Follow in the footsteps of St Catherine, to the house where she used to live and pray. Her birthplace is now an unmissable stop on the pilgrim’s trail.
The architecture of this sanctuary dedicated to Saint Catherine isn’t entirely original, but the atmosphere definitely is. As are many of the objects that belonged to the saint. The rooms have been altered a lot since 1461, when the house was bought by the city of Siena and transformed into a museum.
The idea wasn’t faithful architectural conservation but rather preserving her honour and memory, hence the eclectic art collection celebrating her life and work. It’s a sensitive place, full of religious passion and historical references, and well reflects the extraordinary life of this woman.
Who was St Catherine?
St Catherine of Siena was no common saint. She didn’t live in a convent but stayed in her house after taking the habit of tertiary (third order of saint Dominic). She was the daughter of a dyer and didn’t receive an education, but she achieved things in her brief life (33 years) that really have something of the miraculous about them.
From her humble and illiterate beginnings, she went on to start a correspondence with the Pope. In 1376 she travelled to Avignon to persuade him to go back to Rome. This was the time of the Western Schism, when confusingly for everyone there was more than one proclaimed Pope. In her writing she mixed deep mysticism and diplomatic zeal, all the while trying to persuade powerful men to live holy lives and bring peace to the church .
She frequented the Church of San Domenico and worked with the sick and poor in the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala. Today this former hospital is a museum where her oratory can be visited . And being illiterate she would dictate her thoughts to her disciples, who as the story goes were convinced of her holiness long before she was canonised in 1461 by Pio II.
Saint Catherine’s story is very much part of the city of Siena. Though she also went on to become one of the patron saints of Italy (1939) and of Europe (1999). In 1970 Saints Catherine and Teresa became the first women elevated to Doctors of the Church.
What to see in her former house, today a Sanctuary:
The graceful courtyard is a recent addition but the well is a feature from the 15th century.
The Oratory-kitchen was the focal point of domestic life. Here there is a fireplace into which Catherine fell during one of her ecstatic trances, but was miraculously unharmed. The frescoed room commemorates key moments of her life including the regular temptations she suffered at the hands of the devil.
The Oratory of the Bedroom: this houses the small cubicle where Catherine rested and prayed, and the stone where the saint would lay her head. This space is connected with the first phase of Catherine’s life, where she would withdraw from the world in contemplation.
Church of the Crucifix: The church is home to the wooden crucifix from which Saint Catherine received the stigmata, an event which took place in Pisa, where Catherine had gone in 1375 to persuade the Lords of the city to shun the anti-papal league. The stigmata remained visible only to the Saint for the rest of her life, miraculously appearing at the moment of her death.
Where is it?
The Sanctuary is in Via Costa di Sant’Antonio 6, a short walk from San Domenico Church.