Syracuse's Greek Temple Cathedral, Sicily


Where Gumbo Was #220

It's not unusual, when visiting old churches and temples, to find that it's not the first building on the spot, nor is the religion now using it the first to worship there. But still, there's surely something unique about the Cathedral of the Birth of Saint Mary in Syracuse, Sicily.


For a start, the late Sicilian Baroque facade you see on entering the Piazza Duomo from the winding streets of the old city shows no trace of the secrets hiding within: The cathedral is actually the Greek Temple of Athena, built 2500 years ago, with the original Doric columns standing within.

Of course, that sent mixed messages in the puzzle clues, but it didn't fool Professor Abe, George G. or GarryRF!

Not only was the Cathedral not built as a Christian church, but the Greek temple it recycles was not the first house of worship on the spot. Paolo Orsi, for whom Syracuse's archaeological museum is named, excavated beneath it in 1907-10 and found a treasure of pre-Hellenic and pre-historic artifacts.


When the Bishop of Syracuse converted it to a church in the 7th century AD, it was already over 1000 years old. He left the rows of interior and exterior columns in place, filling the spaces between them to make walls. About 200 years later, Sicily came under Muslim rule, and the cathedral became a mosque. Repurposing historic buildings is nothing new!


In 1085, when the Norman duke Roger I conquered Sicily, the building returned to Christian worship, and was redecorated, with a Norman-style wooden roof and with mosaics on walls and floors.


But the biggest change in what we see came another 600 or so years later, after an earthquake in 1693 rocked large areas of eastern Sicily. The present High Sicilian Baroque facade, and many other added aspects, were added then, along with many of the exterior statues.


And, of course, as the seat of an important bishop, an important episcopal palace was added to the side of the building. Just below, fantastic columns are inside the cathedral's portico, tucked away behind the impressive Corinthian columns the 18th-century builders used on the facade (photo at top).


The 18th-century is also the source of most of the interior settings shown here, although some Norman influence remains, especially in the lion-occupied pulpit.P1000807P1000816P1000818P1000820P1000822P1000827P1000837P1000839

And now a word about Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia, who is the patron saint of Syracuse, as well as one of the best-known saints throughout the Catholic Church. I'll leave the details to others to explain, but the short version is that she died a martyr around 300 AD for refusing to submit to an arranged marriage and for denouncing the rule of Emperor Diocletian. 


Just across the square from the Cathedral is a smaller and fairly shabby church that bears her name, but instead of her relics and altars, it has a Caravaggio painting of her death; if you arrive at the right time, you can see it.


But the real stop for seeing how important St. Lucy is to Syracuse is in the Cathedral. For a start, the display above is said to be some of her bones. The next picture shows the chapel dedicated to her in the Cathedral, with her picture above the altar. 


The doors behind the altar conceal an 11-foot silver statue of Saint Lucy, made in 1599, and including three bits of her rib bones in the chest. Twice a year, on the first Sunday in May and on December 13th, it's taken from the chapel and carried through the streets. In case you haven't guessed from the illustrations, she is said to have died by the sword, because fire would not consume her.


And here's one more, from the wall of her chapel. 



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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