It’s always amazing to see history integrated so thoroughly in Italian architecture, but the mother church of Siracusa is truly a gem of architecture. A visit to the church in a pretty square in Sicily is sure to delight the senses of both the casual visitor and the experienced architecture buff.
Thirty Centuries of Architecture
The cathedral of Siracusa boasts more history than many of Italy’s more famous landmarks and churches. The site began as a place of worship before Christianity. Traces of huts belonging to the ancient Sikel tribes are still visible in the area. In 480 BC, the Greeks settling in the area erected a temple to Athena in the location to thank her for guiding them in battle against the Carthaginians at sea.
Remnants of the ancient temple are still contained within the sacred walls today. Ten of the original thirty-six columns still stand in the left nave of the cathedral and the altar in the presbytery contains a monolithic block from the original temple. This shrine became one of the wealthiest in the region and was sought after for its treasure many times. Finally, a brutal attack in the first century BC destroyed much of the temple including paintings of early Sicilian kings.
Christianity and Siracusa
The temple was named the cathedral of Siracusa in 640AD, but most believe it served as a Christian church long before this time. Bishop Zosimus rebuilt and enlarged the temple during this time and pieces of his hard work remain in the marble floors and Byzantine arches.
The cathedral again amassed great wealth, but lost it again when the Arab Saracens relieved the church of its treasures. The cathedral was then used as a mosque for well over a century before it was returned to Christianity by the Normans. After reclaiming the cathedral, fortress-like walls were erected and mosaics were used to decorate the apse. The walls are completely intact and portions of the mosaic remain.
Following damage caused by two severe earthquakes, the cathedral received another make-over. This time the Baroque style was used extensively in the design. Ornate chapels were built and carved columns were installed throughout. Statues and frescoes were used extensively throughout the cathedral.
Thanks to efforts of preservation artists, you are able to visit the cathedral of Siracusa today and see not only the most modern Baroque façade, but the many layers of history lurking right beneath its surface.