccio himself, who was able to give the room a homogeneous and unified character. In addition to a number of paintings, Il Riccio also designed the beautiful blue and gold coffered ceiling and the rich wooden panelling on the walls, which frames and links the various canvases. The wooden choir and the floor made of Renaissance polychrome majolica tiles, many of which have unfortunately deteriorated and been replaced over time, complete the room. In order to preserve the precious floor, the oratory has been equipped with a raised transparent platform around the perimeter, which allows visitors to pass through without causing further damage. The numerous canvases adorning the walls of this room, commissioned by the confraternity from various artists, depict episodes from Catherine’s life, drawn mainly from Raimondo da Capua’s Legenda Major. In the four corners there are also four Sienese saints and blesseds.

Opposite the Oratorio della Cucina is the splendid Chiesa del Crocifisso (Church of the Crucifix). The importance of this sacred building and its very raison d’être lie in the presence of the wooden crucifix from which Saint Catherine received the stigmata (from the Greek stigma: mark), or wounds similar to those inflicted on Jesus Christ during the crucifixion.

The miraculous event took place in Pisa, where the Saint had gone in 1375 at the request of Pope Gregory XI, with the task of convincing the Lords of the city not to join the anti-papal league. In the Legenda Major, Raymond of Capua narrates that on 1 April of the same year, while absorbed in prayer in the Church of Santa Cristina, Catherine saw five blood-red rays descend from the crucifix in front of which she was kneeling, directed at her hands, feet and heart. She immediately asked God to make the stigmata invisible and before the rays reached her, they changed colour and became glowing with light. They remained visible only to the saint throughout her life, until, at the moment of her death, they miraculously appeared. The validity of Catherine’s stigmata was only officially recognised in 1623 by Urban VIII, after a dispute that had lasted nearly two centuries. As had happened with Saint Francis of Assisi, who was the first saint to receive the stigmata, for Catherine too the episode marked the culmination of her spiritual journey and represented her identification with Jesus Christ: she became in all things akin to the crucified Lord and like him burned with the same desire for the salvation of mankind. The Saint’s request for the stigmata to be invisible responds to her refusal to make a spectacle of the miraculous event, in accordance with the extraordinary humility that characterised her entire existence.

After Catherine’s death, the Sienese wished to obtain the crucifix that had made her a perfect icon of Christ’s love; after many attempts, the Confraternity dedicated to the Saint succeeded, and in 1565 the wooden cross was brought to Siena and placed in the Oratorio della Cucina. With the passing of time, however, they began to consider a larger space that would favour its veneration. The only suitable location was in front of the Oratory, traditionally thought to be the Benincasa family’s vegetable garden. It was in this area that the Chiesa del Crocifisso was built in Baroque style between 1614 and 1623, and its decoration continued for over a century. The numerous paintings on the walls of the church retrace significant moments in Catherine’s life, emphasising in particular the extraordinary results she achieved in the political field for the benefit of the Church, such as her having brought the Papal See back from Avignon to Rome, putting an end to the so-called ‘Avignon Captivity’, and re-establishing peace between Florence and the Papal States, which had long been at war with each other. Three of the four large canvases occupying the nave of the church are dedicated precisely to this particular aspect of Catherine’s story. Starting from the entrance, the first painting on the right-hand wall depicts the Ritorno del Papa Gregorio XI a Roma (Return of Pope Gregory XI to Rome), the work of the painter Niccolò Franchini and dated 1769, flanked by the canvas of Caterina che Esorta Gregorio XI a Tornare a Roma (Catherine Exhorting Gregory XI to Return to Rome), painted by the Bolognese Alessandro Calvi, known as Il Sordino. On the opposite wall is Santa Caterina Assalita dai Soldati Fiorentini (Saint Catherine Being attacked by Florentine Soldiers), painted by Galgano Perpignani in 1765, recalling one of the moments of the pacification between Florence and the Papacy. The fourth canvas, painted by Liborio Guerrini in 1777, depicts the Elemosina di Caterina (The Almsgiving of Catherine), with the saint surrounded by the poor, intent on distributing bread to them. In reality, the Legenda Major recounts that she used to give alms at night, leaving them in front of the doors of poor families, in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel, which says that alms should be hidden and not displayed.

