Enna’s Cathedral was built by Queen Eleanor of Anjou in early 14th century on ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Proserpine ...
The construction of the Mother Church of the “Holly Mary of the Visitation” started in 1307 thanks to the Queen Eleanor of Anjou (wife of Frederick II of Aragon).
This way the Queen wanted to express her thankfulness for the birth of a healthy infant Pietro (future successor of Frederic II).
The cathedral was erected on the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to the mythological goddess Proserpine. It was a well thought and far reaching decision aiming at putting an end to one of the last symbols of Enna’s pagan past. In 1446 the fire seriously damaged the church leaving only apses from the whole structure. Reconstruction started in 1451 and lasted till early 1500s.
Cathedral's entrance with large portico
Enna: Cathedral (view on the apses from the outside)
Cathedral does not have traditional façade. In striking contrast to typical architectural concepts of those times, its front-end was built in form of monumental portico topped with an equally imposing bell tower. The portico, surrounded by flight of stairs has five portals – three frontal and one on each of its sides – all closed by iron gates.
On the right side of the church there are two more entrances: correspondingly Porta Sottana (Lower Door) and moving farther towards the apses - Porta Soprana (Upper Door). Porta Sottana was built in 1574 by an architect Jacopino Salemi in a late Renaissance style. Two Corinthian columns on each side of the doors hold a “broken” tympanum with marble bas-relief depicting St. Martin and the poor. On the daily basis it serves as the main entrance to the church.
Decoration above the Porta Sottana
Porta Soprana provided access directly to the transept. It was built to commemorate a special Jubilee proclaimed in 1447 by Pope Eugene IV in order to collect money required for the reconstruction of the cathedral. It is a beautiful example of Sicilian Gothic style. Sets of three columns on each side of the portal support a triple arch surmounted by the statue of Madonna with Child. Interestingly, soon after the start of reconstruction works cathedral’s architectural concept was changed and the Porta Soprana was permanently closed (walled).
Throughout centuries, the cathedral underwent several modifications especially visible in internal decorations, paintings, furniture…. Amazingly however, despite many Renaissance-style additions cathedral’s original Sicilian Gothic (elegant blend of elements from Norman and Catalan (Spanish) styles) was never lost.
Oldest part of the Cathedral - left-side Apse
The Duomo was built on a plan of the Latin cross with three polygonal apses. Church’s main body consists of large nave and two aisles separated by arches supported by massive columns. Made from black basalt their austere silhouettes seem to contrast with the magnificently decorated interior. But that is only the first impression. Closer look reveals superbly decorated capitals with bas-reliefs of leaves, animals and saints (work of Giandomenico Gagini, Raffaele Russo and Antonio Catrini). And in some places even main bodies of columns are carved with decorative bas-reliefs.
The Mother Church (as the Cathedral is often called) on top of being the spiritual center of Enna is also a magnificent museum housing very large collection of art including real masterpieces of Sicilian Renaissance and Baroque.
The left aisle is called the Aisle of Savior (or Aisle of Holy Sacrament). The aisle on the right side is called Aisle of Holy Mary of Visitation’s. Here is kept the famous Statue of Mary of the Visitation carried in procession of 2nd of July from the Cathedral to the Church of Montesalvo (more on that later).
Choir and Organ Platform
The choir and organ platform are masterpieces of Renaissance woodwork. Covering the space between adjacent columns in both aisles, they face each-other at the height of about three meters above the floor. The precious polychromic statues portraying Apostles and saints as well as carved on wooden panels scenes from Old and New Testament are work of Scipione di Guido and Giuseppe di Martino (1588 till 1592). Biblical scenes and characters are mixed with griffons, winged sirens and caryatides reminding that for long Enna was under strong influence of Greek and Roman cultures and the center-stage of veneration of mythological deities.
Choir Platform - detail
.... and details of the decoration
Richly decorated white marble pulpit standing on equally sumptuous pillar dates to the beginning of 17th century and is work of Francesco Franzoni and Giovanni Gallina. Made in polygonal shape, covered by canopy and adorned with heads of angels and cherubs it is accessible by the all-marble staircase with balustrade.
The wooden coffered ceilings in the nave and aisles are amazing masterpieces of woodwork art. The one over the main nave is the most impressive and rich in decorations. 3-D caissons and rosettes with grotesque-looking winged heads are attributed to Andrea Russo from Collesano, but in reality it is a work of larger group including local artists from Enna. Not surprisingly, given the extent of work and magnitude of details – it took them long thirteen years to accomplish the task (1573 -1586).
Wooden ceiling - fragment
The 16th century wooden Crucifix suspended in the middle of the main apse is attributed to Riccardo Quartararo.
Apses and the High Altar
Apses are the only remains form the original structure of the church, before it was destroyed by the fire. The left apse with its impressive ribs-arched vault retained the initial Gothic style. The right one was completely remodeled and is now finished in the Baroque style.
The central apse is dedicated to the patron of Duomo – Virgin Mary. Decoration includes series of paintings by Filippo Palladini from 1610’s. The scenes depict correspondingly Presentation of Jesus to the Temple, Immaculate Conception, Ascension, Presentation of Mary and Visitation. The silver Altar Table is a work of silversmith Mancino from Palermo.
