I’ve always hoped to discover more about St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). I was drawn to her firstly because I share her name, but also because she was a strong woman, producing a lot of spiritual writing, not being afraid to speak her mind, and working hard to help the poor and sick.
When I visited Siena earlier this year, I made sure to explore the many sites connected with St. Catherine. The one that left the deepest impression on me was the Oratory of the Company of St. Catherine of the Night, in Santa Maria Della Scala, one of the oldest hospitals in Europe dating back as far as the ninth century in local legends.
According to tradition, Catherine used to come and pray in this part of the hospital in the 14th century, while she was comforting the sick here.
Around the same time, several lay confraternities set up their headquarters in the underground rooms of the hospital. These included the confraternity that was originally devoted to St. Michael the Archangel, who established their headquarters in this oratory, where they could go and pray in between tending to patients.
The company of St. Michael was dedicated mainly to showing respect for the dead. Their oratory was therefore situated close to the “charnel house”, a pit where the dead were buried.
According to some accounts, Catherine would join the brothers here in prayer and take a few moments out to rest in a small cell to the left of the oratory on the long nights in the hospital. In memory of her, the brotherhood changed its name to the Company of Saint Catherine of the Night, starting from 1479.
I stopped in front of this plaque in memory of St. Catherine before I explored the oratory, which reads “Oh Christians, venture into this sacred enclosure respectfully to venerate the night cell where the great Siena heroine St. Catherine stayed as she prepared to help the humanity languishing in this hospital”.
Most of the oratory is only dimly lit, creating a mysterious atmosphere. I was alone when I was exploring it, and I took the time to contemplate, and think back to when St. Catherine and the brotherhood were doing the same.
Some of its rooms house elaborately decorated altars. In one of the first rooms, you can see a marble Madonna statue from the late 14th century, one of the confraternity’s oldest images. The statue of Mary is surrounded by four angels and Saints Catherine and Dominic in adoration.
On the left side of the oratory, I peered through into the cell where Catherine is said to have come to rest, sleep and pray in between her duties at the hospital. You can see a wooden statue of her in here under a canopy. There is also a small altar draped in gold-and-pink embroidered lace, votive offerings and and a framed prayer.
I then discovered further rooms, chapels and altars adorned with paintings, relics and furnishings of the society. Many of them are kept in darkness with spotlights on some parts of the walls.
In one of the back rooms I stopped to read some of the lists and notices of the confraternity. This one says “List of the Brothers of the Company of Saint Catherine of the Night under the vaults of the hospital”.
On the way out, there were a few rather scary reminders of our inevitable demise. This one reads like the saying “as you are now so once was I . As I am now so you shall be”.
For more on the fascinating museum of Santa Maria della Scala, see here