Siena retains a ward-centric culture from medieval times. Each ward (contrada) is represented by an animal or mascot, and has its own boundary and distinct identity.
Siena, the product also of its historical figures, is presented here through the places that symbolise its Christian faith. Developed on and thanks to the “spiritual” route of the Via Francigena, which for centuries made it a stage for pilgrims from all over Europe, Siena is examined here by highlighting its religious history, given its large number of patron saints and preachers, who have become symbols of Catholic Italy as well as the rest of the Christian world. Routes are suggested below based on key episodes in the lives of the saints, with reference in some cases to works of art that represent their presence, as well as the greatness of Sienese art. We should also bear in mind that in 2015, to mark Siena as Capital of Italian Culture and the Jubilee of 2016, a proposal was made for a pilgrimage on the route taken by the Confraternity of St. Catherine in 1600, signifying a present-day desire to participate in the city’s spiritual life as well as its history.
Saint Catherine and her Siena
Patroness of Italy and of Europe and known in secular life as Caterina Benincasa (Siena 1347- Rome 1380), she was one of the last of the numerous offspring of the dyer Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa. A child of rebellious and tenacious character, she grew up in a modest house at no. 6 Via Costa di Sant’Antonio in the Contrada dell’Oca. As early as 1464, her home, which had become the property of the municipality, was transformed into a sanctuary. St. Catherine is known to the world not only for her charitable and merciful disposition, but above all for her numerous writings, despite being illiterate, and her relationship with the Papacy. In the last years of the so-called Avignon captivity, she went to great lengths to convince the Pope to return to Rome. From around 1370 to 1376, Catherine travelled to various Tuscan cities including Lucca, Pisa (where she received the stigmata) and Florence. She died in Rome in 1380, at only 33 years of age, exhausted by her torments.
Still open to visitors, it houses the famous thirteenth-century crucifix from Pisa before which the saint is reputed to have received the stigmata, as well as numerous works from the 16th and 17th centuries painted in her honour.
Near the Fontebranda, on Via Santa Caterina, stands the homonymous church converted from her father’s warehouse and built during the same period as the sanctuary.
According to legend, at the age of six, Catherine had a vision of Christ while strolling along this steep, scenic road with her brother Stefano.
This episode, known to the inhabitants of Siena as the “Apparita” and commemorated by a fresco on the site, marked the beginning of the saint’s journey of faith. From this moment, Catherine developed a faith so profound that, despite continued opposition from her father, who wanted her to marry, she managed to enter the Dominican order of the Mantellate at the age of sixteen (1363).
This cross is sculpted on the marble stairway, designed by Giovanni Sabatelli in 1451 to recall the legend according to which Catherine was pushed by the devil and fell here.
This became known as the Basilica Cateriana and the saint’s head is preserved here, together with several paintings in her honour, including a contemporary portrait by Andrea Vanni and some beautiful frescos by Sodoma.
The places of San Bernardino
San Bernardino, in secular life Bernardino Albizzeschi, was born in 1380 in Massa Marittima, a town where his father held the post of chief magistrate. Losing both parents early in life, he is said to have stayed with his aunts in Siena, the city of origin of his paternal family. The iconography typically associated with the saint includes a model of the city of Siena. The importance of the Saint’s sermons is well-known: through his religious admonitions, St. Bernardino inspired the statutory reforms of 1430, restoring sobriety and faithfulness to the evangelical precepts, and he was responsible for creating the monogram IHS (Iesus Hominum Salvator/Jesus Saviour of Humanity) enclosed within a sun with blazing rays. Because of his devotion to the name of Jesus, he was even branded a heretic and brought before the Pope to stand trial, but his accusers were unsuccessful and he was acquitted.
One of the places associated with the saint is Piazza di San Francesco, where Bernardino preached his sermons after joining the Franciscan Order in 1402.
Since 1450, the year of his canonisation, the oratory named after him has stood in the square. It now houses the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art, with a collection of Sienese art from the 13th to the 17th century.
Here, in August 1427, Bernardino began his famous 45 sermons in the vernacular, an episode represented in the famous painting “The Preaching of San Bernardino”, painted by Sano di Pietro in 1430. There are two other panels by the artist in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, depicting the “Preaching of Saint Bernardino in Piazza San Francesco” (1440), and the later painting “Saint Bernardino” (1470).
Sant’Ansano. The first Saint of Siena
He was the first saint and martyr of Siena, as well as the city’s patron, remembered for having evangelised the Siena area. Born of a noble family in Rome in 280 AD, his father Tranquillinus was a Roman senator and very close to the emperor Diocletian. He converted to Christianity at the age of twelve, when he accepted baptism. With the persecution of 303 AD, promulgated through the decree of Diocletian, Ansanus was denounced by his father and, forced to flee, he went to Siena for divine inspiration. Because of the numerous baptisms he administered there, his fame grew to the point of once more attracting attention to himself, which lead to his martyrdom.
This road, which overlooks the valley behind the complex of Santa Maria della Scala, was named after the saint because here his persecutors made an unsuccessful attempt on his life.
This plaque commemorates the legendary miracle of Ansanus, who, in 303 AD emerged unscathed from boiling oil and pitch, which instead of burning him, apparently cooled and fell to the ground.
Despite his imprisonment, Ansanus continued to baptise from the window of the tower: his feast is celebrated on 1 December, the day of his martyrdom and the start of the district calendar year.
Other patrons of Siena
We know that Siena has three other martyrs as city patron saints: St. Crescentius, St. Sabinus and St. Victor. Depicted kneeling around the Madonna in the Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, two of the three patrons are also represented in sculptural form in the niches of the Loggia della Mercanzia. Golden statues of the saints can be seen inside the Cathedral, above the columns beneath the dome, as well as paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Siena.
This statue, sculpted in the second half of the 15th century, shows the saint with the typical mitre of a bishop, an office he held in the early Christian era.
Before converting to Christianity, Victor was a Roman soldier, for which reason he is depicted with armour and a sword and became a symbol of civil liberty.