Holy Places in Sicily
A tour through Sicily’s religious sites and monuments allow the tourist to experience unique impressive places, major symbols of Sicilians’ strong and abiding religious faith. Sicilian religious (and cities’) architecture has much evolved over the centuries, also due to natural devastating catastrophes being the cause of extensive restoration or reconstruction works.
History and successive dominations have left indelible traces also, today more or less clearly visible in the many catacombs, churches, monuments and pieces of art scattered across our Island which make it a major destination of religious tourism. Paleo-Christians, Byzantines, Normans, Arabians, Swabian, French and Spaniards left unmistakable traces of their passage.
Our tour through Sicily’s religious sites starts in Palermo, the Island capital, showing a mixture of architectonic styles.
The imposing Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Assunta is one of the city’s most praised monuments. Begun in 1184 on the site of a former Muslim mosque, it shows a splendid Norman-style façade with two characteristic bell-towers. Its three-naves are framed by numerous pilasters bearing sculptures dedicated to the Saints. It houses plenty of impressing sacred works like the Chapel of S. Rosalie, where repose the relics of the Saint, and the Cappella del Sacramento containing a wooden crucifix dating back to around 1300 and a 15th century marble statue representing the Virgin and Child.
Palermo’s Norman Palatin Chapel is housed in the well-known Norman Palace. Begun in 1130, this has three naves and a dome ornamented with an impressive mosaic of the Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Angels and Archangels and is enriched with numerous other mosaics from different epochs, portraying biblical figures or events.
The Anglican Church of the Holy Cross was founded by a British community that settled here in the 19th century, and later enlarged. Visitors may admire several works of art: stained glass windows in the apse, amazing mosaics and columns’ capitals, a rose window representing The Adoration of the Lamb.
The church dedicated to Saint Mary of the Admiral or Martorana was built in 1143 at the behest of Giorgio of Antioch, an admiral of Roger II, and was later run by the Convent founded by Eloisa Martorana. A splendid Norman-Arab bell-tower is what remains of the ancient temple. The church is built in the form of a greek cross and preserves some of the most beautiful mosaics produced in Sicily in the 12th century, displaying scenes of the New and Old Testaments, of the Apostles, the Prophets, the Blessing Christ at the centre of the Cupola, and King Roger being crowned by Christ, attributed to the hand of Borremans. From around 1930 the church is part of the Byzantine-Catholic diocese of Piana degli Albanesi.
The Santuario di Mondello, atop Mount Pellegrino, is dedicated to Saint Rosalie, a young woman of the 12th century, thought to belong to the Norman ruling family, who settled and lived there as a hermit. After her death many miracles were attributed to this saint, among which that of having stemmed a plague that ravaged Palermo in the 17th century. The picturesque baroque-style shrine was built in 1624 and houses many effigies of the Saint.
Monreale, in the Palermo hinterland, overlooking the Conca d’Oro, is a popular worshipping and tourism site; in the past it was a favorite retreat of the Norman rulers. Still it offers a dramatic panorama thanks to its privileged location. It boasts several worth-mentioning monuments:
first is the well-known Cathedral, a monument that reflects various influences. Built in the 12th century on a latin-cross layout, it preserves numerous pieces of art: a magnificent mosaic of the Christ Pantocrator – an image often recurring in the churches of the island – surrounded by the angels ornaments the main apse, above the image of the Virgin on a throne. Other splendid mosaics depicting scenes from the New and Old Testaments. Its imposing façade, retaining the square towers, one of which remained incomplete, bears impressing bronze doors divided into various panels illustrating biblical episodes.
Cefalù, in the Palermo province, is a picturesque city nestled along the Tyrrhenian coast, below a wide mountain chain. It saw its heyday under the Norman rulers. The Norman Cathedral going back to Roger II reign is outstanding, much alike the one in Monreale. This impressive building has a basilical plan with three nave and aisles divided by granite columns bearing finest capitals and arches. The dominant feature of the cathedral are the two majestic front towers. The façade has a magnificent portico and a richly decorated marble doorway dating back to the 15th century. A lovely Crucifix dating back to the 15th century and rich mosaics are preserved indide.
