St. Catherine’s Siena

August 24, 2011

Siena is one of the oldest cities in Italy.  It preserves, to a great extent, its medieval character and feel.  The golden age of the 13th and 14th century were Siena’s years of ascendency.  By the beginning of the 12th century, Siena is its own republic, surrounded and protected by a recently completed city wall (most of which still stands).  It is in the 13th century that the the Duomo–the great Cathedral of Siena–is built.  It is said by some to be the most beautiful in all of Italy.  It is in the middle of the 13th century that the city’s university is founded.  It is in 1226 that the great church of St. Dominic (San Domenico) is begun by the Dominican Friars in Siena. 

By the 14th century, Siena is a thriving city-state, although beset from time to time by internal strife and external battles, especially with the neighboring city of Florence.  But its art and learning are some of the best in Italy, a place where Duccio produced his great religious art.  

It is into this world that Catarina Benincasa, the daughter of a dyer of cloth, was born in the middle of the 14th century.  The Benincasa family lived just down the hill from the church of San Domenico.  As a child, she would have seen the final construction of the new church of San Domenico, it having been built up from what is now the church crypt (see picture at left). Journing through St. Catherine’s Sien, then, begins there in the church she loved so much.

Above the main image of this blog entry show the famous fresco of the saint done by the artist Andrea Vanni.  Vanni knew St. Catherine personally, history has even preserved a letter the saint wrote to Vanni, who was also a politial leader in Siena.  Therefore, his depiction of her is one we know must be true to what she actually looked like.  

<the fresco is in one of the most important parts of the Basilcia, the Chapel of the Vaults. It is here, at the far end of the church, that Catherine is said to have had many of her mystical visions, and where she spent much time in prayer.  It is also here where St. Catherine, at the age of 16, first received the habit of the Dominican Order, and became a member of the "Mantellate" (Third Order Dominicans) who met daily in San Domenico.  The event is marked on a spot in the floor, as the image at right shows.  

This marks only the beginning the St. Catherine’s life.  In the coming days, I hope to post more about St. Catherine of Siena and the places in Siena that were important in the life of the Saint and the city. 


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