San Domenico Church in Siena is an obligatory stop for devotees of Saint Catherine. It is in fact the resting place of the saint’s head. A macabre testimonial to medieval religious zeal, and a chance to get to know more about the patron saint of Italy.

This massive red brick Gothic building on the top of the hill of Camporegio has been home to the Dominican order in Siena since 1226. The edifice itself might not have a great appeal with its severe lines and lack of decorative interest, but it’s a must if you want to know more about Saint Catherine. And there’s the bonus of some fine views over the city.

For the perfect day in Siena, check our Siena in a day itinerary.

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Who was Saint Catherine?

Consecrated herself to God as a little girl, Catherine refused to get married and in 1363 received the Dominican habit. She became a member of the “Mantellate” (coated) or Third Order Dominicans who used to meet every day in this Basilica. It was here the San Domenico Church that she used to spend hours absorbed in prayer and receive her mystical visions and ecstasies. Right above the church’s roof, she had her first vision of Christ dressed as a king, when she was still a child. In Siena you can also visit her house.

What to see in San Domenico Church:

Chapel of Saint Catherine – Halfway down the right wall, is an altar with a gilt reliquary case containing the saint’s head. Enclosing it, are two of the best works by the Renaissance painter Sodoma: the “Ecstacy of Santa Caterina”, and the “Fainting of Santa Caterina” after receiving the stigmata (1526). Works that are at once elegant and highly dramatic. On the right wall Francesco Vanni painted “Catherine performing an exorcism” (1596).

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Chapel of Saint Catherine

For a more lifelike rendition of Catherine’s face, the raised chapel Cappella delle Volte off the west end preserves the only genuine Portrait of St. Catherine, painted by her friend Andrea Vanni. This chapel occupies the spot where the saint and her sisters used to meet and pray.

In the left transept is a richly decorated chapel with the “Maestà” by Guido da Siena in the centre. On the lateral walls there are works by Benvenuto di Giovanni (1483) and Matteo di Giovanni (1493).

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Saint Catherine’s portrait