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Cathedral of Catania

Catania Cathedral dominating the principal square of Catania

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Sant Agata in Catania is the main place of Catholic worship in Catania, mother church of the homonymous archdiocese of the same name and seat of the homonymous parish. The cathedral is dedicated to the virgin and martyr Sant’Agata, patron saint of the city of Catania and is located in the historic center of the city on the south-east side of Piazza del Duomo, in the Duomo district of Catania or Terme Achilliane – Piano di San Filippo. In July 1926 it was elevated to the dignity of minor basilica by Pope Pius X.

Norman Age

The church was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt after the earthquakes that followed one another over time. The first building dates back to the period 1086 – 1094 and was built on the ruins of the Achillian Baths dating back to Roman times. On the initiative of Count Ruggero the abbot Angerio arrived from Calabria from the monastery of the Benedictine Order of Sant’Eufemia, who was appointed bishop of the reconstituted diocese of the city by the Norman sovereign, under his direction the building acquired all the characteristics of ecclesia munita (ie fortified). At the same time, the monastery of the Benedictine Order was built next to the southern façade for itself and for the canons. The interior had superb granite columns. The capitals, friezes and ornaments of various types indicated the different origins and reuse of parts of pagan temples and Roman ruins.

transept of Catania Cathedreal
The transept of Cathedral of Sant’Agata in Catania

With the concessions of Roger II in 1124 the privileges of the church and the Bishopric of Catania led by Bishop Maurizio increased, recognitions that included the exercise of temporal power over the territories of the ancient and suppressed diocese of Lentini and over the fief of Mascali (which later became county). On 4 February 1169, a catastrophic earthquake caused the ceiling to collapse completely, killing most of the citizens gathered in the cathedral for the Agatine festivities. In 1194 under the reign of Henry VI a fire of vast proportions caused considerable damage.

Swabian – Aragonese period

The Norman concessions and privileges are recognized and confirmed by Henry VI, Frederick II, Corrado IV and Manfredi. An exception was the exercise of criminal jurisdiction, a prerogative usurped by the emperor and his descendants, while bishop Gentile Orsini, through the papal legate, claimed his authority to Charles of Anjou. They are perfected: the monks’ cemetery located in the east; the monastery in the south, home to the canons of the Benedictine Order, then transformed into a baptistery, the clergy seminary and bishop’s palace.

Borbonic age

Bishop Andrea Riggio in the reconstruction phase favored the replacement of the columns with powerful double pillars. Pietro Galletti promoted the definition of the prospectus. In 1734 he removed the primitive portal which was temporarily placed in the Senatorial Loggia, in 1750 the artifact was definitively transferred and remodeled in the elevation of the church of Sant’Agata al Carcere. Salvatore Ventimiglia ordered the improvement of the facade with the placement of some statues. The current building is the work of the architect Girolamo Palazzotto, who mainly took care of the interior, while Giovanni Battista Vaccarini designed and followed the work on the facade with interventions and modifications that lasted from 1734 to 1761; the same architect also did a project for the dome, never realized. The construction of the building continued throughout the 18th century and continued even after the reopening of the worship of the cathedral. During the restoration works from 1795 to 1804 the church of San Francesco Borgia covered the functions of the cathedral.

The structure of Cathedral of Sant’Agata


Access to the churchyard is through a short marble staircase that culminates in a wrought iron gate decorated with 10 bronze saints. The churchyard is divided from the Piazza del Duomo by a balustrade in white stone adorned with five large statues of saints in Carrara marble. The exterior of the cathedral is characterized by the façade, which presents clear analogies with the contemporary facade of Biagio Amico for Sant’Anna in Palermo, as if Sicily wanted to express its own model derived from Rome but generated by the directives of the Church of Sicily, east as west.

The façade has three composite orders in Corinthian style, and an attic completely in Carrara marble. The first order consists of six granite columns of ancient workmanship perhaps coming from the Roman Theater, surmounted by the coat of arms of the noble Galletti family to which Bishop Pietro Galletti belonged. The second order also has six smaller columns and two small ones placed at the sides of the large central window. All the orders are adorned with marble statues of Saint Agatha in the center on the central door, Saint Euplius on the right and Saint Berillo on the left. The two large oval windows on the sides are accompanied by the two acronyms referred to the phrases related to the cult of the Holy: MSSHDEPLe NOPAQVIE.

