What a World

09.19.13

Siena’s Disembodied Saint at the Basilica di San Domenico

Among the stained glass windows and marble statues in Siena’s biggest church is a more alternative relic: the decaying head and finger of Saint Catherine. Nina Strochlic takes a look.

Italian churches are known for many things: extravagant architecture, historical frescoes, and smooth-cut marble statues.

But the Catholic Church doesn’t shy from the macabre, either. In smaller churches far away from the well-trodden holy sites, like Florence’s Duomo and the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, a strain of more unusual relics can be found: the semi-preserved bodies of ancient Catholic saints. Many have been interred in the back of worship sites, displayed in gilded cases behind panes of glass.

In the scenic town of Siena, the resident mortal remains take an even more morbid turn. Prominently displayed in the vast Basilica di San Domenico is the disembodied, decaying head of Saint Catherine of Siena wrapped in a white nun’s habit. Nearby, her thumb is positioned upright under glass cover. These appendages are separated by 150 miles from the rest of her body, laid to rest under a sarcophagus displayed at the Basilica Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome.

The widely worshipped 14th-century saint was the subject of numerous miraculous claims throughout her lifetime, ranging from claims that she received the stigmata to ones that she had the ability to levitate while praying. Catherine attracted a large base of believers who were drawn to her pious devotion to the poor and sick. Her scholarly prowess and religious advocacy helped her rise to an unprecedented prominence in the church, eventually leading her to serve the Pope as an ambassador.

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Basilica of San Domenico of Siena, Italy. (Anna Biancoloto)

When the beloved holy woman died in Rome at the age of 33, her devotees couldn’t bear to see her laid to rest so far from her hometown. So thieves snuck into Rome and smuggled her head and thumb back to Siena. Apparently, when guards stopped them and searched the bag holding her disembodied head, they  prayed to Catherine and a miracle turned her remains into rose petals. Upon arriving back in Siena, her body parts re-materialized.

Catherine’s head, now 633 years old, draws masses of visitors who come to pray to—or gawking at—the unnatural sight. Not far from her head, the glass case holding her lone digit seems to be giving the church a permanent thumbs-up.

Rumor has it, her foot is being stored in Venice.