It has been a wonderfully hectic, blissfully relaxing, and delicious past 48 hours! Early Monday morning, Stefano, our trusted taxi driver, whisked us away to the bus stop (lesson learned after significantly over-paying for a 15-minute cab ride…who would have ever taken advantage of two unsuspecting North American, female tourists?). Stefano drove us through the winding, rural side roads of Assisi to the bus stop. Conveniently, it was just steps away from Capella Santa Maria degli Angeli. I could have spent days in the ‘Chapel of Holy Mary of the Angels.’ This ornate basilica houses a ‘Chapel of the Stigmata’ and ‘Chapel of Relics’ in which one very excited Emily could see where St. Francis experienced an ecstatic vision and a piece of cloth stained with the blood of his stigmata.
A short bus ride later, we were dropped off right in the downtown core of picturesque Siena- a striking medieval city with plenty of rustic charm. We checked into our hotel and rested. Early the next day, energized by our continental breakfast (hello more bread, Nutella, and super strong coffee!), we set off on the third phase of our pilgrimage.
The highlight for me in Siena has been a visit to the Church of St. Dominic (Chiesa San Domenico). This would have been the parish church for St. Catherine growing up and the site of her first ecstatic vision by the stone altar. We managed to get there about half an hour before the waves of tourists arrived, which was great for us, because we had some quiet reflection time.
Upon entering, our first mission was to find a portrait: a piece described by Lucinda Vardey as a work painted by Andrea Vanni – a beloved childhood friend of Catherine’s. In other words – this is the truest face of the saint, because it was crafted by a friend who knew her well. Instantly, Leanna’s eyes darted toward the painting in the back of the church along the west wall. It was the same image she has in her office! She had always wondered where the image came from, and who the artist was. She pretty much ran to the image and it made me so happy to see her get so excited (since basically I’ve been doing this at every turn pointing out 1000000 things to her with their corresponding historical and theological explanations…she’s a great friend for putting up with me with such grace). This piece was so special for her because a reproduction of it had found its way into her office at work, and now she was able to find its origins. A great start to the day with this discovery!
Oh yes, and upon seeing St Catherine’s head, Leanna said it was “pretty damn cool.” She lit a candle for everyone that sent their prayer intentions to her, and spent some time praying there. She mentioned that she is ever-inspired by St. Catherine’s heart and head imagery- her quest for knowledge and her intimacy with Christ.
Down a meandering cobblestone path, our next stop was the Santuario Casa di Santa Caterina (the House and Sanctuary of St. Catherine). Usually Leanna has to tear me away from shops in which I’m tempted to by too many books and icons necessary for one person, but this time around she had to wait ever so patiently as I basked in the great beauty of an iron gate. This gate marked a barrier between the courtyard and doors to the Church of the Crucifix and was a sculpture of St. Catherine and Christ with Jesus’ heart outstretched. When the gate is closed, the heart appears to be placed in her hand. Given St. Catherine’s special devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus, I was totally in my element and moved by this very practical yet incredibly prayerful piece of art.
It rained (again) today, but Leanna and I are happy to report that it was the sunniest, warmest day in our travels so far – a record of 20 degrees celsius! We sat under the sun and had a satisfying lunch overlooking the Piazza del Compo before spending a full afternoon touring the “gem of Siena”- the great Il Duomo.
This great Cathedral is home to a crypt, stunning Greco-Roman and Christian-inspired frescoes, and artwork by Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini. We also saw the Piccolomini Library and Baptistery. Although full of anachronistic paintings, I could still appreciate it as a breathtaking sacred space that certainly inspires meditation and a love for the history pouring out of its walls.
Now, it is time to feed me again as it’s 9:35pm here. Apparently that’s close to the Italian dinnertime and Leanna and I are trying our best to fit right in.
More updates to follow from our next exotic, Italian locale: Arezzo- Tuscany at its finest.