Syracuse Cathedral

Facciata della splendida Cattedrale di Siracusa
Search Hotel, B&B and Vacation Homes

Syracuse Cathedral is one of the city’s most extraordinary and fascinating landmarks. Its current appearance is due to a major reconstruction in the 6th century AD. The original nucleus was a Greek temple, dedicated to Athena, which was walled in and later converted into a Byzantine church. The current Baroque façade dates back to the 18th century and was designed by the architect Andrea Palma. It houses the precious silver statue of Santa Lucia, which is carried in a procession twice a year to mark the martyr’s feast days. As with the entire area of Ortigia, Syracuse Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, forming part of the Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica site.

History of Syracuse Cathedral

Syracuse Cathedral’s current appearance dates back to the 6th century BC when a pre-existing Greek temple was used to create a Byzantine basilica. The temple portico was enclosed and round arches were cut into the chamber walls to create the three naves of the church. The temple’s orientation was also reversed with the creation of three apses to the east and the shifting of the entrance to the west. After being sacked by the Arabs in 878 AD, Syracuse Cathedral was restored and improved by the Normans. Windows were added along the chamber wall to provide more light and mosaics were added, but these have since been lost. During the 17th century, Syracuse Cathedral underwent several modifications and extensions. The chapels along the south side were opened up, the dome roof was built and the large Baroque aedicula was added to the high altar. The current Baroque façade dates from the 18th century and was built after the serious damage suffered in the 1693 Val di Noto earthquake.

The Temple of Athena

The original core of Syracuse Cathedral was a 6th century BC Greek temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. It was built to celebrate the victory over Carthage in the Battle of Himera in 480 BC. Also called Athenaion, it was built of limestone and covered with plaster. It had six columns on its short sides and 14 columns along its length. Cicero describes how the Governor of Sicily, Gaius Licinius Verres, stole the riches of the Temple of Athena in his work In Verrem. So we know, for example, that the Athenaion had doors made of gold and silver, ivory decorations and painted panels depicting tyrants and kings of Sicily.

Interesting fact: There was a huge shield made of gilded copper on the upper part of the temple. It was so large that it was an important reference point for ships arriving in the port of Syracuse.

Exterior of Syracuse Cathedral

Syracuse Cathedral’s baroque façade, with its splendid decorative features, contributes to making the whole square one of the most beautiful sights in Sicily. Its construction began in 1728, to replace the previous one that had been severely damaged in the 1693 earthquake. The statues are the work of the sculptor, Ignazio Marabitti. On either side of the main staircase are St Peter and St Paul, while on the façade we find the Virgin Mary with San Marciano on the left and Santa Lucia on the right. The Cathedral’s façade is separated by two superimposed rows of Corinthian columns topped by a broken gable. The three imposing portals, protected by wrought-iron gates, give access to the vestibule. This is decorated with two niches, one on the left with the statue of San Vincenzo Ferreri and one on the right with that of San Ludovico Bertrando. In the vestibule is the central doorway, bordered by two massive twisted columns and the entrances to the side naves. 

Interior of Syracuse Cathedral

Syracuse Cathedral has a three-nave basilica layout. The façade is opulent, contrasting with the simplicity and sobriety of the interior, where there are, however, numerous works of art. The Cappella del Crocifisso (Chapel of the Crucifix) in the nave on the right contains a painting of San Zosimo, usually attributed to Antonello da Messina. At the end of the right-hand nave, there is also access to the ‘Luciano Museum’. It consists of two small rooms, in which relics belonging to Santa Lucia and votive offerings left by devotees to the Syracusan martyr are displayed.

The right-hand nave of Syracuse Cathedral

Along the nave on the right side of Syracuse Cathedral, there are four chapels built during the 18th century. The first one you come across is known as the Cappella del Battistero (Baptistery Chapel). The name refers to the presence of a baptismal font from the Greek era that was found inside the Crypt of San Marciano. Here, we also find some fragments of mosaics dating back to the 12th century. The second one you will encounter is the Cappella di Santa Lucia. It has a rectangular shape and the walls are covered with polychrome marble. The frescoes on the ceiling are by the Milanese painter, Mario Albertella. The central niche contains Santa Lucia’s silver simulacrum. The third chapel in the right-hand nave is the Sacramento or Cappella Torres. It is attributed to Giovanni Vermexio, has a ciborium by Luigi Vanvitelli and a marble bas-relief in the antependium by Filippo Della Valle (1726). The last one is the Cappella del Crocifisso (Chapel of the Crucifix) in which there is a Byzantine crucifix painted above the high altar.

The central nave of Syracuse Cathedral

The ceiling of this nave dates from the 16th century, but the coats of arms of the noble families of Syracuse were added during the following century. In the nave presbytery, we find the Baroque wooden chancel and the high altar. This was constructed using a monolith from the lintel of the Greek temple that collapsed during the 1693 earthquake. In 1927, two paintings by the painter, Silvio Galimberti, were added above the chancel to celebrate the origins of the Syracuse church. On the left is The Apostle Peter entrusting Marciano with the task of evangelising the city of Syracuse and on the right St Paul preaching inside the catacombs. The altarpiece is a 17th-century oil on canvas of uncertain authorship depicting the Nativity of Mary.

The left-hand nave of Syracuse Cathedral

In the nave on the left, between the columns of the Greek temple, there are some statues from the Gaginesque school. The following are encountered in order: St Catherine of Alexandria, the Madonna and Child and Santa Lucia. At the end of the nave is the only Byzantine apse that has survived the many alterations over the centuries. Here, there is a chapel with a statue of the ‘Madonna della Neve’ (Our Lady of the Snow) by Antonello Gagini. The wrought-iron gate that closes the chapel is the work of the Paradiso brothers who made it in 1928.

The statue of Santa Lucia and festivals dedicated to the Saint

The city of Syracuse celebrates the Feast of Santa Lucia twice a year: in December and in May (Santa Lucia delle quaglie). On these occasions, the faithful carry the statue of the Saint in a procession through the streets of Ortigia. The route goes from the Cathedral to the church of Santa Lucia outside the city walls. The statue, made of silver and created in the 17th century, is the work of master goldsmith, Pietro Rizzo. The case on which it rests, also made of silver, is by Nibilio Gagini. In this base, there are six panels depicting episodes from the martyr’s life. The front panel depicts Caravaggio‘s 1608 painting The Burial of Santa Lucia.

Aggiungi ai preferiti

Leave a Reply

See others sights