You never really know what you might find when you wander into churches in Italy. We found ourselves exploring the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena one lovely evening. This is a large gothic church and fairly spartan inside. We were drawn to the more ornate Chapel of St. Catherine of Siena along the right wall of the nave, and as we approached we found ourselves staring at the preserved head of the saint herself. We experienced mixed emotions, fascination, horror, disbelief and finally awe and reverence as we gazed on the face of a woman who died more than 600 years ago.
St. Catherine of Siena died in 1380 in Rome and her body is buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. According to some legends, the people of Siena wanted Catherine’s body returned to her city but knew they would not be able to smuggle her whole body so they took her head only. When the Roman guards stopped them the smugglers prayed to St. Catherine for help. When they looked in the bag where Catherine’s head was placed the Roman guards only saw rose petals. Thus, the smugglers were able to successfully return Catherine’s head to her home. St. Catherine’s thumb is also preserved in a reliquary next to her head.
The whole idea of preserving relics is both fascinating and a little creepy (no disrespect intended here). I wonder how this practice would be interpreted if it were to occur today?
Thanks to Ailsa at Where’s my Backpack for this week’s theme.