Catania Cathedral at sunset
The facade of Cathedral during the sunset

The main wooden door is made up of thirty-two finely sculpted tiles, illustrating starting from the top left: in the first register are the three owners of the bishop Ansgerio, Pope Urban II and Roger I of Sicily with related captions as the three protagonists of the foundation of the cathedral, while the series closes with the reproduction of a bird of prey flying over stormy clouds with the caption aera imbes quae transcreditur; in the second register are represented the owners of the corresponding protagonists of the reconstruction of the cathedral (respectively bishop, pope and sovereign), that is Pietro Galletti, Pope Clement XII and Charles III of Spain with relative captions, closes the series the emblem of Catania with the caption of civic mottos; the third register represents four attributes of the diocese and respective captions, that is, a bird in the nest while damaging its own breast to feed its chicks (similar to the Christian icon of the pelican; the motto is charitas omnia suffert), a bearded man crushed by a volcano behind which stands the cross of the Resurrection to which the man is chained for the ankle (the pose of the figure recalls the iconographic Atlas, but refers to the myth of Typhon; the motto is subiacet imperio), a tree beaten by the winds ( two chubby blowing faces) from which several leaves fall (the motto is solum sicca convellunt) and finally a bird at the stake in a pyre whose motto is spes sancta crociata nescit; the last register represents the attributes of the patron saint of Sant’Agata and is an altar on which are placed a sword of pincers and a rope crushed by a plate on which are the breasts of the saint (the motto is urbis praesidium et munimen), a furnace from which hot flashes come out and dominated by the crowned breasts and the heart in flames (the motto is inestinguibilis amor), an open missal with the words noli offending Patriam Agathae quia ultrix iniuriarum est which overhangs the imperial symbols (crown and scepter) upside down ( the motto is impietas pietate refellitur), finally closes a rainbow that overlooks a table with spread wings on which is the acronym MSS / HD / et / PL (clearly indicating the angelic table of tradition; the motto is foedus eternum). On the sides of the central door, on two high supports, are placed the marble statues of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Bell Tower

A squat bell tower is documented in the Norman era. A first building promoted by the bishop Simone del Pozzo in 1338, served as a watchtower. Located to the left of the façade, set back some 7 meters from the façade, it was over 70 meters high.

The square-based tower measured about 15 meters on each side. Its history is very bumpy as it will undergo several collapses and therefore many rebuilding. In 1662 it was further raised for the insertion of a clock and was taken to a dizzying height of about 100 meters. But on 11 January 1693, due to the strong earthquake that hit the city, it collapsed, overwhelming even the church: under its rubble, over 7,000 faithful died in prayer. It was rebuilt together with the church after the earthquake of 1693, with at the top the largest bell cast in 1619 with a diameter of 1.80, fallen from the tower during the earthquake but remained intact, together with the people’s bell of 1505.

bell tower of Sant Agata
The bell tower of Sant’Agata

The dome, placed on the cross, dates back to 1802 based on a design by Carmelo Battaglia commissioned by the bishop Corrado Maria Deodato Moncada, is equipped with columns and large windows that illuminate the interior. Between 1867 and 1869 the architect Carmelo Sciuto Patti built the current bell tower and the lantern of the dome

Pipe Organ

The counter-façade of the central nave is characterized by the presence of the neoclassical choir built in 1926 based on a project by Carmelo Sciuto Patti; it houses the monumental organ. The latter was commissioned by Cardinal Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet to the French organ builder Nicolas Théodore Jaquot in 1877; once finished, the instrument was placed in the central apse, behind the main altar. In 1926, following the reorganization of the apse area, the choir was built in the counter-façade and the organ was transferred to it at the expense of Cardinal Francica Nava; on this occasion, a new case was created by the artist Giambattista Sangiorgio and the instrument was extended by the organ builder Laudani and Giudici. Mute for decades, in 2012 an important restoration project started by the organ company Mascioni, completed in 2014. The instrument is a mechanical transmission with electronic assistance system for combinations; his console has three 58-note keyboards each and 30-note pedals.

Pipe Organ in Sant'Agata Cathedral of Catania
Pipe Organ in Sant’Agata Cathedral of Catania
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