The History of the Basilica

The Basilica | Saint Catherine | The Holy Head


The Basilica

St. Catherine passed a large part of her life inside the walls of this stupendous Basilica, which was one of the first to be dedicated to St. Dominic. It was begun by the Dominicans in 1226 on the hill of Camporegio which they had received as a gift from the Malavolti family. Most of the actual rectangular nave and the inside roof with its tranverse beams, all in Gothic Cistercian style, go back to this epoch. The Church contains a magnificent Maestà by Guido da Siena (master to Duccio of Boninsegna) dating back to 1221. The old Chapter Room, the old Sacresty, the Refectory and the Dormitory were all built with the original Church and the Cloister was frescoed by Lippo Memmi and Lippo Vanni. In the first half of the fourteenth century the new Church (crypt and transept for the old Church) was built on the steep side of Camporegio hill overlooking the district of Fontebranda where St. Catherine had been born. When she began going to St. Dominic the new edifice was already almost finished. Her own father and other members of her family were buried in the Crypt. Following the canonisation of St. Catherine in 1461, her most precious manuscripts and her sacred relics were transferred to the Basilica (these twelve codices in 1700 were placed behind a painting above the altar in the Scaresty and formed the so-called "virginal library": today they are in the public library). The most important relic, the Sacred Head, was brought from Rome to Siena by Blessed Raymond of Capua in 1383 and it was at first placed in a copper container and then in a silver one (now empty but still on display in the Basilica). In 1711 it was removed to a urn in the form of a lamp done by the sculptor Giovanni Piamontini where it remained until 1947, when the Dominican Fathers decided to place it in its actual urn of silver in a niche resembling a small gothic temple. After nearly two centuries of construction, the Basilica was finally dedicated entirely to St. Catherine and a statue of her was placed even at the top of the bell tower. The Basilica has known hard times: in 1798 it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake, but after it was completely restored. Then, unfortunately, it was very much neglected and allowed to decay until 1940 when a new restoration was finally begun which was concluded in 1962. During these years the Basilica underwent some radical changes. The foundations were strengthened and especially tha Chapel of the Vaults, where the original portrait of St. Catherine by Andrea Vanni is located and where the Saint had so many mystical experiences, was restored. Today the Basilica is exactly as the Dominican Fathers have always wanted it to be and it has become an important centre of Christian spirituality where pilgrims are welcomed and where they can pray next to the sacred relics of St. Catherine.

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Saint Catherine Catherine of James Benincasa occupies a substantial place in the history of Italian literature. THis humble woman of the people, an illetterate, left some 375 letters, penned by her disciples from dictation. In the last months that preceded her departure for Rome, where she would encounter death at the age of 33, she had composed her book: The Dialogue of Divine Providence, dictating it while in ectstasy. Always during the ecstasies were gathered, unknown to her, The Orations, that is, the prayers that she directed to Our Lord. They are her shortest compositions, but perhaps the most sublime for the greatness of their theological thoughts.
The life of Catherine of Siena unfolds in two periods: the one of a life almost hidden, that goes from her bith to her twentieth year, a period, one might say, of preparation within domestic wails at first, and then in the society of the humble Sienese Tertiaries until the moment in whichshe feels called by God to the apostolic life. The other period, of only thirteen years, is a continual expansion of the spirit, being shaped by goodness in works of zeal and charity. The women remembered from history, there was no one resembled her. On the 4th October 1970, Pope Paul VI includes her in the list of the Doctors of the Church.

Brief History of St. Catherine's life
This Glory of the world and of Siena was born in 1347 and suffered much during her life, even because of her family. She already consecrated herself to God as a little girls and in 1363 she received the Dominican habit and became a member of the "Mantellate" or Third Order Dominicans who used to meet every day in our Basilica.
In 1367 she experienced what Catholic writers call the mystical marriage and shortly after began her mission to the world in the name of Christ, at the same time gradually gathering many disciples about her who became her "Family". The year 1370 was one of great ecstasies; the exchange ofhearts with Jesus, the mystical death and other marvelous gifts. During her stay in Pisa she received the holy stigmata on 1 April 1375 and when she returned to Siena she managed to convert a young man, Niccolò of Tuldo, who had been condemned to death for rebellious words against the government. In 1376 she travelled to Avignon in order to encourage the Pope to return to Italy. Pope Gregory XI allowed himself to be convinced by this great little lady and left Avignon on 13 September of the same year. From 1377 until her death in 1380 she untiringly worked for the peace and unity of the Church, sent letters to famous and powerful men and women urging them to live holy lives and completed the dictation of her "Dialogue of Divine Providence", a sort of spiritual testament. She died very young on 29 April 1380 after having undergone unspeakable physical and moral sufferings. In 1461 she was canonised by Pope Pius II, in 1939 Pope Pius XII proclaimed her Patroness of Italy together with St. Francis of Assisi and in 1970 Pope Paul VI declare her Doctor of the Church. Besides the "Dialogue" St. Catherine left 374 letters, many prayers and she was also fortunate in being the subject of two biographies written by two of her contemporaries. Her friend and confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua wrote "The Major Life" and another Dominican, Thomas of Siena, wrote "The Minor Life". Both have been translated into most lenguages and are available in our gift-shop.

