Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo
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Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, with its five pink domes, is one of the most iconic landmarks on the UNESCO itinerary: Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. It is a magnificent example of a Christian building, built according to Islamic architectural designs. Its appearance, created by a succession of cubes topped by domes, has a powerful symbolic significance. In both Fatimite and Byzantine art, in fact, the square is the symbol of the earth, while the circle represents the sky.

History of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

The area where the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti stands has always served a sacred purpose. Indeed, over the centuries, there has been, first a pagan building, then, in 581 AD, a Gregorian monastery dedicated to Sant’Ermete (St Hermes) and, in the 10th century, an Arab building. A Benedictine monastery was built between 1130 and 1148. This, in addition to the Church of San Giovanni and its cloister, also included a dormitory, a refectory and a cemetery, which now no longer exist. The abbey was so prestigious in Palermo that the abbot was the king’s confessor and first chaplain of the Palatine Chapel. During the 16th century, the church was considerably altered and incorporated into a new building. In 1880, a restoration project demolished the 16th-century extensions and restored the building to its original appearance.

Architecture and interior of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is a splendid example of a Christian building built according to Islamic architectural designs. The structure is based on five repetitions of a cubic shape with a dome on top. This choice is highly symbolic and is typical of both Fatimite and Byzantine art. The square symbolises the earth, while the circle is a reminder of the sky. The church is oriented towards the east and has a T-shaped layout. On the side walls of the church, there are oval windows that were originally covered by plaster transennas. You can see an original example of a transenna at the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palazzo Abatellis. The restoration work in 1880 uncovered an ancient Islamic building with a rectangular hall, a portico and an open courtyard. The hall can be accessed through a door to the right of the transept. Although it is not known whether it was a mosque or a simple prayer hall, it is certain that it was used for the celebration of religious rites in Norman times. On the walls, in fact, the remains of frescoes are still visible, representing: The Madonna Enthroned between St John the Blessed and St James or Hermes.

The cloister of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti

Of the former Benedictine monastery, only the cloister has survived. It was probably built in the 13th century and is now a little oasis in Palermo, where a corner of the Orient miraculously comes alive.Its rectangular shape and twin columns with pointed arches seem to foreshadow the design of Monreale Cathedral’s cloister. In 1836, after admiring this corner of the Church of San Giovanni, the French architect, Viollet-le-Duc wrote: “l’influence arabe est là” (the Arab influence is there).

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