Our tour then moves on to the ancient Siracusa, whose religious monuments are as much noted as its Greek Theatre and remnants. Notably, the Catacombe di San Giovanni s attest to the city’s prominence in the early centuries of the Christian Era.
Also important are the Duomo dedicated to St. Lucy, sitting in Duomo Square, on Ortygia’s smallest Island. The church is preceded by a splendid flight of steps graced with 18th century statues dedicated to Saints Pietro, Paolo, Marziano – the first Syracusan bishop – and Lucy, the city’s patron saint. The cathedral has remotest origins, being built on the site of a former pagan temple dedicated to Athena built at behest of tyrant Gelone to celebrate Syracuse victory over Carthage. In the 7th century AD the temple was turned into a christian church soon to be the seat of the Cathedral. Highly damaged by two devastating earthquakes in 1542 and 1693, it was restructured to a baroque look. Inside, it has nave and aisles divided by ancient greek columns and chapels, among which outstanding are that of St. Lucy, erected in the 18th century, containing a silvered statue of the Saint made by Rizzo in 1599, the chapel of the SS. Sacramento with many beautiful stuccoes, and the 17th century Chapel of the Holy Cross, guarding a wooden Byzantin Crucifix.
The Church of St. Sebastian, at Melilli, Syracuse, was erected in 1751 and is especially noted for its paintings by praised Olivio Sozzi depicting The Crowning of San Sebastian, The Triumph of the Faith and other pieces of art that attest to people devotion to the titular saint.
The impressive Noto, in the Syracuse province, is regarded as the Capital of Sicilian Baroque. Following 1693 earthquake the city governors and notables wanted a rich and elegant reconstruction of the city centre destined to become a major destination of tourists from across the world.
The 18th century Mother Church is by far Noto’s most beautiful monument. The church, dedicated to Saint Nicholas from Mira, was elevated to Cathedral status in 1844. It has three-naves with dome and side chapels. Inside, it preserves outstanding works of art like a 16th century polychromatic sculpture depicting the Madonna delle Grazie surrounded by the Cherubs, a chapel dedicated to Saint Corrado Confalonieri guarding a silver urn with the Saint’s relics. The chancel is adorned with frescoes of the Evangelists, of the Christ’s Resurrection et al.
The cathedral is, alas, under restoration due to the dome collapse following the 1999 earthquake. On Duomo Square also stand the Bishop’s Palace, next to the church, and the Chiesa del Salvatore, with an adjoined monastery. The church, currently under restoration, was erected in the late 1800s with an elliptical plan.
Albeit not largest, Noto boasts other noteworthy sacred monuments, like the Hermitage of Saint Corrado Fuori le Mura (outside the city walls), a 1759’s baroque church dedicated to the patron saint of Noto, housing very important works and paintings.
A final mention must go to the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Scala, now a major goal of pilgrimages, built in the early 1700s on the ruins of a church razed to the ground by the 1693 quake. Outstanding is the image of the Madonna della Scala painted on a rock, likely in the Byzantine epoch.
Another interesting shrine is located at Ragusa Ibla: the Duomo, in the old side of the city, dedicated to St. George. Its baroque look results from the extensive reconstruction on the former St. Nicholas’ church following the 1693 quake disaster. A fine, slightly asymmetric – after the square before – staircase leads up to the front doorway. The church was designed by the well-known architect Gagliardi with an imposing bell-tower. The eye-catching façade is divided into three storeys, with a richly decorated main doorway, a Neoclassic dome by Carmelo Cutrano in 1820. The interior has a latin-cross plan with three naves ornamented with works of art among which outstanding are several altar-pieces by the noted Vito D’Anna.
