Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia
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Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia at Mt. Pellegrino was built by grateful Palermitans in the cave where it is believed she spent her solitary years as a hermit…

        St. Rosalie was born around 1130 in a noble Palermian family. 

     Tradition says that her parents: Duke Sinibaldi and Mary Guiscarda were descendants of King of Franks and Italy - Charles the Great (known as Charlemagne). Despite such blue-blooded genealogical lines and obvious access to the Norman Royal court there are no official records of her life. What we know is rather a mixture of traditions and myths than documented historical facts. 

        Apparently she was a maid of Queen Margaret (wife of king of Sicily William 1st  the Wicked). This early period of Norman domination after almost three centuries of Arabs’ rules was characterized by revived Christian spirituality. New, magnificent churches were mushrooming answering not only religious needs but also manifesting the power of rulers and proudness of donators. No wonder that in this atmosphere of “religious enthusiasm”, roots of monasticism brought to Sicily in Byzantine times were rapidly awakening giving signs of new life.

In this context Rosalia’s decision to give up privileges and pleasures of the royal court and become a hermit seems understandable.

Santa Rosalia - symbolic burial place in Mt. Pellegrino's Sanctuary

Facade of the sanctuary 

Cave makes the main part of the Sanctuary.....

Actually in the remote past this particular place was used by Phoenicians to worship their deities...

      But there is also another version of this story claiming that Rosalia’s decision to choose the solitary life was an attempt to escape an unwanted marriage to count Baldwin (future king of Jerusalem). 

Whatever was the truth, part of it seems to be confirmed by an inscription found in 1624 at the entrance to the small cave at nearby Mount Pellegrino. 

I Rosalia, (daughter of) Sinibaldi (Lord of Mount) Rose and Quisquina domain decided to live in this cave for the love of my Lord Jesus Christ.  

      But that is pretty much all that is known from the time of her live. Those that tried to trace her life of the hermit claim that first she was living in a cave on Mt. Quisquina but then she took the refuge closer to Palermo in the cave on Mt. Pellegrino. And this is the place where her earthly life ended in 1160’s (some sources claim 1164, 1166 or even 1170). During the course of the next five centuries traces of her life and death faded in the collective memory of Palermitans; indeed she was forgotten. But as it happens quite often in the life, fortunes and misfortunes can change the flow of history. 

In 1624 the deadly plague stroke Palermo and that disaster brought back public attention to Santa Rosalia. Apparently, St. Rosalie appeared to a local hunter, pointing to the cave with her remains. She asked him to take her bones to Palermo and carry them throughout the streets of the city to chase out the deadly disease. Indeed the fact is after her remains were carried around the city, the plague “miraculously” ceased. The rest is history – Santa Rosalia (to locals known as La Santuzza – meaning “Little Saint”) became the most fervently venerated patron of Palermo. Understandably, following this event - long forgotten but then “re-surfacing” facts from her life have been mixed with legends and human imagination contributing to and finally making what we call now “Tradition”.  

Mt. Pellegrino (Palermo_ - Sanctuary of St. Rosalie

Behind the facade

Fragment of the ceiling

Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia - beautiful furniture

Soon after the plague vanished from the city, grateful Palermitans build the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia around Mt. Pellegrino’s cave where it is believed she spent her solitary years as a hermit.

      At the first look, an unpretentious baroque façade attached to the steep rocky cliff does not promise anything spectacular (given the beauty and richness of Palermo’s churches). But in reality the entrance doors open mysterious world beautifully contrasting with sumptuously decorated Palermo’s churches. Indeed, the large, irregular grotto with rough greyish walls unveils truly spiritual ambiance. The main altar holds the statue of Santa Rosalia with the blue “cloud” behind, symbolically paving the path to heavens. On the left side of the cave there is a shrine to Santa Rosalia. 

Symbolic burial place of Santa Rosalia (St. Pellegrino Sanctuary)

Shrine of Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia

The "blue" cloud behind the statue of Santa Rosalia symbolizes Her "Path to Paradise"

The statue of Santa Rosalia

Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia: Water believed to be miraculous....

The golden-plated canopy supported by four marble columns covers the “burial” place of St. Rosalie. It holds the statue of the lying down Saint in a company of an angel (the earthly remains of St. Rosalia are kept in Palermo’s Duomo).  Above the symbolic burial place stands an altar crowned by the silver statue of St. Rosalia donated in 1667 by the Senate of Palermo. It may be difficult to put it in words – but the grotto’s atmosphere of serenity and religious devotion is surprisingly well enhanced by otherwise strikingly raw beauty of nature… Irregular shapes of rocky walls, multiple shades of greyness blending with darkness, dimed lights and the sound of dropping water from what is believed to be a “miraculous” spring makes a lasting impression….  

       Mt. Pellegrino’s Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia is certainly one of the places to visit when in Palermo. But the trip to the Sanctuary has not only spiritual meaning – for many including those with no religious mindset it is also a chance for a personal contact with nature. Almost 2,000ft high (606 meters) Mt. Pellegrino offers stunning views on Palermo as well as on the blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, fertile “Conca d’Oro” (Golden Shell) Valley and nearby mountains. Trekking trails including one leading to the Sanctuary give chances to escape from the hectic life of the city, opportunities to “embrace” the Mother Nature…..

View from Mt. Pellegrino on the Tyrrhenian Sea

Triumphal Carriage carrying the statue of Santa Rosalia (here on the piazza in front of Palermo's Cathedral)

Santa Rosalia (painted by famous Flemish artist Van Dyck during his stay in Palermo )

       The shrine on Mt. Pellegrino is not the only example of Palermitans’ devotion to the Patroness. Right after the plague retreated from the city the new chapel was built in Palermo’s cathedral (Duomo) to house the relics of Santa Rosalia. The marble statue of the Patroness dating to 1638 is attributed to Bartolomeo Travaglia while the silver urn with her remains was designed in 1631 by Mariano Smeriglio.

But what keeps the memory of Santa Rosalia “alive” are the yearly festivities. The most important is the festival “Carro Trionfale” (Triumphal Carriage) starting from July 10 and culminating on July 15. This tradition started in 1625 to commemorate the “victory” over the deadly plague and to express the gratefulness of Palermitans to their Patroness. The final part of the festivities is the procession with the statue of Santa Rosalia. The Patroness, standing on the vessel-like carriage genuinely adorned with roses departs from the Piazza Catedrale and is hauled along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (formerly Via Cassaro), passing by Quatro Canti to reach the old entrance gate near the harbor - Porta Felice.

Fortunately, these days the triumphal procession is not an expression of the despair as it was in the memorable 1624, but an explosion of joy, exhibition of folklore and (as originally) – sign of hope for better future. The shape of the carriage seems to be a reference to the tragic events that directly led to the outbreak of the plague (according to historical records, this vicious disease was brought to the city by the crew of a Tunisian ship).

Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia - Chapel

Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia: Memorial Plaque commemorating the victorious battle of Salvatore Tagliavia in WW1

Mt. Pellegrino - on the way to the Sanctuary of Santa Rosalia

     Another event – pilgrimage to the Mt. Pellegrino’s shrine takes place on September 4. The journey starts on the foothills of the mountain where the followers of Santa Rosalia take supposedly the same trail to the grotto as the Saint back in the 12th century. The event is held on the presumed anniversary of St. Rosalie’s death.

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