This is the fifth post in my series about our trip to beauty-filled Italy. Hope you enjoy!
We stepped out of the van into the sunlight shining brightly on Siena, Italy, a place where my mother has always wanted to visit. I had heard great things about it from her and some friends who had recently been to this ancient city, and I was excited to be there.
Our guide, Susanne, introduced herself and embraced us. She was lovely, with a long blond ponytail, vintage red movie-star glasses, a brownish-red bowler hat, and wonderful smile. I loved her immediately.
Since it was mid-morning already and we all needed a little break from the ride, she took us to a tiny coffee shop a few steps away from the piazza. We got lattes, waters, and a yummy muffin and listened to her tell us about herself and some of the city's history.
As we began our tour, Susanne showed us a view of the oldest part of the city. The houses are not expensive in Siena but the upkeep of them is very costly.
Susanne told us about St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a young woman who devoted herself to Christ at a young age and had an extraordinary impact on the world in her short life. She learned to read and write and educated herself in the writings of the church fathers. She cared for the sick, even those with the black plague, and reached out to the poor and imprisoned. She focused on social, political, and church reform and even convinced the pope to return from living in France to Rome, where the papacy truly belonged. After having a vision of Christ at 19, she considered herself spiritually married to him for the rest of her life. She has been inspiring people ever since.
Next, Susanne took us to the Cathedral of Siena, which quickly became one of my favorite cathedrals of all time. I have seen more than a few, and this one is now in my top three.
The Gothic exterior of the cathedral, which you approach from the back (pictured above), is spectacular. We stood there for a while just taking it in and snapping photos while Suzanne got our tickets. The construction of the cathedral in its current form began in 1229, with the completion of the dome in 1264.
When we went in, I couldn't help but gasp and gawk, like centuries of tourists (and pilgrims) before me. It is huge and stunning. It is just so different, with alternating bands of white and black marble giving it a striped appearance and a deep blue ceiling covered with gold stars and accents.
In the past, the cathedral was very dark because of the dark colors on the ceiling and in the marble, but more lighting was added recently so we could see everything very well.
The floor has many large cultural and biblical scenes made of inlaid marble that were created between the 14th and 18th centuries. Susanne told us that these marble treasures are usually covered to protect them, but they were not covered that day so we actually got to see them. She showed us the more famous ones, explained their meaning, and pointed out details of how the artists grew in their skill and knowledge of working with marble over the centuries.
As we moved through the cathedral, Susanne pointed out many other works of art by several masters of European art, such as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello.
Off to the side was the Piccolomini Library, a brightly-lit room with bold, vibrant colors. It was a feast for the eyes: the walls and ceiling are completely covered in well-preserved frescoes that have never needed to be cleaned or retouched.
Begun in 1495 for Pope Pius III, the library houses a priceless collection of illuminated 15th-century psalters or musical manuscripts. I adore illuminated manuscripts, so I took a photo of every single one.
Anytime I am in a magnificent church on our travels, I want to spend a few moments in silence and worship. But I find that it’s hard to think or to pray without being distracted by all the people around me. Plus, I want to take in every bit of the beauty while I can--beauty created by man but inspired and enabled by God.
In one of the tiny chapels, as we stood looking at two famous Bernini sculptures, an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, knelt and prayed with her lips moving. I felt awful, like we were intruding upon her pain in a private, unguarded moment. As she wiped tears from her cheeks, I wondered what her heart's burdens were--maybe her husband or her child was ill or her grandchildren were struggling. Was she praying to a saint, or was she laying her requests before Jesus Himself, like I do? I don't know, of course, but her tears moved me and I prayed for her as I walked out.
While I was praying for this woman, I thanked God for the beauty around me, for the ability to see it, and for the opportunity to experience Italy with my loved ones. It's a privilege that I don't take lightly, and it's my joy to share a little bit of it here with you.
Have you ever been in a cathedral or a museum or something similar that made you grateful for the beauty inside it? I’d love to know. Leave me a comment below.
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