Sitll in Ragusa Ibla stands the 14th century Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Scale, built in the 14th century on the site of an ancient convent and rebuilt after the 1693 disaster. Of the ancient building only remain a gothic pulpit and renaissance and gothic chapels. Worth-noting is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Assunta, guarding a 1538 polychrome terracotta high-relief.
Ragusa’s Cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist was completed in 1760 with a wide baroque façade enriched with three statues of the Immacolate Virgin, the Baptist and of St. John the Evangelist. The front elevation features a spired bell-tower and a glorious portal. Inside, it is divided into three naves and richly decorated with stuccoes, works of art and holy pieces, such as a pitch-stone statue of St. John dated 1513, unearthed from the ruins of the ancient temple. It also preserves some precious paintings portraying Jesus Christ, St. Philip Neri and Saint Gregory the Great.
Ispica, in the Ragusa province, accommodates a number of interesting churches and sites. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore contains precious stuccoes and 18th century frescoes by Sozzi. Notably, the central nave is frescoed with biblical episodes and figures from the Old and New Testaments. The aisles bear medallions depicting the four Cardinal Virtues. The dome, also, is adorned with admirable frescoes dedicated to the patriarchs, the prophetes, the virgin martyrs, the prelates and the founders of religious orders. The church façade, dated 1700, underwent restoration work in the 19th century.
The Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Annunziata, erected in the early 1700s, is renowned for its cycle of stuccoes dating from the 18th century depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
It also preserves a group of statues, dedicated to the Resurrected Christ, that survived the quake of 1693 that, instead, largely destroyed the original building.
Modica’s St. George cathedral is majestic. According to historical documents the cathedral rose on the ruins of a little church dedicated to the Holy Cross and destroyed by the Arabs in 845. The Cathedral was built by order of the Norman Count Roger of Hautville in 1090, who, according to legend, meant to celebrate the saint knight who in a dream had suggested him how to defeat his enemies. Over the centuries, this has undergone various changes and restorations. The magnificent stairway, connecting the low and the upper sides of the city dates from around 1700. The imposing baroque façade is divided into three architectonic orders. The five-nave interior is ornamented with such incredible works as a precious polyptych behind the major altar, by Bernardino Niger, portraying, in nine panels, scenes from the life of knight saints George and Martin, the Old and New Testaments et al. Equally precious are a painting by Paladino, dated 1610, depicting the Madonna Assunta in Cielo, self-portraying the author near a group of Apostles; a picture depicting the martyrdom of St. Hippolyte, by Cicalesius, and a small ark containing the saint’s relics; a statue of the Madonna della Neve dated 1511.
The town has plenty of churches although many have been desecrated over the years. The stately SS. Peter and Paul’s Church, set in the city centre in front of the historical Jewish quarter, has a fine stairway enriched with statues of the Apostles, the so-called Santoni. It was built in the 14th century and, as well as many others in this part of Sicily, was extensively reconstructed following the 1693 noted quake that devastated the entire Noto Valley (defining the south-eastern Sicily). Its late-baroque façade bears four statues of the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Cataldo and St. Rosalie. It has three naves adorned with various pieces of art. Noteworthy are the ceiling medallions portraying the Doctors of the Church, a marble statue of the Madonna di Trapani, a wooden sculpture depicting Saint Peter and the Paralytic made by Civiletti in 1893.
The subsequent stop is at the well-noted, just restored church of Santa Maria di Betlem, built in the 15th century on the ruins of four small local churches. Of the ancient churches only remains, on the west side of today’s building, a low-relief portraying the Nativity. The church interior has three naves graced with a lovely wooden caisson ceiling and appreciated works like the chapel of the SS. Sacramento, also known as Palatin Chapel, dating from between 15th and 16th centuries and containing some tombs of noble families. A lovely Christmas Crib, inside the chapel, have contributed to make the church a favorite destination of tourists. This consists of 60 painted terracotta pieces, made by Fra’ Benedetto Papale Minimo in 1882. The Holy Crib is made from several local materials such as limestone and carob wood.
