Agrigento Cathedral

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The Cathedral of Agrigento or Cattedrale di San Gerlando is a beautiful example of the fusion of different architectural styles. The construction of the building dates back to the period between 1096 and 1102 at the behest of Gerlando of Besançon, who was Bishop of Agrigento at the time. Over the centuries, however, it has undergone continuous transformations and additions that have changed both its exterior and interior appearance. In the right nave there is the urn of St. Gerlando, which is carried in procession through the streets of the city twice a year. In the tower of the Cathedral of Agrigento there is a copy of the mysterious Letter of the Devil. According to the legend, it was written in 1676 by a nun of the convent of Palma di Montechiaro, dictated by the Devil himself.

The history of the Cathedral of Agrigento

The area where the Cathedral of Agrigento stands was considered sacred by the first inhabitants of the ancient city. According to scholars, the temple of Zeus Atabirio, meaning “of the mountain”, or Zeus Polieo, meaning “of the city”, stood in this area. The present appearance of the Cathedral of Agrigento is the result of nine centuries of transformations, extensions and restorations. The original building was in the Arab-Norman style, built between 1096 and 1102 at the behest of the Bishop of Agrigento, Gerlando of Besançon. In the following centuries the church suffered several damages, both from natural events such as landslides and earthquakes, and from historical events such as the conquest of Sicily by the Muslims and the wars of Frederick II. In the 14th century, the Chiaramonte, the noble family that ruled Agrigento, had the cathedral rebuilt in its present form. Modifications and additions continued in the following centuries until the 20th century, with the removal of the Baroque decorations that adorned the interior.

The architecture of the Cathedral of Agrigento

Today the Cathedral of Agrigento is an extraordinary testimony of the overlapping of different architectural styles. The original Arab-Norman style has been preserved only in the transept and the bell tower. The Gothic-Chiaramontano style can be seen in the first part of the church, with its octagonal columns supporting the pointed arches. The entrance portal in white marble and the bell tower are Renaissance, while the decorations of the choir and the central part of the church are Baroque. The bell tower, which dominates the façade, was added in the 15th century by order of Giovanni Montaperto, later Bishop of Mazara del Vallo.

The interior of the Cathedral of Agrigento

The Cathedral of Agrigento is Latin cross shaped with three naves and three apses on the east side. Inside the church you can see the various interventions made over the centuries. The ceiling is divided into three parts. The first is a wooden framework with paintings depicting saints and dates from the 16th century. The second section, in Spanish style, is gilded and has a double-headed eagle, the Habsburg coat of arms, in the center. The third section, in the apse, has a coffered ceiling, white stucco and various frescoes. At the intersection with the transept, on the other hand, the ceiling is decorated with a mock dome created by Michele Blasco. In the cathedral there is a peculiar acoustic phenomenon called “portavoce”. Anyone standing in the choir can hear what is being said, even in a low voice, by a person positioned at the entrance of the church. This phenomenon is amazing when you consider that the distance between the two points is up to 85 meters. And it is even more curious when you consider that it does not apply in the opposite direction.

The urn of St. Gerlando and other artworks

In the right nave of the Cathedral of Agrigento there is the Chapel of San Gerlando, where the urn with the relics of the Saint is kept. The urn was made in 1639 by Michele Ricca, a master silversmith from Palermo. On the feast of San Gerlando, celebrated in Agrigento on February 25 and June 16, the urn is carried in procession through the streets of the city. The Cathedral of Agrigento also contains other works of art placed on the altars, along the walls of the aisles and in the Chapel of the Crucifix. Among them is a beautiful statue of “Madonna and Child” by Palermo-born Stefano di Martino.

The Devil’s Letter and Sister Mary Crucified

A copy of the so-called Devil’s Letter is kept in the tower of the Cathedral of Agrigento. It is a letter written in apparently incomprehensible characters by a nun from the cloistered Benedictine convent of Palma di Montechiaro. The nun, Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, was actually called Isabella Tomasi and belonged to the same noble family as the writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. According to legend, the devil visited Sister Maria Crocifissa one night in 1676. After a night of hard struggle, he forced her to write the contents of a letter and asked her to sign it. The woman, however, after understanding the content of the text, simply wrote “oh, alas”.

The unveiled meaning of the Devil’s Letter

In 2017, a group of physicists and scientists at the Ludum Science Center in Catania, Italy, were able to shed light on the meaning of the letter thanks to an algorithm. The scientists started with the alphabets that Sister Mary Crucified might have known. They used the Greek, Latin, runic and Yazidi alphabets, a people considered to be devil worshipers who lived in Sinjar, Iraq, before the advent of Islam. The algorithm was able to translate part of the contents of the letter. It describes God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as “dead weights” and says “God thinks he can liberate mortals. It also says that God was invented by man, adding that “this system does not work for anyone. Another sentence reads: “Perhaps the Styx is safe now,” referring to the River Styx, which in Greek and Roman mythology separates the earth from the underworld.

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