Messina Cathedral

facade of the Messina Cathedral
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Messina Cathedral is the most important landmark in the city on the Strait. Although the Cathedral was rebuilt after being destroyed by earthquakes and wars, it is still fairly faithful to its original appearance. Its pipe organ is the second largest in Italy after that of Milan Cathedral. Messina Cathedral houses the precious Tesoro del Duomo (Cathedral Treasure). One of the most important pieces is the ‘Golden Manta’, made of finely engraved gold and decorated with jewels and precious stones.

History of Messina Cathedral

Messina Cathedral probably dates back to Norman times, commissioned by Count Roger. It was officially consecrated by Archbishop Berardo in 1197 in the presence of Henry VII of Swabia. Over the centuries, the building has undergone several changes, resulting in the superimposition of different stylistic and architectural elements. Earthquakes in 1693 and 1783 severely damaged Messina Cathedral and the subsequent one in 1908 almost completely destroyed it. The church was rebuilt following a design by architect Francesco Valenti but suffered further damage in 1943, during the bombing of World War II. Subsequent reconstruction work succeeded in restoring Messina Cathedral to its original style and form. The combination of all these catastrophic events, unfortunately, means that most of the artwork on display today is no longer original. They are, instead, very faithful copies that have been made over the years. In 1933, the Cathedral’s bell tower and the mechanisms for its mechanical and astronomical clock were added.

The architecture and artwork of Messina Cathedral

The main façade of the Messina Cathedral has three late-Gothic portals. The central one, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, is the work of Antonio Baboccio da Piperno. In 1468, Pietro de Bonitate added a high relief of a Madonna and Child to the top of the portal. The portal on the right side, on the other hand, is the work of Rinaldo Bonanno, constructed in 1545 from a design by Polidoro da Caravaggio. Inside, the church has three naves, a transept and three semicircular apses. Of the three mosaics decorating the apses, the one on the left is the only 14th-century original. The gilded copper baldachin on the high altar, originally by Simone Gullì, was replaced by a copy after damage in 1943. It contains an embossed and gilded copper piece by Pietro Juvarra (1660) depicting “Messina’s Offering to the Virgin”. In the side aisles, there are statues of the Apostles, designed by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli in 1550. The only original one is that of St John the Baptist, made in 1525 by Antonello Gagini.

Interesting fact: Messina Cathedral’s polyphonic organ is the second largest in Italy (the largest is in Milan Cathedral). It was made in 1948 by the Tamburini company in Cremona and has five keyboards with 61 keys, a fan pedalboard with 32 keys and 17,500 reeds.

Treasures of Messina Cathedral

Inside Messina Cathedral, you can also visit the Cathedral Treasures: a collection of sacred furnishings, vestments and reliquaries, many of which were made by Messina’s master silversmiths. The most important piece in the collection is certainly the ‘Golden Manta’ of the Madonna della Lettera. The piece dates back to 1659 and was designed by the Florentine goldsmith and architect, Innocenzo Mangani. It was fashioned by him between 1661 and 1668, with the help of the master silversmith, Giovan Gregorio Juvarra from Messina.

Interesting fact: In order to finance the realisation of this project, the Senate of Messina imposed a twelve-tarì tax on undergraduate students at the university, raising a total of 30,000 scudi.

Other important items in the collection include the enamelled silver-gilt reliquaries of St Martian (12th century), St Nicholas (15th century) and St Paul (17th century) and a rock crystal pine cone from the 10th century. This latter was used as a reliquary for Mary of Nazareth’s hair. It is carried on a processional float for the Festa della Madonna della Lettera every 3rd June.

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