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The Holy Head

St. Catherine was born in Siena on March 25th, 1347 and died in Rome on April 29th, 1380 where she was subsequently buried. Knowing how much it would have pleased the people of Siena to have had at least the remains of their great fellow citizen among them, her former spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, on October 13th, 1383, secretely sent the head of the Saint to Siena. The occasion to thus content the Sienese arose when the same Blessed Raymond wished to honour Catherine' s corpse by transfering it inside the Basilica of Holy Mary above Minerve from the cemetery of the Friars adjacent to the church where it had been originally placed in a simple tomb not very tightly scaled and exposed to the elements.
Dampness caused by rainwaters began to consume the body very quickly. It was, therefore, quite easy to disattach the head from the rest of the body without violence. There was no need to actually "decapitate" Catherine as some have mistakenly believed and written. By means of tests carried out at the base of the skull the lack of the first few cerebral vertebrae has been discovered: this discovery confirmed the above-mentioned dissolution of the softer nerves and tendons which had already begun to take place, thus facilitating the separation of thehead from the trunk.
For more than six centuries Siena has jealousy kept wathc over the sacred head of St. Catherine in the Basilica of St. Dominic. The Chapel where it has been placed is one of the most celebrated in the world thanks to the frescoes of Antonio Bazzi called "SODOMA", who was a disciple of Leonardo da Vinci, the elegant marble altar built by Giovanni di Stefano and another oil frescoe of Francesco Vanni. Even Though the Dominican Fathers and the people of Siena have done their best to conserve and to honour the sacred Head Of St. Catherine, it has been involved in some dreadful mishaps. Once it was almost destroyed by a fire which ravaged the Church during the night of 3rd and 4th of December, 1531; and, another time, as it was being carried through the streets during a religious procession, some of the locals of the Fontebranda district attempted to steal the head and ended up by dropping it in the middle of the road! The reliquaries containing the precious treasurewere themselves changed from time to time. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the sacred relic was placed in a bronze urn adorned with crystals and finally, in 1947 was collocated in its current resting place with the help of donations from devout Catholics worldwide.
Doubts about the authenticity of head of St. Catherine have often been voiced in a few quarters, but solid proofs can be offered to show how the sacred relic has been in the custody of the Dominican Fathers ever since it was consigned to them. For centuries it has been kept quite literally under lock and key behind a massive grate: one copy of the key is in the hands of the local civil authorities, another is in the possession of the Archbishop of Siena and a third belongs to the Fathers themselves. Furthermore, when the tomb of the Saint in the Church Of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome was opened in 1855, no head was found in it. And, radiological tests carried out on the relic by order of the local governing and ecclesiastical authorities on April 11th, 1947, have demonstrated that the cranium is rather small and of a delicate structure, typical of most Sienese women even today. Notwithstanding the existence of so many works of art that beautify the Basilica of St. Dominic, what really attracts thousands of pilgrims and tourists to it evey year is the presence of the Reliquary containing the Sacred Head of St. Catherine.

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To order the material go to the new bookshop online: www.basilicacateriniana.com/store

Situated in one of the world’s most beautiful countrysides, for the loveliness and variety of its scenery, siena is a city rich in history, traditions and works of art. An example that comes immediately to mind is the great number of Churches and their artistic patrimony which are located in all parts of the city. Among these is one which deserves a special mention: The Catherinian Basilica of St. Dominic, not only because it is the second most important Church after the Cathedral, but particularly because it houses the relics of St. Catherine (Her Sacred Head) and the original portrait of her painted by her contemporary and friend, Andrea Vanni.

The interest in the life and works of this remarkable woman, proclaimed Patroness of Italy in 1939 has been growing steadily in the last few years thanks to the popularising efforts of the Dominican Fathers who have opened a gift-shop inside the Basilica where one may find various biographies of the Sienese Saint and good editions of all her writings in all the major languages. It is an excellent apostolate and means of communication. One can also obtain art books in most languages, video on St. Catherine and Siena, compact discs of sacred music, hand-made art objects, medals and crucifixes of gold and silver; all of which are highly appreciated by pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Special mention must also be made about our rosaries. The gift-shop offers an enormous variety of all shapes and sizes: from the simplest to those made of wood, hard stones and precious metals.

The people who run the shop are quite knowledgeable and will be more than happy to satisfy your curiosity about St. Catherine, our Church and Siena.

To book a mass send an email, with the date and the time, to:

basilicacateriniana@gmail.com

The community of the Dominican Fathers is attentive reception of persons with disabilities. Therefore, there are two access ramps for access inside the Basilica and is equipped with ad hoc paths.



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Contacts:

Federico Muzzi

phone 0577 286848
fax 0577 280540
email: basilicacateriniana@gmail.com

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