Syracuse Cathedral is a captivating architectural mixture of an ancient temple dedicated to Athena, Romanesque medieval church and touches of Sicilian Baroque....
The Cathedral of Syracuse (Duomo) is one of the best examples of profound but fortunately “smooth” changes continuously taking place in the surrounding us World.
Once upon the time (starting from the 5th century BC) on the place of today’s cathedral stood the magnificent Doric Temple of Athena dominating the tiny island of Oritiga. But archeological excavations revealed that even Athena’s Temple was not the first “Light of Civilization” built on this place, it was erected on the “footprints” of two earlier structures. The oldest one was Sikels’ Temple from around 11th century BC followed by much smaller scale Greek Temple from 6th century BC.
Duomo with its facade in Sicilian Baroque style keeps also architectural accents from the ancient Greece.
Statue of St. Peter
Nave: note clearly visible column from the ancient Temple of Athena
The Temple of Athena was built as a direct “competition” to the Parthenon in Athens reflecting the existing rivalry between these two cities dominating the ancient Greek World. After the Constantine’s Edict in 313 AC Christianity started to spread from the Middle East across the Roman Empire coming first to Sicily (and obviously to its most important city – Syracuse). Once Christianity left underground catacombs, it started developing “infrastructure” supporting the new faith and gradually replacing the old “mythological” one. The Temple of Athena was the first “victim” of this trend.
Because the Temple of Athena was still in a good shape, Christians adapted its interior to the new role of church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Wisely, but mainly for practical reasons they preserved major part of the existing Doric structure.
Then the history repeated – first Vandals brought dark ages to Sicily. Then the Island came under the sphere of Byzantine influence so the earlier church was re-modeled as an Orthodox Basilica. And this is the time when present-day cathedral started to take shape. Construction (and re-construction) works started in the 7th century at the orders of Syracusan bishop St. Zoisimo. The church was dedicated to the Birth of Virgin Mary (Basilica della Natività di Maria Santissima)
Black: Elements form the Temple of Athena
Brown: Byzantine additions from 7th century
Blue: Norman modifications
Grey: Post-earthquake modifications from 17th to 20th century
Marble mosaic floor
Frescoes on the central vault (Agostino Scilla, 1657)
Subsequently the Basilica was “more or less smoothly” converted into a mosque by victorious Arabs. The new beginning in already long-life cycle of the Temple of Athena started at the end of the 11th century when Normans took control of Sicily. The former Basilica/Mosque was enlarged and finished in the style characterizing Latin Christianity dominated by Rome. Fortunately, re-construction works did not remove the traces of the ancient past. Several elements of the Greek Temple including Doric columns as well as the whole base of the cathedral were left as the part of the new structure giving the sense of the “continuity”. It is BTW not the first example of “Acceptance of Differences” (and Coexistence of Cultures) observed in these remote times on Sicilian Island than we can see today’s world..
After the powerful earthquake that struck eastern Sicily in 1693 and partially damaged the Cathedral, the new façade was built. Predominantly in the Sicilian Baroque style, flanked by the statues of the Apostles Peter and Paul the façade is the work of Andrea Palma and Ignazio Marabitti. Despite new architectural trends dominating at that time in Sicily, they skillfully managed to preserve also strong “Greek accents” (in a sort of “back to the roots” effort). With the set of Corinthian columns on both sides it wonderfully blends with the aesthetical lines of this sacred place.
The oldest fragment of the cathedral with numerous columns from the Temple of Athena
Interior is the captivating mixture of the Doric temple with a Romanesque medieval church and touches of Sicilian Baroque. The side chapel dedicated to St. Lucy (patron of the city) holds her silver statue and holy relics….. Another artistically and spiritually valuable chapel is consecrated to Madonna della Neve (Madonna of the Snow) – both masterpieces of 16th century sacral art by correspondingly P. Rozzi and A. Gagini.
In 2005 the Syracusan Cathedral was included in on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.
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