Little attractive from the outside – the construction embodies a severe austere Gothic style – the Basilica of San Domenico remains, however, an important stop on the sightseeing tour of Siena in general and of Terzo di Camollia in particular. It is one of the oldest places of worship of the city, older even than il Duomo itself, and it is home to the famed Chapel of Saint Catherine which shelters several relics of the Siena-born saint.
Built between 1226 and 1265, the current Basilica of San Domenico got to incorporate the essential Gothic additions that delineate its outlook at present during the 14th century. Works were, however, carried out until the 17th century, especially inside, with the intent of decorating the basilica (sculptural and pictorial works). Next to Casa-Santuario di Santa Caterina, the basilica is at present the second most important edifice part of the complex historically related to the saint.
The structure features a robust outline and, due to both its height and its location on the high ground of the city, it provides scenic views of the urban skyline. This massive brick building is overtopped by an even higher campanile (located on the left of the church) which is said to have been taller than it is today, but following an earthquake in the late 18th century, its height was lowered.
By far, the most intriguing and, thus, appealing sight inside the basilica is the Chapel of Saint Catherine (Cappella di Santa Caterina). The chapel, which is located on the right wall of the nave, and paved with marble since the 15th century (the pavement renders scenes by Francesco di Giorgio), amasses a handful of artistic masterpieces: the Fainting and Ecstasy of Saint Catherine by Il Sodoma (around 1526), Saint Catherine’s Exorcism by Francesco Vanni (realized in the late 16th century), said to be a genuine portrait of the saint.
The highlight of the chapel is the altar which showcases the precious relics of the saint in a gilded reliquary: her head and a thumb (the rest of the body is in Rome). A chain is also exhibited: it is the tool the saint used for the mortification of her body. The altar and the frescoes are lighted at visitors’ discretion (they have to pay by dropping a coin in the attached box).
The chapel is flanked by a series of masterpieces, such as Stefano Volpi’s 1630 Appearance of the Virgin, Alessandro Casolani’s 1585 Nativity of the Virgin which adorn the altars on the same right wall of the nave, and, continuing after passing by the chapel, Francesco di Giorgio’s Adoration of the Shepherds, a fresco by Pietro Lorenzetti, Matteo di Giovanni’s lunette of great artistry and Bernardino Fungai’s predella.
The themes which have inspired the paintings on the wall of the Chapel of the Vaults are connected, unsurprisingly, to Saint Catherine’s life. Such are the Canonization of Saint Catherine by Mattia Preti, two paintings by Crescenzio Gambarelli (dating back to 1602) and the portrait of the saint on main wall.
On the wall opposite to the one where Cappella di Santa Caterina is located you can delight in admiring further works by reputed artists of the past. We speak here of Francesco di Vannuccio’s Madonna with Child, Il Sodoma’s Eternal with Saint, Rutilio Manetti’s Saint Anthony Abbot’s Exorcism, Sebastiano Folli’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Francesco Vanni’s Saint Hyacinth Saving a Statue of the Madonna from a Fire.
The transept also shelters several works of art, of which worth noting are the altar of the Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni and his portrait by Francesco Rustici (1611-612); Matteo di Giovanni’s Madonna with Child and Saint Jerome and John the Baptist (adorning the third chapel in the transept); the works of Guido da Siena (the Majesty), Benvenuto di Giovanni and Giuseppe Nicola Nasini (in the fifth chapel). The array of masterpieces in the transept is complemented by an altar dedicated to Saint Dominic.
If you want to make a complete tour of the basilica, you can also think about visiting the crypt. This one, which embodies a Gothic expression, is home to a crucifix by Sano di Pietro and a Crucifixion scene by Ventura Salimbeni. Other significant works of art refer to the mid-15th century angelic representations by Benedetto da Maiano (located on the altar’s ciborium), Arcangelo Salimbeni’s 1579 scene of the Death of Saint Peter Martyr, and to Galgano Perpignani’s Saint Thomas and the Pope (the latter two located in the apse).
A bookshop with materials (books, video and music CDs) on the life of the saint and on the city of Siena has been set up by the basilica’s officials. A great stop of pilgrims and religious tourism aficionados.
The table below lists all information on address of the Basilica of San Domenico and contact. Guided visits are also available.
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One of the oldest places of worship in Siena, the Basilica of San Domenico is an imposing structure which strikes through its austere look.
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