Set in an ornate reliquary in the Basilica San Domenico in Siena is the dismembered, mummified head of the revered Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Her right thumb also resides in a smaller reliquary not far from her head.
At the ripe old age of 7, Catherine had her first of many visions, with Jesus on a throne, surrounded by saints. As a teenager, she took a vow of perpetual virginity and gave herself over to prayer and worship. To thwart her family’s attempts to marry her off, Catherine cut her hair off, scalded herself, and became a nun. Shortly after she joined the nunnery she had a vision of Jesus placing a ring on her finger in marriage. This ring, for the record, was no ordinary wedding band; instead of gold it was made from the baby Jesus’ holy foreskin, a popular relic at the time. For the rest of her life, Catherine said she could see the ring on her finger.
At the age of 28 Catherine was said to have received the stigmata, when five red rays shot out of the crucifix she was praying to and pierced her hands, feet, and heart. She refused to eat or drink, save for the Blessed Sacrament. Her miracles were not limited to the stigmata and visions: Catherine was seen levitating during prayer, and a priest once said that he saw the Holy Communion fly from his hand straight into Catherine’s mouth like a miraculous Frisbee.
The beloved Catherine died young, at the age of 33, and was canonized over a century later. She died while in Rome, but her hometown, Siena, wanted to have her body. When they realized they would not be able to smuggle the whole body past the guards in Rome, they took only her head, hidden in a paper bag. Unfortunately, they were stopped by the guards anyway. The thieves prayed to Catherine to protect them, and when the guards looked in the bag, they saw not the small withered head of the saint, but hundreds of rose petals. When they returned to Siena, the head had re-materialized, Saint Catherine’s final miracle. Her head was placed in a splendid reliquary, where it remains today, near her disembodied thumb, in the Church of San Dominico.
The rest of Catherine’s body remains in Rome, and her foot is said to be in a reliquary in Venice.
Visit Italy with Atlas Obscura Trips
Rome Behind Locked Doors: Music, Magic, and Secret Crypts
Join us as we go beneath Rome’s streets and behind its locked doors to explore hidden and overlooked places, witnessing a capital city that most tourists rarely experience—strange, magical, and filled with intrigue.