Treasures of the Church- Holy Sites

Basilica of St. dominic

The Basilica of San Dominic also known as the Basilica Cateriniana, is the basilica church in Siena, Italy. It is one of the most important churches in the city. Much of the mystical life of Saint Catherine of Sienna was held within the walls of this Basilica, as she came here often to pray. It was one of the first churches to be dedicated to St. Dominic. The church was begun by the Dominicans in the years between 1226-1265, but was enlarged in the fourteenth century. It is fully Gothic in its formation. The building is made of brick, and has a bell tower on the left. Inside, the old Sacristy, refectory and dormitory were all built with the original Church and the cloister was frescoed by Lippo Memmi and Lippo Vanni. There is also the ‘Cappella delle Volte,’ or Chapel of the Vaults, where the Dominican nuns used to pray. The Chapel contains the ‘Canonization of St. Catherine’ by Mattia Preti, and two 1602 paintings of scenes from her life by Crescenzio Gambarelli. The main wall contains a portrait of St. Catherine painted in 1667 by Andrea Vanni. It is the only remaining work depicting Saint Catherine that can be considered to be a true portrait of the saint.

When St. Catherine began going to the church the new building was already almost finished. Her own father and other members of her family were buried in the Crypt. Following the canonization of St. Catherine in 1461, her most precious manuscripts and her sacred relics were transferred to the Basilica. 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 an 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. It is located in the Chapel of St. Catherine. The chapel is entirely covered in oil and wall paintings, among which, on the sides of the altar, are two famous masterpieces by Sodoma, from 1526, the Rapture of Saint Catherine and the Eucharistic Vision.

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 the 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 center of Christian spirituality where pilgrims are welcomed and can pray next to the sacred relics of St. Catherine.

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