The picturesque Scicli, in the Ragusa province, is an ancient river outpost that boasts several worth-seeing churches and works.
The church of Santa Maria La Nova situated near the hills of Santa Cassa and Rosario, was erected in the 15th century and successively enlarged. It has a neoclassic look and contains several precious works: among these is a statue of the Immacolata dating from the first half of the 19th century, a wooden statue of the Resurrected Christ, a marble statue of the Madonna della Neve from the late 1400s, stuccoes and frescoes depicting scenes from Jesus Christ’s life, a choirstall in the main altar representing The Nativity of the Virgin Mary,
St. Matthew’s Church is really amazing albeit heavily damaged. It dates from the 12th century and has a baroque façade remained incomplete.
The church of Saint Bartholomew, in the Cava (valley) of the same name, dating from before the 15th century, is one of the few having survived the 1693 quake almost undamaged. It shows an imposing look and contains very interesting works including a fine wooden (from lime-tree) Holy Crib by Padula, from the second half of the 18th century, several paintings and stuccoes.
The Messina area also offers many beautiful churches and religious sites.
The Duomo, of Norman origin, in Messina, dedicated to Saint Mary, have an extremely unfortunate history, having suffered several fires (1254 and 1940s) and earthquakes (1693 and 1783), that caused loss of or damage to works of inestimable value. It was consecrated in 1197 in the presence of the Emperor Henry IV. Many of the works contained inside are just reproductions of originals gone destroyed by the said catastrophes. The today’s interior has a basilical plan divided into three naves by monolithic columns and contains interesting figurative works, a statue of St. John the Baptist attributed to praised artist Antonello Gagini, a 15th century shallow-relief depicting Saint Jerome and a wooden 18th century crucifix. The façade is graced with a fine campanile, detached from the main building. Its three doorways are preciously decorated.
The church of the Annunziata, dating from between the 12th and 13th century, was erected on the site of a former pagan temple. Its beauty owes much to the mixture of different architectonic styles.
The 18th century Chiesa di S. Maria degli Alemanni, in Messina, derives its name from the military order of Teutonic Knights who built it, and a hospital next to it. It is one of the fewest gothic monuments remained in Sicily, although it retains little of its two original buildings. The Teutonic Knights abandoned this area around the late 15th century, what contributed to the decline of the buildings. The remains consist of an ogival arch belonging to the ancient hospital, and the church’s original three naves – divided by pillars graced with a fine cross-vault and decorations – and images of humans and monsters in the capitals.
The Cathedral in Santa Lucia del Mela is a much interesting monument dating back to the Norman epoch, then rebuilt and enlarged between the late 16th and the early 17th century. Its Renaissance interior design has three naves divided by columns with doric capitals. It contains several precious works. Two are especially mentioning: a table dedicated to Saint Mark the Evangelist, by Guinacci, from the end of the 16th century, and a 18th century wooden Crucifix.
The ancient Duomo in Milazzo is a lovely baroque church with a fine portal in the late Renaissance style. Today, it is in poor conditions and requires an extensive restoration.
Patti Cathedral, dated 1131, has undergone considerable works of reconstruction as show the numerous relics and works dating from the 1300s and 1400s and its 16th century Campanile, dated 1588. The most important changes were carried out after the 1693 earthquake and the more recent 1978’s. It has a single-nave and houses many prized relics and pieces: two interesting 18th century chapels, a 16th century painting by Antonello de Saliba and an outstanding marble sepulchre dated 1557, dedicated to Count Roger’s wife, Adelaide, mother of Roger II, who died in Patti in 1118.
Caltanissetta is home to many religious monuments that fairly attest to the city’s abiding christian faith.
The church of S. Agata al Collegio, began in 1605 by the Jesuit Fathers is the most attractive and important. Designed in the form of a greek-cross, the interior is enriched with marble pieces and other works like the altar dedicated to the Madonna del Carmine.
