Siena: San Domenico

San Domenico.

I have visited the charming town of Siena many times. For all of my previous visits, I either went by car or took the train, but for my most recent visit in January of this year I decided to go by bus. The reason was fairly simple: I did not have a car with me, and the trip by train from Florence (where I had my hotel) would take me 2.5 hours. Apparently there was something wrong with the railroad connection, as from previous trips by train I remembered that they took only half as long. The trip by bus was, by the way, actually very comfortable and quick. An additional advantage is that passengers are dropped off at the Piazza Gramsci, on the north side of the city centre. By contrast, passengers who take the train start in the valley below Siena and have to climb the hill to reach that centre. Not far from the Piazza Gramsci we find the imposing church of San Domenico, a large box made of brick. The church is traditionally dedicated to the founder of the Dominican Order, Dominicus de Guzmán (ca. 1170-1221). However, in the church another important religious figure takes centre-stage, i.e. Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a mystic and tertiary of the aforementioned Dominican Order.

Catherine of Siena and the history of the church

The first church on this spot was built between 1226 and 1265, on a piece of land donated to the Dominicans by the Malavolti family. In the fourteenth century the basilica was renovated, enlarged and heightened in the Gothic style by adding a transept and a series of chapels in the rear. This process must have largely been completed when the young Catherine of Siena entered the San Domenico for the first time. Catherine was born the second youngest child into a family of 25 children. Her parental home stood (and still stands; the house can be visited) just a stone’s throw away from the church, so it was self-evident that this was where Catherine would go to for religious inspiration. From a very early age Catherine experienced visions of Jesus Christ, whom she would later “marry” in the so-called mystic marriage that is depicted in so many paintings and reliefs.[1] Catherine was, on the other hand, not at all interested in a real marriage, but neither did she join the Dominican nuns. As a tertiary she remained a laywoman and participated in public life in Siena and outside the city.

Rear of the church.

Interior of the church.

Catherine of Siena is often credited with having brought about the return of the papacy to Rome. The papal seat had been moved to Avignon under Pope Clemens V (1305-1314). The Avignon era is often called the “Babylonian captivity”, but the term is a misnomer, as the popes resided in the city voluntarily. It took at least half a century before Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370) made a first attempt to return to the Eternal City. His stay in Rome lasted less than three years (1367-1370), and in 1370 he hastily returned to Avignon because of developments in the Hundred Years War between England and France and dissatisfaction among the French cardinals. There can be no doubt that Catherine personally pleaded with Urbanus’ successor Pope Gregorius XI (1370-1378) to return to Rome, which Gregorius indeed did in 1377. However, Catherine cannot have been the only one who had tried to convince him to do so. Moreover, the return to Rome was hardly a raging success. After Gregorius’ death in 1378 the Italian and French cardinals each elected their own pope. As of 1409 there were a whopping three popes, in Rome, Avignon and Pisa respectively. The so-called Great Western Schism was not ended until 1417.

Fortunately for her, Catherine was spared most of this misery. During her life her fasting had always been quite extreme, and this must have contributed to her premature death in 1380, shortly after her thirty-third birthday. Catherine died in Rome and was buried in the cloister next to the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In 1383 her body was exhumed and translated to the basilica itself. On that occasion, her head was severed from the rest of the body. The website of the San Domenico states this was a very easy process, as the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, so the future saint did not have to be decapitated like some common criminal. The head was returned to Siena, where it was kept in the sacristy for decades. Nowadays it can be found in the Cappella di Santa Caterina on the right side, a chapel that was built between 1466 and 1475. The reason that the chapel was built was undoubtedly that Catherine was canonised in 1461. The decision to make her a saint was taken by Pope Pius II (1458-1464), who happened to be from Siena himself.

Cappella di Santa Caterina.

A few years before Catherine’s canonisation the church was twice struck by a fire, in 1443 and 1456. There was another fire in 1531, but fortunately the building was not lost. In 1548-1552 the church was once again damaged when the building was used for military purposes by the Spanish governor of Siena, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza. Lastly, the San Domenico was hit by an earthquake in 1798. Among other things the earthquake damaged the bell-tower from ca. 1340, which was subsequently lowered for safety reasons. The present church building is the result of restorations which were executed between 1940 and 1962.

