A perfect starting point …

10 February, 2010

They don’t really exist, I know, ‘perfect’ starting points! But I think a visit to the richly ornate church of S.Caterina, with its huge, now almost empty, monastery, must come close. It is, in many ways, a perfect introduction to Palermo: it gives you a glimpse of the city’s soul.

I first visited the church on a dark winter’s morning. A shaft of light was coming in through windows high up under the central dome, illuminating some of the church’s incredibly rich decoration, leaving the rest in deep shadow, no more than a promise. The effect was overwhelming: I stood perfectly still at the entrance and instinctively, quite involuntarily, drew in a sharp breath.

The church is generally, and I believe justly, regarded as one of the finest examples of Palermo Baroque architecture, and many hours can be easily be spent admiring its artistic and architectural features. But there is something else. This fabulously decorated church, and the huge silent monastery attached to it, evokes other aspects of Sicily. You feel you are in touch with something that is essentially Sicilian, but difficult to define: a mixture of richness and austerity, worldliness and spirituality, past and present, light and darkness. I have been drawn back to this complex time and again, partly to admire the physical features of the church, partly to experience its evocative power.

Although the church was begun in the mid 16th century, most of its ornate interior was not created until the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when Sicily was under Spanish rule. It was also a time when both the nobility and the religious Orders were becoming increasingly rich and powerful , and creating sumptuous buildings that would change the face of the city; none more sumptuous than the church of S.Caterina.

The ceilings of the church are frescoed, every part of its walls, columns and side chapels covered with sculpture, carvings, and inlaid multi-coloured marble. Everywhere you look there is something: white cherubs, sometimes in relief, sometimes intaglioed; garlands and floral displays in palest pink marble against a dark background; coats of arms of the families of various past Abbesses; gilded stucco and marble statues. The altar is ornate with semi-precious stones, a tabernacle of amethyst, and two life-size silver-clad angels. Pilasters at the side of the nave bear remarkable multi-coloured marble pictures depicting scenes from the Old Testament; in particular, one of Jonah and the whale, with ship’s rigging made of twisted wire, and one of Abraham, his raised hand being stayed by the angel. Among all this are the works of many of the finest artists of the day. The richness, variety and exuberance of the decoration could easily have resulted in something vulgar and tasteless. But it didn’t. It’s true the impression is overwhelming, but somehow everything seems to come together and create its own harmony. Some say this is because of the sheer versatility of the decoration. Others, like Anthony Blunt, art historian and one time Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, unfortunately often remembered more for his role as a Soviet agent, say the main lines of the architecture are so strong that they impose an order on the decoration. Perhaps both are right.

So that is S. Caterina, the great baroque church that everyone, including me, comes to see. But I have recently become fascinated by other things as well, not things of any artistic merit. Their appeal is quite different: I have the feeling they take me a little closer to the spirit of Sicily.

The first is a corner of the church near a side door in the western transept. A vaguely heraldic, ‘Spanish’ baroque style, device, in rich, but blotchy, pinks and greys, decorates a damp-affected wall that supports a simple marble stoup of holy water. An ornate and meshed iron balcony above looks as though it hasn’t been used for a very long time. In fact, the corner looks rather forgotten , but every time I visit the church I come here. And as I sit looking at this now slightly shabby corner, scenes from Tomasi di Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, come to life. Not that Lampedusa’s Prince of Salina ever ventured inside S.Caterina, but I can imagine him here, with his ‘honey-coloured’ skin and autocratic bearing, on this balcony with his family, looking out over the congregation. And, then I think of the closed convent next door, and I remember the Prince’s visit to the closed Convent of the Holy Ghost, a visit that as the direct descendant of the convent’s foundress he is entitled to make, and a privilege he shares with the King of Naples.

The second is a simple chair, with a little low stool in front of it, placed unobtrusively against a wall at the end of the eastern transept, beside the chapel of S. Caterina. I didn’t notice the chair at all the first few times I visited the church, but once I had noticed it I became intrigued by it. I sensed it was used regularly – I felt a presence and, at the same time, a stillness. I assumed it was a place of prayer, but I couldn’t think why the chair was placed where it was. Perhaps it should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. On my last visit, I showed the attendant at the front of the church the photograph I had taken and asked her what the chair was used for. “Oh”, she said, “that’s the ‘comunichino’”. She went on to explain that it is used by the priest to communicate with the sisters in the monastery. They belong to a closed Order . Although the monastery is huge, there are, she told me, now only five sisters left and all are elderly. As she was talking, I was imagining the heartache that member of the families must have felt, all that time ago, as their daughters and sisters entered the monastery. And I was trying to imagine what life in the monastery might have been like then and what it might be like now.

I have read that, inside the monastery, there is a 16th century cloister, and a fountain sculpted by the famous 18th century Sicilian sculptor, Ignazio Marabitti. No doubt, there are other treasures as well. Outside, the walls are huge and impersonal, giving no hint at all of what might be inside. That day, when I left the church, I paid more attention than usual and noticed a sign on the monastery door. It was offering economical accommodation and ‘a climate of silence and spirituality’ to female university students or lecturers . Although I am neither, I was tempted to apply.

4 Responses to “A perfect starting point …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    A very evocative article, Kate! Although I have not seen the church, I now feel I know it a little and would like to know it better. The architecture sounds superb but it is the atmosphere which you have so adeptly described that draws me in.

    You noted that the interior was made ornate under Spanish ‘rule’ some 100 or more years after the church was started. Who did start it?

    Your comment about the increasing power and wealth of the ecclesiastics at a point in history made me think of all the ornate (and expensive) churches that dot Europe and presumably spring from the same source and time.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The Spanish were ruling Sicily when the building began – just that the interior decoration was done later, when the baroque style was being taken up with enthusiasm in Palermo. I imagine many of the ornate European churches you are thinking of would also be examples of baroque architecture.

  2. Sally F Says:

    Your law talks are lectures – apply for short term accommodation!

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