The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.
But I won’t be sharing it with you.
The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.
I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue. (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway). By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic. I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.
Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment. Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.
Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard! Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom? The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.
At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast. Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view. On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders. Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself. I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.
The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir. Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way. The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.
Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity. Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within. Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery. No one was telling what happened next.