The importance of this church, and its very reason for being, lie in the presence of the wooden crucifix from which Saint Catherine received the stigmata (from the Greek stigma: mark), which are the wounds similar to those inflicted on Jesus Christ during His crucifixion.
This miraculous event took place in Pisa, where Catherine had gone in 1375 at Pope Gregory XI’s request for the purpose of persuading the Lords of the city not to take part in the anti-papal league. In the Legenda Major, Raymond of Capua narrates that on 1 April of that year, while she was deep in prayer in the church of Santa Cristina, Catherine saw five blood-red rays, aimed at her hands, feet, and heart, streaming down from the crucifix in front of which she was kneeling. She immediately asked God for the stigmata to be invisible, and before the rays could reach her they changed color, becoming resplendent with light. They remained visible only to the Saint for the rest of her life, miraculously appearing at the moment of her death. The validity of Catherine’s stigmata was only recognized officially in 1623 by Pope Urban VIII, after a debate lasting about two centuries.
As had happened for Saint Francis of Assisi, who was the first Saint to receive the stigmata, for Catherine too the episode marked the culmination of her spiritual journey and represents her identification with Jesus Christ: Catherine became in all things conformed to the crucified Lord, and like Him burned with the same desire for mankind’s salvation. Her request that the stigmata be invisible responds to her refusal to ‘make a spectacle’ of the miraculous event, in keeping with the extraordinary humility that characterized her whole life.
Right after Catherine’s death, the people of Siena wanted to possess the crucifix that had made her a perfect icon of Christ’s love; after many attempts, the Confraternity devoted to her was successful, and in 1565 the wooden cross was brought to Siena and placed in the Kitchen Oratory. As time passed, however, it began to be thought that a more fitting setting should be found for it, big enough to permit it to be venerated properly. The only available space was the area in front of the Kitchen Oratory, traditionally thought to be the Benincasa family’s vegetable garden. Right here, between 1614 and 1623, the Church of the Crucifix was built in the baroque style, and its decoration continued for more than a century.
The crucifix, painted on wood by an artist of the Pisan school around the end of the thirteenth century, was placed in the center of the high altar, the most prominent position in the church, on 21 May 1623, after a solemn procession by way of all the major places of worship in Siena. It is enclosed in a frame with two doors, on the inner side of which are the images of Saint Catherine and the penitent Saint Jerome, both by the Sienese painter Bartolomeo Neroni, known as Riccio.
The numerous paintings hanging on the walls retrace significant moments in Catherine’s life, stressing in particular the extraordinary results she obtained in favor of the Church in the political sphere by bringing the seat of the papacy back to Rome from Avignon, thus putting an end to what was called the 'Avignon captivity' (1308-1377), and re-establishing the peace between Florence and the Papal State, at war with each other for a long time. The exceptional nature of the Saint’s operations, intuited already by her contemporaries and then understood more fully in the course of the centuries, shows what a human being, and what is more a woman, and almost illiterate, can do when she knows how to listen to the voice of God and generously consecrates her life to Him.
Three of the four large canvases occupying the nave of the church are devoted precisely to this particular aspect of Catherine’s experience. Starting from the entrance, the first painting on the right wall shows Pope Gregory XI’s Return to Rome, painted by Niccolò Franchini and dated 1769, next to the canvas showing Catherine Exhorting Gregory XI to Return to Rome, by the Bolognese artist Alessandro Calvi, known as Sordino. On the opposite wall we see Saint Catherine Assaulted by Florentine Soldiers, painted by Galgano Perpignani in 1765, which evokes one of the moments in her work of making peace between Florence and the papacy. The fourth canvas, painted by Liborio Guerrini in 1777, shows The Charity of Saint Catherine, with the Saint surrounded by the poor as she hands out bread to them. In reality, the Legenda Major recounts that she usually did her charitable acts at night, leaving her contributions outside the door of the homes of indigent families, in keeping with the Gospel teaching that almsgiving should be hidden and those who practice it should not call attention to themselves.
The paintings on the two altars on the sides of the transept show, on the right, once again Saint Catherine before Gregory XI at Avignon, an eighteenth-century work by Sebastiano Conca, and on the left Saint Catherine Welcomed into Paradise by Our Lady and Presented to Jesus Christ, a canvas painted by Rutilio and Domenico Manetti in 1638. In the painting, Catherine is shown according to an unusual iconography, wearing a white habit without the usual black cloak and with a triple crown on her head. This detail recalls an episode in the Legenda Major, in which a woman named Semia, after receiving a miracle from Catherine, in a dream saw the Saint in Paradise with three crowns on her head – one of gold, one of silver with red highlights, and one of gold studded with precious stones – which refer to the so-called triple crown halo (or corona aureola accidentalis), the symbol of virginity, martyrdom, and doctrine. The painting, made just a few years after the recognition of the stigmata, can be considered one of the first depictions on canvas of the glorification of the Saint. Still in the left transept, on the left-hand wall, is a standard portraying Saint Catherine Receiving the Stigmata from the Crucifix, painted by Rutilio Manetti in 1630, commissioned by the Confraternity of Saint Catherine. Next to the altar is a little niche which holds a reliquary containing a fragment of her shoulder blade.
On either side of the chancel are two paintings by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini showing, on the left, The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine, and on the right The Saint Writing under the Inspiration of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican theologian whose teachings inspired her work. Nasini also painted the frescoes on the dome and ceiling between 1701 and 1703, showing The Glorification and Exaltation of Saint Catherine, in which she is welcomed into Paradise and made a participant in the heavenly Glory.