Saints’ Bones and a Mummified Head – Siena

Okay, so I went a little crazy in Siena. But you have to give me a break – it’s pretty much the first real stop on my trip, and the whole place looks like this:


But really my favorite thing in Siena, besides the coffee and the gelato, were all the saints’ relics. The medieval person’s obsession with the body parts of saints and holy people is one of the stranger aspects of medieval Christianity. But it leads to some of the most awesomely gruesome sights you’ll ever see in someplace as “tame” as a church or museum.

As a rule, medieval Christians believed that the preserved physical parts of saints could, when prayed to or even touched, act as intercessors between the individual and the saint, and thus between the individual and God. Popular and enduring relics include pieces of the true cross, the Virgin Mary’s veil (important because it could have 2000-year-old residue of her breast milk… yummy), scraps of Christ’s foreskin (not even kidding), and heads of John the Baptist (there are about ten of these floating around Europe and the Holy Land). Teeth, fingernails, scraps of skin… these physical remnants of spiritual people held enormous power and appeal for medieval Christians (and for many Catholics today… Sorry, guys.), and their worship actually drove a large portion of the medieval economy. Pilgrimage was common practice, and the more famous the relic, the more power it had, the more people would come to whatever church owned it, the more money pilgrims donated to the church and spent along the way (see how it works?). So in many cases, any church or cathedral was really only as important as the relics it displayed.

Alright I’m getting a little carried away, but you guys know how I get about medieval things. The point I’m getting to is I saw more relics in one afternoon in Siena than I’ve seen in my entire life and European travels combined.

The only thing I knew about Siena before coming was St. Catherine of Siena (more on her in a minute). I’m a big admirer of hers, so I spent the day wandering between her various holy sites around the city. But on the way, I got sidetracked by signs leading to something called the Museo dell’Opera. I was like, Awesome! The other thing I’m most interested in! So I bought a ticket, expecting some exhibit of costumes and props from Italian opera, and instead I found… a room full of saints’ reliquaries and Medieval art. I was pretty confused… but I like those things too (and I’d just paid 6 euro), so I just went with it.

One of the very first popes (92-99 AD), St. Clement was killed by being tied to an anchor and thrown off a ship. This story is apocryphal though, and I kind of doubt it’s true: I’d like to know who swam to the bottom of the ocean to untie his body and bring it back to Siena…

Most of the reliquaries were pretty small, but this one caught my eye. It’s the size of a casket and has the complete skeleton of St. Clement the Martyr. The inside of the casket is gorgeously decorated, with delicate golden flowers and pearls twining in and out of the bones. I also noticed that one edge of the casket has a seal, which I assume is supposed to guarantee that the casket has never been opened and thus that the bones inside are authentic. Or at leas, authentically old.

I finished the day with a pilgrimage to some Catherine of Siena sites. Since she was born here in 1347, there are quite a few around the city.

Besides the typical saintly things – ecstasy of marriage with Christ, reception of the stigmata, etc. – Catherine was particularly known for her fasting. I read Rudolph Bell’s book Holy Anorexia in high school, and I’m pretty convinced by his argument that medieval ascetic fasting has many behavioral and psychological parallels with modern disordered eating, particularly anorexia. From an early age St. Catherine used extreme fasting to manipulate her parents into calling off her arranged marriage and allowing her to become a nun (she had already vowed chastity at age 7). At 16 she gave up all food except water, uncooked vegetables, and bread. At 22 she gave up the bread, and at 26 she gave up food altogether, taking nourishment only from the sacrament, which she received daily. Her health declined until she died of malnourishment at age 33, the same age at which Christ was crucified, which I’m sure is exactly what she wanted.

It might seem strange to say that I admire her, but she managed to carve out her own life path and do things exactly the way she wanted in a time when basically no woman had that freedom. She used her mental/physical weakness as a strength, becoming famous and influential in her own day as well as a saint after her death. That’s really as high as a woman could aim for in a career in the medieval church.

But I digress – the whole point of this spiel on St. Catherine is that, although her body is buried in Rome, her head is preserved and on display in San Domenico in Siena:


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