The Cathedral of S. Maria La Nova and St. Michael, in Caltanissetta, built between the late 1500s and the early 1600s is much appreciated by tourists. The church interior, in the shape of a latin-cross, is divided into three naves. In the central nave there are stuccoes and frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans dating back to the early 1700s. The chapel of the Immacolata, containing a nice wooden statue, and the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, with a polychrome wooden statue are its best attractions.
At Gela stands the small and ancient Capuchins’ Church dedicated to the Madonna delle Grazie. It is a single-nave building that the Friars erected around 1261. Originally situated out of the city walls and constantly subjected to raids by Saracens, it was moved to a safer location towards the end of the 16th century. Recently restored, it claims among its main works a wooden carved altarpiece and eight windows in gothic style.
The small church of Saint Mary, erected in 1230, was seriously damaged by the 1693 earthquake and reconstructed larger in the form of a latin cross with three naves. It retains the remains of a doric column, and, above the two side entrances, two marble tombstones bearing ancient inscriptions. The bell-tower was built in the early 1800s.
Religious monuments and buildings in the Agrigento province.
Agrigento’s Cathedral of Saint Gerlando, whose construction dates back to the 11th century, has undergone considerable changes throughout the centuries. It is designed in the shape of a latin-cross with three naves divided by ogival arches supported by octagonal pillars. The roof bears images of Saints and Bishops, and several heraldic symbols. A small chapel dedicated to St. Gerlando, the city patron, guards a silver reliquary. The church preserves other pieces of art like a marble statue portraying the Virgin Mary and Child dating back to the late 15th century, and several sepulchres, among which is that of Gaspare de Marinis, inside a chapel of the same name. Outstanding is the Cathedral’s Treasure with, among others, a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary. The exterior of the building is graced with a lovely bell-tower and windows recalling the Catalan-Gothic architectonic style. The façade is in the baroque style.
The medieval church of Santa Maria dei Greci, complete with a 13th century gothic portal, has three naves housing a fine wooden statue of the Virgin and Child dating back to the early 1500s.
It rose on a 5th century BC doric temple, probably dedicated to Athena and still retains remnants of the old building.
The Roman-Gothic Church of Saint Nicholas, in the old city, was built by the Cistercian fathers in the 13th century on the ruins of a temple from the 1st century BC. It has a single-nave with four chapels and many interesting sacred and figurative works, such as a 16th century cycle of frescoes dedicated to Saints, a sarcophagus within one of the chapels, a wooden Crucifix, a marble statue of the Virgin and Child dating back to the 16th century.
In Caltabellotta, few kilometers from Agrigento, is the Hermitage of S. Pellegrino, comprising a monastery and a church. The building sitting on a plateau overlooking the city was built in the 18th century and later enlarged.
At the western end of Sicily stands the Trapani province, an area that saw a largest prosperity under the Phoenecians in the 8th century BC.
The baroque Cathedral of San Lorenzo, built in the early 1600s with a lovely façade, was erected on the site of a 1300’s church. It has three-naves and houses precious works: a fine crucifix attributed to Trapani painter Lo Verde and the coat of arms of Genoa.
The Sanctuary of the Annunciation dates from the 14th century and was long since restored. It retains its original façade with a rose-window, a gothic portal dating back to the 1400s and statues of the Angels and the Virgin Mary. The church interior has one large nave with two beautiful chapels: the Baptistery Chapel of the Fishermen, from the late 16th century; containing a gothic arch, 16th century frescoes and important gothic and arabian-norman relics; and the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, containing a marble arch and a marble statue of the Virgin and Child known as the Madonna di Trapani.
The beautiful Erice (Eryx), founded by the ancient Elymians, is home to an impressive Mother Church dedicated to the Our Lady of the Assumption built in the early 1300s. The building exterior is graced with a bell-tower, probably serving as a watch-tower during the Aragonese reign. The interior has three naves and recalls the gothic architecture. It houses a 14th century statue portraying the Virgin and Child and a marble altarpiece dating from the early 1500s.