The paintings on the two altars on either side of the transept depict, on the right, once again Santa Caterina di fronte a Gregorio XI ad Avignone (Saint Catherine before Gregory XI in Avignon), an 18th-century work by Sebastiano Conca, and on the left, Santa Caterina Accolta dalla Madonna in Paradiso e Presentata a Gesù Cristo (Saint Catherine Welcomed by Our Lady in Paradise and Presented to Jesus Christ), painted by Rutilio and Domenico Manetti in 1638. Also in the left transept is the banner depicting Santa Caterina che Riceve le Stimmate dal Crocifisso (St Catherine Receiving the Stigmata from the Crucifix), created by Rutilio Manetti in 1630 on commission from the Confraternity dedicated to the Saint, while next to the altar is a small niche containing a reliquary with a fragment of her scapula. On either side of the presbytery are two paintings by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini depicting L’Estasi di Santa Caterina (The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine) and La Santa che Scrive Ispirata da San Giovanni Evangelista e da San Tommaso d’Aquino (The Saint Writing, Inspired by St John the Evangelist and St Thomas Aquinas). Nasini also painted the frescoes on the dome and vaults depicting the Glorificazione ed Esaltazione di Caterina (Glorification and Exaltation of Catherine), painted between 1701 and 1703, in which she is welcomed into paradise and shares in the glory of heaven.


The medieval fountain of Fontebranda, the oldest in Siena, provides an insight into the social context in which Catherine lived. The presence of the fountain made this place one of the nerve centres of daily life in Siena, given the great importance of water for the city. Siena stands on arid hills, far from waterways and mountains; for this reason, since ancient times, the lack of water has forced its inhabitants to exert considerable efforts in order to have it, as can still be seen today by the extraordinary network of underground aqueducts patiently dug into the rock: these are the ‘bottini‘, so called because they are covered by a barrel vault, which fed springs, wells, and cisterns. One of the two ‘bottini maestri‘, the most important aqueducts in this network, was Fontebranda. As a result, the waters of this fountain were among the most abundant and quenched the thirst of half the city for centuries, including Catherine and her family; the fountain also ensured the subsistence of her father’s business, which drew the water needed to dye clothes from it.Visita guidata ai bottini di Siena

The existence of a fountain on this site is documented as early as 1081; however, it was rebuilt and enlarged by a certain Bellamino in 1193, as an inscription on the inside attests. A few decades later, in 1246, a cross-vaulted roof was constructed and four stone lions were inserted into the façade from which water gushed.

Like the other major medieval fountains in Siena, Fontebranda has three large basins, which had three different functions in the past: the first contained drinking water, the second, fed with water from the first, was used for watering animals; and the third, into which the water from the previous two basins flowed, served as a wash-house. From here, the water passed into the so-called ‘white sewer’ and was used both by the numerous dye works and tanneries in the area and by the mills located just outside the city walls.

Not far from Fontebranda, along the so-called ‘Salita del Costone’ (‘Rise of the Costone’), Catherine had her first vision: Jesus appeared to her in pontifical robes seated on a throne above the Basilica of San Domenico with Saints Peter and Paul, princes of the Apostles, and Saint John the Evangelist.

credit federaiko

That vision impressed itself strongly on Catherine’s soul, and she would later experience its meaning: she would, in fact, embrace the Dominican Order, becoming a tertiary, and would have as one of her greatest concerns the call to the Pope to become aware of his true mission and act in accordance with what he was, namely, ‘sweet Christ on earth’. As early as 1700, the people of Siena sought to pass on the memory of this vision with a fresco on the street, painted by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini. Its outdoor location and consequent exposure to the elements were the cause of the troubled life of the work, which in the course of time has undergone three restorations: first by Cesare Maffei, then by Vittorio Giunti, and finally by Enzo Cesarini, who painted the present fresco, unveiled on 1 October 1972 and protected by a glass case.

I Comuni di Terre di Siena