The Shrine of the House of Saint Catherine

Kitchen Oratory

This room encompasses the space once occupied by the Benincasa family’s kitchen, the fulcrum of domestic life. Visible through the grille under the altar are the remnants of the ancient fireplace on the opposite wall; in this very fireplace, while a fire was burning, Catherine fell during one of her ecstatic trances, but she was miraculously unharmed. The Saint spent the first phase of her life within the walls of her home, amid unceasing prayer, penance, and moments of contemplation and conversation with the Eternal Father, until the moment when God called her to concrete action in support of the Church and the Papacy, culminating in her trip to Avignon, the greatest diplomatic initiative of the fourteenth century in Europe, whose result was the return of the papal seat to Rome.

In 1482-1483, about a century after Catherine’s death, the Confraternity of Saint Catherine chose this spot as the meeting place for its members, who soon thereafter placed the panel painted in 1496 by the Sienese artist Bernardino Fungai on the back wall above the altar. The painting, in all probability commissioned by the Saracini family, one of the most important in Siena, presents in the central compartment the episode of Catherine receiving the stigmata, the most sublime moment of her spiritual journey. At the time that the picture was painted, the crucifix from which Catherine received the stigmata (now in the church across from the oratory) was still in Pisa. It was brought to Siena several decades later, in 1565, and very few Sienese had seen it before then. This explains why Fungai visualizes the crucifix as a sculpture rather than the painted cross it really is. The altarpiece has a predella with scenes from the life of Saint Catherine and two side wings holding the figures of Saint Dominic and Saint Jerome, also by Fungai. The upper section with God the Father and two prophets was added some decades later, in 1567, by the Sienese painter Bartolomeo Neroni, known as Riccio.

Right around the middle of the sixteenth century, the Confraternity decided to enlarge the oratory and to begin furnishing and decorating it under the guidance of Riccio, who was able to give the room a homogeneous, unified character. Besides several paintings, Riccio was also responsible for the design of the beautiful blue and gold coffered ceiling (made by the carver Bastiano di Girolamo) and the rich wood paneling on the walls, which frames and ties together the various canvases. The space is completed by a wooden choir and by Renaissance polychrome majolica tiles on the floor, many of which have unfortunately worn away and been replaced over time. In order to preserve what is left of this rare and valuable floor, the oratory now has a raised transparent platform along the sides which enables visitors to walk around it without causing any further damage.

The numerous canvases adorning the walls, commissioned to various artists by the confraternity, depict episodes from Catherine’s life, drawn mainly from Raymond of Capua’s Legenda Major. In the corners are portrayed four Sienese Saints and Blessed.