The Duomo of Marsala, dedicated to Saint Thomas of Canterbury, built in 1628, on the site of a former Norman temple, has undergone many restorations over the centuries. It has a three-nave plan and boasts several outstanding works such as a Chapel housing a marble statue of the Assunta and marble panels by the praised artist Antonello Gagini.
Mazara del Vallo’s Cathedral was built in 1093, when the Eparchy was established. This three-naved basilica contains outstanding works by Antonello Gagini and by his son Antonino.
It houses an important museum.
Enna, the only Sicilian province having no outlet to the sea, offers a variety of monuments.
Its Cathedral, built in 1307 was destroyed by a fire in the 15th century and then reconstructed. The three naves inside are divided by pointed arches supported by finely decorated columns. Some capitals bear the Evangelists’ heraldic symbols made by Gian Domenico Gagini. The church houses many interesting works such as statues, altar-pieces and frescoes.
The Duomo of Piazza Armerina, dedicated to the Assunta, dates from the early 1600s. Designed in the shape of a latin-cross, it has a single nave and houses many important works, among which outstanding is a Madonna believed to be a gift from Pope Nicholas II to Count Roger.
The Cathedral of Nicosia, dedicated to St. Nicholas, was built in the 14th century on the ruins of a Norman church. It has undergone many restorations over the centuries. The building exterior features an impressing 1300’s bell-tower and three portals. The church is the seat of a bishop.
Catania, the second largest Sicilian city, boasting an ancient history and seat of a famous university, has plenty of amazing religious monuments and churches.
The city Cathedral, dedicated to patron Sant’Agata, is by far its most renowned religious building. It was built by the Count Roger in the early period of the Norman rule in Sicily on the site of a Christian temple, of which remained a part of the transept and three semi-circular apses. Inside, tourists may admire the sepulchres of the Aragon monarchs and the tomb of the praised composer Bellini. The bell tower was raised in 1868 by the architect Carmelo Sciuto Patti. Inside, it has three naves divided by pilasters that bear paintings by Borramans. Outstanding is the St. Agatha Treasure containing precious relics of the saint and offerings by her devotees.
The church of S. Benedetto dates from the early 1700s. It is a single-nave church with vault frescoes and a precious 18th century major altar.
The Collegiata Church is Catania’s Royal Chapel. Built in the early years of the 18th century, it is complete with a fine late baroque façade. The interior, in the shape of a latin-cross, has three naves and outstanding dome frescoes and paintings.
The Church of St. Nicholas was completed a few years before the devastating earthquake of 1693 and long since rebuilt. It is a beautiful church with a latin-cross plan and three naves housing numerous sacred images dedicated to St. Gregory and St. Joseph, and scenes from the New Testament. The Benedictin Monastery, standing next to the church and dedicated to Saint Nicholas, today houses the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy.
The church of S. Agata la Vetere, rebuilt after the 1693 earthquake, replaced a paleo-christian basilica and preserves an interesting sarcophagus of St. Agatha.
The church of Maria SS. della Stella, in Militello Val di Catania, is one with such outstanding works of art as a terracotta ancona depicting the Nativity, and another depicting the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew.
The Duomo of Acireale, dedicated to the Annunziata and Santa Venera, was built between the late 1500s and the early 1600s. The central nave bears interesting frescoes portraying the two Saints.
The Basilica of Saint Mary, in Randazzo, is an ancient holy construction of Norman-Swabian origin. Completed in 1239, it underwent many restorations throughout the centuries. The central vault bears interesting frescoes: one, dating back to the 13th century, portrays the Madonna del Pileri.
The church of S. Margherita in Sciacca, Agrigento, was willed to the city by Eleanore of Aragon and successively completed by the Teutonic Knights. It was enlarged in the 16th century.
Outside, it has a simple structure with windows and doorways. Its single nave is decorated with beautiful polychrome stuccoes.