The first stop in the itinerary of Saint Catherine is the Basilica of
San Domenica. The dominance of this structure in the Fontebranda
district is a visual representation of the significance that the
Dominican Order played in the life of St. Catherine. This church, like
most of the Dominican churches, is designed to hold great masses of
common and poor people; this is because the Dominicans, their
technical name being the Order of Preachers, made it a focus to teach
the truths of the faith to everyone. St. Catherine went here for mass
often and, thanks to the nature of the friars, this is where she
received much of her theological learning.
St. Catherine joined the third Dominican Order, the Mantellate, and afterwards spent a large portion of her time in the Chapel of Vaults.
This is the space where the Mantellate would gather to pray. It was here that she received many of her visions and ecstatic experiences, often having to lean on the octagonal pillar for support. In this chapel is the painting of Saint Catherine and a Follower by Andrea Vanni that depicts Catherine in her habit and with the lily in hand, symbolizing purity, that became typical to depictions of the Saint. What is most significant about this painting is that it was completed during her lifetime and is considered a true image of her face. The exact date of the painting is unknown but definetely after 1 April 1375, the date she received the stigmata, because the stigmata can be seen on her hands. The other paintings depict the main miracles in the life of Saint Catherine.
Catherine died on 29 April 1380 and was buried in Rome; however, due to problems with the soil, her body was exhumed and at this time Raymound of Capua got permission from Pope Urban VI to remove her head and take it back to Siena. The silk bag used to carry the bag and the original copper container are both on display in the Basilica. After her canonization by the Sienese Pope Pius II in 1461 a chapel was built in the Basilica to house this relic.
The marble altar was carved by Giovanni di Stefano in 1466 and the surrounding paintings are by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi and Francesco Vanni; they depict important moments in her life. The sacred head is located in the center of the Chapel behind a golden grille.
The head has survived through the centuries and various circumstances, such as the earthquake of 1798. The head has undergone several scientific and historical inquiries in order to verify that this truly is the sacred head of St. Catherine.