On a warm Sienese day, walking in to the San Domenico (St. Dominic’s Basilica) is like walking into a world of color in a wide-open space. A lot of the church’s windows are stained glass, which emphasizes the Basilica’s beauty. Located in the Piazzo San Domenico in Siena, Italy, is a brick church that was founded by the Dominicans in 1125 as part of their friary, and was built at the same time as the Domenican convent, between 1225 and 1265. This church is fully constructed in gothic style and is made entirely out of brick.
On our walk to school at Siena Italian Studies, we must walk down the street called Fontebranda. On our walk down this steep hill, there is a perfect view of the back of San Domenico. Along with the San Domenico, Fontebranda is also viewable on this walk to school. Fontebranda served as Siena’s first sewage system (see Joyce Iwashita’s piece on Fontebranda under “Monuments”). The outside of the church has few decorations, but it is yet majestic and simple. The Basilica was built near the city in order to pursue the Domenicans’ work of teaching and guiding the community spiritually.
Once inside the church, the vastness of it is even more evident because of its high ceilings and the wide-open space within it. All eyes lead to the church’s focal point, the high altar where Christ’s Sacrifice is reenacted.
The San Domenico is one of Siena’s most famous churches not only because of its beauty but also because of its link to the reverence of Saint Catherine of Siena (see Kayla Ernewein’s piece on the Sanctuary of St. Catherine). On the wall opposite to the entrance door is the Saint Catherine Chapel, built by order of Niccolò Bensi in 1460. This chapel houses Saint Catherine’s head that was brought to Siena from Rome in 1384 by Raymond of Capua, and the original portrait of her painted by her contemporary and friend, Andrea Vanni. Saint Catherine’s head is preserved and kept on a marble altar, the work of the sculptor Giovanni di Stefano (1469). Seeing the Saint’s head for the first time will definitely send chills down your spine, as you doubt the authenticity of whether it is actually Saint Catherine’s head. There is proof that the head is really hers and it is kept under lock because there have been times when people tried to steal it. Saint Catherine is significant to Siena and to the Basilica of San Domenico because of her lifelong dedication to the community of Siena and to God.
The interest in the life and works of Saint Catherine has been growing steadily in the last few years thanks to the marketing efforts of the Domenican Fathers who have opened a gift-shop inside the Basilica. Today the church also has weekly masses and serves as a tourist stop and they have numerous tours everyday.