Things to see

The interior of the San Domenico is a large open space. The church has a single nave and no aisles, so it could accommodate the hordes of worshippers who had come to the building to listen to the passionate sermons. The walls are embellished with banners from the world-famous Palio of Siena. Most of the chapels can be found in the transept; the chapels in the nave are basically no more than niches, except for the Cappella di Santa Caterina and Cappella della Volte which will be discussed below. On the right side of the nave there is a passageway to the sacristy. The ceiling of the sacristy has fifteenth-century frescoes, but unfortunately these are quite damaged. The crypt of the church is usually closed to the public. A good image of this space can be found here.

The highlight of the church is without a doubt the Cappella di Santa Caterina. Although it is prohibited to take photos inside the church, everyone takes out their smartphones to shoot a few pictures of this chapel, which was commissioned by a certain Niccolò Bensi. The splendid altar, which contains the head of the saint, dates from 1469 and is a work by Giovanni di Stefano (ca. 1444-1511). The paintings in the chapel date from the sixteenth century. On the left wall we see a fresco that represents the execution of Niccolò di Tuldo. He was condemned to death and decapitated for being involved in a conspiracy, but Catherine of Siena managed to convert him just before his execution, thus saving his soul. The fresco was painted by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), more commonly known as Il Sodoma, a painter from Vercelli. Sodoma also painted the two frescoes on either side of the altar. They represent the future saint in ecstasy or in the process of fainting. The painting on the right wall is not by Sodoma, nor is it a fresco. What we see is an oil painting on dried plaster, made by the Sienese painter Francesco Vanni (1563-1610).

Cappella di Santa Caterina.

Saint Catherine of Siena – Andrea Vanni.

At the front the San Domenico has a curious raised chapel that looks like it is glued against the façade of the church. This Cappella della Volte is special because Catherine is said to have experienced many of her ecstasies here. Moreover, it is supposedly the place where she received her (invisible) stigmata. Inside the chapel we find the oldest known portrait of the saint. It was painted by Andrea Vanni (ca. 1330/33-1414) and dates from ca. 1380. This means it may very well have been painted when Catherine was still alive. The portrait is a fresco that shows her in the habit of the Dominican tertiaries, also known as the Mantellate. She has a lily in her one hand and allows her other hand to be kissed by woman who has her hands folded before her chest. In the chapel we may admire a number of other interesting paintings, of which the most beautiful represents the canonisation of Saint Catherine. It was painted by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), a Knight Hospitaller and follower of Caravaggio.

On the right wall, immediately after the Cappella di Santa Caterina, hangs a remarkable composite painting. The central part of the work is a Madonna and Child by the local painter Francesco di Vannuccio, who was active towards the end of the fourteenth century. The Madonna and Child have been incorporated into another painting, which was made by the aforementioned Il Sodoma. The result is that the Madonna and Child are now surrounded by God the Father (above), Saint Vincent Ferrer and King Saint Louis (left) and Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Sebastian (right). The painting hangs inside a niche which also features some painted angels. Presumably the work was previously located on the left side of the church, as the information panel in the San Domenico still informs us it can be found there.

Fresco fragment by Pietro Lorenzetti.

It seems like other works are also sometimes assigned other places as well. Examples include a fresco fragment of a Madonna and Child, Saint John the Baptist and a kneeling knight. The fragment was painted by Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348), one of the greatest medieval painters from Siena. Contrary to the information from the panel, I found the fragment in one of the chapels in the transept instead of on the right side of the church. And initially I mistook the gallant knight for a nun… The mistake is easily made though, as the helmet and mail coif of the knight closely resemble the headdress of a nun. On the other hand, a nun with a sword on her hip is hard to find.



[1] Her namesake Saint Catherine of Alexandria was also joined in a mystical marriage with Christ.

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