The oldest part of the Cathedral - side Apse retains Gothic style
Ceiling above the main Apse
Central Nave and Aisles
Up above the arches dividing the main nave from the aisles, between stained-glass windows are twelve paintings by Vincenzo Ruggeri. Painted between 1668 and 1672 they present scenes from the lives of Saints as well as local clergy and nouns.
Aisles house five paintings of the Flemish master Guglielmo Borremans. Made in the period of 1720 and 1722 they present: Santa Agatha and Santa Lucia, Baptism of Christ, Madonna of Pilar, Sleeping Costantino and Saint Martin of Tours.
On both sides of the main entrance doors (usually closed) are two 16th century marble statues of Archangel Gabriel and Virgin Mary.
Fragment of column with capital
Madonna with Child
One of the paintings in the Nave
Sacristy houses a huge wooden wardrobe – work of brothers Ranfaldi and Damiano Pettirosso and Francesco Sitaiolo (1691 till 1704). Almost 15 meters long and 3 meters tall, the wardrobe includes 13 large panels with scenes form the lives of Holly Family.
Notable are wall and ceiling frescoes, 17th century baptismal font and richly decorated portal.
Biblical scene in Sacristy (ceramic tiles)
Fragment of the wooden wardrobe
The museum was opened in 1862 to house the private collection amassed by the priest Giuseppe Alessi. During his life (1774-1837) he accumulated numerous archeological findings as well as objects of sacral art. After his death the collection was acquired by the Cathedral. Few years later Alessi’s collection together with other precious objects of sacral art that were in the possession of church was put on display in the museum known as Alessi Museum. Over the time the original collection was expanded by private donations as well as treasures from suppressed religious orders.
One of the most valuable objects in the collection is 17th century golden Crown of The Virgin. The crown is richly encrusted with diamonds, rubies emeralds and enamels decorated with scenes from the life of The Virgin. It is the work of brothers Leonardo and Giuseppe Montalbano and was designed for the statue of the St. Mary of the Visitation. The crown is part of the larger exposition called the “Treasure of The Virgin” including several pieces of jewelry representing the finest works of Sicilian goldsmiths covering the period from 13th to 17th century. The most notable are the 16th century necklace from gold, pearls and enamel, fragment of golden chain with precious gems and pearls, 17th century Pelican-shaped golden pendant …. The 16th century golden-silver ostensory is another extraordinary object of sacral art in the Alessi Museum. This monumental (about 2 meters tall) processional monstrance with engraved spires of the Gothic cathedral is a work of Paolo Gili from Palermo.
Among other precious objects are: painting of Madonna with Child of an unknown Flemish artist from 1400’s, canvas by Giuseppe Salerno including one known as “Triumph of the Faith”, numerous Byzantine icons, various vestments embroidered with golden thread.
The Hellenic collection includes oils lamps with engraved mythological scenes, several vases, jugs, bowls, bronze statue of Aphrodite, amphora with the scene of dancing satyrs…..
But the biggest and maybe most impressive part of the exposition is the numismatic section. It is considered as one of the biggest in Sicily and covers the periods of great civilizations and cultures that once flourished on the island: Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Byzantine. The collection also includes some Egyptian coins (from the dynasty of Ptolemy) reflecting strong commercial links between ancient Greece and Egypt. Interestingly, while Greek coins are representing particular Sicilian cities like Syracuse, Palermo (Panormus), Segesta, Agrigento….. Roman coins with images of emperors represent the whole imperium. That mirrors the administrative organization of both imperia – “city-states” structure of ancient Greece and centrally run Roman Empire.
The Alessi Museum is located on Cathedral’s premises – may be that is why some call it a “Treasure in the Treasure” (certainly it deserves this name).
Museum Alessi is located next to the Cathedral
Celebration of 2nd of July.
Enna is a good example of how deeply old pagan-era beliefs can be rooted in our consciousness. And frankly, even today many of our (as we believe “purely” Christian traditions) originated in very remote pagan past. The fact is that in Enna at the turn of the first millennium, celebrations of Ceres were well alive. In 1009, Papacy came up with an idea of replacing pagan festivities called “Cerealia” by the “Purification Feast”. But frankly, despite more than thousand years since Christianization the memory of Demeter (Ceres) and Persephone was still resonating in Enna till almost 14th century.
To put the final end to mythological Ceres, in 1412 Enna purchased the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary at the workshop of Alvise Gennazin in Venice. To make long story short - things went “out of control” (or rather out of records) when the vessel carrying the statue shipwrecked somewhere on its way to Messina. Then the legend took over – the box with the statue found its way to the Strait of Messina. The rest is the history – the miraculous Statue of Virgin Mary arrived to Enna supplanting the cult of Ceres.
In 1590 Scipione di Guido carved a richly decorated with gold wooden palanquin for the statue of Virgin Mary. Supported by two long bars each year on the 2nd of July the statue of Virgin Mary is taken through the streets of Enna from the Cathedral to the Church of Montesalvo. The statue is carried on shoulders by 216 peasants (all members of the confraternity), always barefoot and wearing long white coats. This reflects historical facts from the 15th century when the statue was transported from Messina through the Valley of Noto to the final destination – Enna.
The procession has deep symbolic meaning. Cathedral’s dedication to St. Mary of the Visitation relates to the biblical visit of St. Mary to St. Elisabeth. The Church Montesalvo between many original objects of sacral art, houses a life-size wooden statue of St. Elizabeth, so the feast of 2nd of July is simply the yearly repetition of the biblical event.