The Basilica of San Domenico is a splendid example of Gothic architecture typical of the Dominican mendicant orders of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Built between 1225 and 1265, in the course of the fourteenth century it was enlarged into the simple, majestic form we still see today.
From the height of the Camporegio hill (tradition claims that King Henry IV camped there during the siege of 1186, hence the name, which means “royal camp”), it dominates the Oratory of the Contrada dell’Oca (formerly the space occupied by the Benincasa dyers), the Church of the Crucifix, and Saint Catherine’s House.
In the aesthetic sobriety of its forms and its impressive bulk, ideal for holding the greatest number of faithful, the Basilica responds to the Dominicans’ evangelization needs; they built it near the city in order to pursue their work of teaching and spiritual direction in close contact with the community of Siena.
The entire structure is made of bricks, and its exterior is distinguished by its lack of decoration; the only elements breaking up the expanse of wall surface are the long, narrow slits created to flood the church interior with light. Gothic architecture, in fact, sought to have the greatest illumination possible; light, a sign of God, entered and with its brightness chased away the darkness of the human condition.
The entrance to the Basilica is on the left side of the church because the area behind the façade, which was begun but never finished, is occupied by the raised structure of the Chapel of the Vaults, an ancient place of prayer for the Dominican Third Order and a sacred place tied to numerous episodes of the sanctity of Catherine of Siena.
The monumentality of the Basilica is even more evident inside because of the great height of the large nave, roofed with wooden beams, and above all the vastness of the space that stretches forward until the eye comes to rest on the high altar, the focal point of the church.
The altar is the place where Christ’s Sacrifice, the cornerstone of salvation, is re-enacted. This was the center of interest also for Catherine, deeply in love with her Lord who shed His blood for her.
On the wall opposite the entrance door is the Saint Catherine Chapel, built by order of Niccolò Bensi in 1460, which houses Saint Catherine’s head, brought here from Rome in 1384 by Raymond of Capua, in the splendid marble altar by Giovanni di Stefano.