Siena Cathedral's Interior Design, Floor Layout & Key Elements
The Latin Cross of the Siena Cathedral
Once you enter the Siena Cathedral, you are immediately transported into a world of unreal artistry. From the nave to the presbytery or from the ceiling to the masterfully executed inlaid floors, one can find beauty in every square inch of the Cathedral. With its Romanesque architecture and Gothic influences, the interiors of the Siena Cathedral are said to be one of a kind, with several artworks and decorations embedded in its design. Here, we will describe the structures within the Cathedral's interior so you can systematically explore and identify its unique elements.
Highlights of the Interior of Siena Cathedral
The layout of the interior takes the shape of a Latin cross. The nave of the Cathedral, which starts from the entrance, is peculiarly long and follows a black-and-white color code. It is trisected into three aisles by a colonnade of hefty stone pillars that are striped in the same colors. One can find statues of allegorical figures and animals on the capitals of these pillars. Where the pillars reach the arches above, a horizontal molding of 172 busts of popes from the 15th and 16th centuries begins tracing the upper ledge of the nave all the way to the presbytery. Below these busts are cornices with the faces of 36 Roman and Byzantine emperors that run parallelly.
The Ceiling and Dome
The Cathedral's ceiling is styled to resemble the heavens, according to the Italian tradition of representing the upper areas of a church as the divine or heavenly realms and the floors as the earthly realms. The vaulted ceiling of the nave is ribbed and studded with yellow stars against a deep blue background with splendid motifs carved into its arches. It then turns into a large dome under the transept. The large hexagonal dome is freckled with small coffers, each containing one star. The drum underneath the dome is encircled with the images and statues of 42 patriarchs and prophets. In the center of the dome, you will find the beautiful glowing lantern designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini with sunlight falling through it.
The transept begins where the nave ends. They (semitransepts) are considered the wings of the Cathedral. In the corners of either transept are two smaller chapels. On the left is the enclosed space of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist which contains eight stunning frescos of the Life of St. John the Baptist by Pinturicchio. The Chigi Chapel or the Chapel of the Vow is on the right. It is a circular chapel that contains the sacred painting 'Madonna del Voto', a portrait of great importance to the people of Siena. The Tomb of Cardinal Riccardo Petroni, a richly decorated sarcophagus, is an exquisite example of funeral architecture and can be found in the transept as well.
The presbytery is one of the most sacred parts of the Cathedral. It lies right after the transept and is considered the head of the building. It has a large apse lined with intricate gold motifs indented in it. Painted on the apse are frescoes of the Saints and Paradise by Domenico Beccafumi. Designed by the same artist, are eight statues of angels that act as candleholders, filling the area with warm light. In the oculus above the apse, is a large stained glass window that is a copy of Duccio di Boninsegna’s Life of Mary. The presbytery also holds a magnificent marble high altar created by Baldassarre Peruzzi in 1532.
The Marble Floor
The floor of the Cathedral is often compared to a lushly decorated carpet. This is because large parts of the nave, transept, and chancel are covered with 56 beautiful marble panels. The panels were designed by Sienese artists, with the exception of the Umbrian artist Pinturicchio. They depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments and contain Pagan themes and allegorical figures from classical antiquity. The Ten Sibyls and the She-wolf of Siena in the nave, the scenes of Moses at Sinai in the presbytery, and the hexagonal mosaic of the Lives of Elijah and Ahab in the transept are all must-see panels of the Cathedral floor.Siena Cathedral's Mosaic Floor
The Gate of Heaven or ‘Porta del Cielo’
The Gate of Heaven is one of the cathedral’s main attractions. It is an elevated corridor of rooms that runs through the nave and encircles the dome of the cathedral. Until very recently, no one has had access to this upper gallery. The Gate of Heaven is symbolically inspired by the Bible's Jacob’s Ladder and was designed to give visitors a spectacular view of the long nave. You also get the clearest view of the vaulted star-spangled ceiling and its moldings and statues from here. This corridor also has an outer component that leads to the terrace of the church.
Interesting Facts About Siena Cathedral's Interiors
- The Gate of Heaven is symbolic of the biblical Jacob’s Ladder, whereby ascending to the upper gallery of the church was figuratively compared to the ascension to heaven.
- The church was meant to construct a new nave on the right transept in the early 14th century. However, the project was abandoned due to complications in the construction and the onslaught of the Black Plague.
- The black and white colors of the Siena Cathedral are symbolic of the civic coat of arms of Siena and represent the colors of the two founders of Siena.
- The rose window of The Life of Mary above the apse by Duccio di Boninsegna is actually a copy. The original is kept inside the museum of the Cathedral complex.
- The floor of the Siena Cathedral is covered for most of the year to protect it from deterioration. Only a few panels at the entrance are left uncovered for viewing.
Book Tickets to Siena Cathedral
- It is best to visit the cathedral between August and October. This is usually when the floor of the Cathedral is uncovered and you can view all the marble panels.
- The Gate of Heaven is accessible only by purchase of a separate ticket which can be availed online or at the ticket office.
- The Gate of Heaven is accessible to the public only from March to January. So plan your visit accordingly.
- It is best to book your tickets online to enter the Siena Cathedral. Purchasing tickets at the ticket office is subject to remaining availability and is therefore risky.
- The inside of the Siena Cathedral is wheelchair accessible. It contains a dedicated ramp on the left-hand side of the building to allow wheelchair users to enter.
- Remember to dress modestly while entering the Siena Cathedral as it is a religious establishment.
Frequently Asked Questions About Siena Cathedral’s Interior
Yes, visitors need to purchase a ticket to enter Siena Cathedral. You can purchase tickets online or at the ticket office.
Siena Cathedral's interiors consist of a richly adorned nave, transepts, and presbytery. Visitors can see intricate marble floors, beautifully decorated chapels, and a number of important religious artifacts as well.
One of the most unique features of Siena Cathedral's interiors is the intricately inlaid marble floor.
Some of the most important things to see inside Siena Cathedral include moldings of the nave, the ornate dome of the ceiling, the inlaid marble floor, and the stunning stained glass windows of the presbytery. The cathedral's chapels and altars are also worth exploring.
The interiors of Siena Cathedral are designed in a Romanesque style with Gothic influences.
Yes, visitors are expected to dress modestly and avoid wearing shorts or sleeveless tops when entering Siena Cathedral. This is a sign of respect for the religious site.
It's best to visit Siena Cathedral early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds. Also, visit between the months of March and January to access the Gate of Heaven and between August and October to view the marble floor.
It takes about 1-2 hours to explore the entirety of Siena Cathedral's interior. However, visitors can easily spend more time admiring the intricate details and stunning artwork.
Yes, cameras are allowed in the interiors of Siena Cathedral for personal use only. However, tripods and flashes are not permitted.
The columns in Siena Cathedral's interior are of different colors due to the use of different types of marble during the construction process. The black and white stripes are symbolic of the civic coat of arms of Siena.