A medieval city that buzzes with 21st-century living, Siena has pulled me back time and again into its orbit of medieval traditions, civic pride and religious devotion.
A popular tourist destination for a number of years, its streets are full of delivery and municipal vehicles, residents on both heels and wheels, and — from April through October especially — wave after wave of tour groups led by umbrella-toting guides.
Tourists come to admire the grand structures, from the awe-inspiring Italian-Gothic cathedral to the immense Renaissance-style palazzi and chopped-off medieval towers — all crammed into the winding roads that push and twist their way around this compact city, until they burst forth into the immense Piazza del Campo at the heart of the city.
Divided into thirds, the city’s three principal sections spiral out of the central Piazza del Campo like arms of a hurricane encircling the eye of the storm.
It is not centuries’ worth of rich tradition that attracts me the most — but the vibrant signs of faith that are emblazoned on nearly every street of the town.
It is, after all, the hometown of St. Catherine of Siena, the great doctor of the Church. Her relics may be venerated in the Basilica of St. Dominic. Little-known fact: Dominican sisters run a preschool in what was St. Catherine’s home, and my daughter was blessed to attend school there. The sisters warmly share their spiritual inheritance with children and their families. It was a very moving experience to meet them and see the followers of Catherine at work.
Taking a 15-minute walk from any given point in town toward another, one can easily pass by three or four churches.
When I was a graduate student here, more than a dozen years ago, daily Mass beckoned me, as, along my daily path from dormitory to library, I could find numerous Masses taking place each day, from the cathedral’s morning Mass to the students’ evening Mass.
Daily Rosaries, frequently led by aging ladies with knees still strong after years of kneeling on wooden (cushion-less) kneelers, were recited throughout the city then — as today.
The strength and beauty of the religious life here helped to bring about a turning point in my spiritual life.
After many years of absence, the gravitational force of Siena pulled me back once again, this time with my husband and four children.
People began asking me what it was about Siena that drew me back. For me, the city’s allure has to do with the beauty all around, the churches peppered throughout and the spiritual witness.
Yet it was a visit to the Oratory of St. Bernardine, which is located somewhat off the tourist track, that revealed to me why this town is so special: That’s where I discovered the frescoes of the Virgin Mary’s life by the 16th-century painters Antonio Bazzi (known as il Sodoma) and Domenico Beccafumi. Through this art, the church’s chapel reveals a profound desire to know and love Our Lady. The scenes spring from sources such as the Golden Legend, a 13th-century work that served as a fundamental sourcebook for information on the lives of the saints.
From the announcement of a long-awaited child for Sts. Joachim and Anne to Mary’s dormition and assumption, scenes of the Blessed Virgin’s life spring to life in vivid color and masterful composition by these great Renaissance-Mannerist painters.
Of course, in a town whose cathedral is named for Santa Maria Assunta (Most Holy Mary of the Assumption), devotion to Our Lady has never been so gloriously manifest. The central mosaic of the cathedral’s facade depicts the coronation of the Virgin Mary, while those on the sides show Mary’s birth and presentation at the Temple. The church itself is so supremely ornate that it is not difficult to miss this principal theme of the Virgin’s life. If you do miss the theme, however, you will also find it in the museum of the Palazzo Comunale, in another show-stopping chapel, which has more scenes of the Virgin’s life, particularly her death; the apostles are shown gathered around her, and a vision of Jesus is above her.
As the Golden Legend describes her death, Mary, weakened and longing to see her son, is visited by an angel, who announces her death will be in three days. Mary then requests the comfort of the apostles around her, and Jesus miraculously transports them to her and appears himself to comfort her. While this is not the official teaching of the Church, it is part of popular Tradition, drawn from Apocryphal sources; the story shows a keen love for Mary, in its desire to seek out the details of her life and death.
Although her triumphant coronation is also represented in this fresco cycle (series), the theme of her death is depicted more frequently, which shows a tender concern for Our Lady at her hour of need. These two spectacular fresco cycles were once joined by another — which has now, tragically, been lost to the ravages of time — and painted for the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, the medieval refuge for pilgrims and orphans.
From these masterful fresco scenes to the cathedral’s St. Mary of the Vow icon that is so beloved by the Sienese and the simple icons of the Madonna found on street corners and gates all around Siena, it is truly Our Lady’s city.
Even in a country with a renowned history of devotion to Mary, Siena stands apart as a city because of its praise and proclamation of Our Lady.
Now, when people ask me why I return time and again to Siena, I respond with a saying attributed to St. Ansano, a martyr and early patron saint of Siena, which was shared with me by a kind Sienese priest: "Siena belongs to Our Lady."
Deana Basile Kelly holds a Ph.D. in Italian literature and linguistics
from the University of Toronto and teaches in the literature department at Ave Maria University.