Church St. John of the Hermits
Top Sites to see in Palermo

The 12th century Church of St. Joseph of the Hermits is probably one of the most “mysterious” architectural and religious complexes still existing in Palermo. 

      The complex known as Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti was built between 1130 and 1148 on the orders of King Roger 2nd.  

      It was erected on the site of an old Gregorian monastery that in 10th century was converted into the Mosque. It also included cloister, dormitory, refectory, cemetery and the garden with an underground spring. The whole complex was entrusted by the king to the Benedictines of Montevergini foundedan lead at that time by Guglielmo de Vercelli (later declared Saint). 

Location next to the Norman Palace within the royal gardens, reflected importance of the monastery (as the matter of fact, the Abbot was a private confessor of the king). But what goes high at some time falls hard – the monastery’s prestige decreased with the fall of Norman kings. 

Church of St. John of the Hermits

Fragment of the cloister

Plan of the monastery complex of St. John of the Hermits

     In 16th century, the monastery was “overgrown” by new structures and incorporated into larger urban area significantly changing its historical landscape. 

Only at the end of the 19th century, the team led by the famous architect Giuseppe Patricolo literally cleared the remains of historical buildings from the “urban weeds” bringing it back to its original medieval shape…..

      Like most structures from the era of Norman kings, the church represents a sort of balance between Christian and Arabic architectural and artistic standards. One may say – medieval builders of the Church Giovanni degli Eremiti “borrowed” from pre-existing structures (Gregorian Monastery and Muslim Mosque)  combining the styles and most likely finishing artwork (of which not much survived) from two great “schools” -  Byzantine and Fatimid (Islamic). But that is not all - most likely from the past the church also inherited its Saint Patron - St. Joseph of the Hermits….. 

Today, together with pleasing to the eyes cloister and large garden overgrowing ruins it is a fascinating place opening imagination of visitors.

Another view at the central cloister

And this is most likely the original shape of the cloister

Well (or rather remains of what used to be the well) inside of the cloister

Here in the past was big refectory .....

     The church is built on Latin cross plan. Massive clean-cut rectangular sandstone walls typical for austere Norman age brilliantly “transform” into spherical shapes of five cupolas crowning the structure. Symbolically this architectural approach represents two Worlds connected together – the Earthly one (square structure) and Heavenly one (hemispherical cupolas).  During 19th century restoration works Oriental cupolas received the ochre-radiant colors despite the fact that it was not the original design.

The three-orders campanile overlooking the monastery is raised above the transept. Its large windows are skillfully “lightening” the weight of the tower. 

      On the right side of the church there is a large hall connected to the main nave with visible features of Islamic Mosque. In Norman times the hall was probably used as a refectory. Fragments of medieval frescoes (Madonna enthroned between St. John and St James) are still visible on the walls.

Now interior is deprived of any ornamentation - so it's just the power of bare stones and imagination....

Dome over the main nave in the former Church of St. John

Apparently this is the section of an old Mosque

Perhaps in this niche stood the statue of St. John?

   The church with its bare stone walls, small slit-windows and bell-tower reflects the “austerity” of Norman architecture. It visibly contrasts with the 13th century cloister.  In fact, the elegance of light, double-row columns supporting pointed arches is opening the “new world”. It was certainly a lovely and inspiring “environment” for meditation.  In the center there is still an original well – one more testimony to the strong Islamic influence during Norman domination.

Back in Norman times, the complex of St. Joseph of the Hermits was separated from the Palace Hill by a small river Kemonia. But in 15th century, the river was “diverted” into an underground canal to make place for urban development. 

An old pond 

The ruins of the former monastery are claimed back by the Mother Nature

The red domes beautifully contrast with the greenery of the nature

Fragment of the bell tower crowned by "oriental"-style dome...

Cloister in all its beauty - it is probably the most impressive surviving part of the former monastery....

Not everything went "wild" in the former monastery of St. John of the Hermits....

      Next to the church is a garden - a 19th century addition to the monastic complex giving it some romantic appearance. Exotic plants mixed with traditional laurel, olive and citrus trees as well as a small water-pool would be probably too tempting in the monastic austere past, but are perfect for today’s visitors. The garden fills the place with some amount of mystery expected to exist in the medieval complex. 

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