Sicily 2019: 27th September Part 2 – Duomo di Siracusa

After leaving the Castello Maniace I headed to the Duomo di Siracusa (Cathedral of Syracuse), arguably the biggest attraction in Siracusa. Located in the Piazza Duomo, the cathedral façade as we see it today was designed by Andrea Palma (c.1644 or 1664-1730) between 1728-1753. However, long before this beautiful 18th century Baroque façade was built, a Temple to Minerva once stood on the site. This temple was built upon the previous 6th century BCE Temple to Athena (Minerva is the Roman equivalent of Athena). The Temple of Minerva was built during the reign of Gelon (d.478BCE) (also known as Gelo), ruler of Siracusa[1], in 480BCE after they defeated the Carthaginians. By all accounts it was richly decorated with statues and paintings, and various other pieces of ornamentation until it was plundered by the Romans.[2]

Although the Duomo has a Baroque façade, the interior is very different to what I had seen in Noto. The Duomo is darker inside and feels more rustic and ancient. It has a dark wooden beamed ceiling, and the walls and columns are lacking the brilliant white paint that instils a sense of purity and light to visitors. Along the northern wall, you can see the ancient Doric columns that once belonged to the Greek Temple. Further into the Duomo at the eastern end behind the altar, you will find a Baroque monument painted white with gold trim, which almost seems to glow and draw you towards it whilst you are standing in the nave.


The Doric columns are the remains of the Temple of Athena (photo taken by the author).


Standing in the Nave of the Duomo di Siracusa looking towards the alta (photo taken by the author).


Monument behind the altar in the Duomo di Siracusa (photo taken by the author).

According to the audio guide, there have been many different religions practiced here. Originally used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans for Athena and Minerva respectively, the temple was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the 6th century CE by Zosimo, the Bishop of Siracusa. It was during this period that the gaps between the Doric columns mentioned above were filled in. In the 7th century CE the church became a cathedral.

With the arrival of the Islamic armies into Sicily, and the sacking of Siracusa in 878CE, the cathedral became a Mosque[3], and would remain so until the arrival of the Normans to liberate the city in late 11th century,[4] which saw the Mosque become a cathedral once more. The audio guide explained that over the next 100 years, the Normans invested time, money and resources into improving the building. This can be seen on western side of the Duomo, where behind a Greek vessel that acts as a font, you will find, attached to the wall, remnants of mosaics dating to the Norman period of occupation. The polychrome marble floor was installed in the 15th century CE, along with the 16 wooden choir stalls were carved in 1489.[5]


The Greek urn that acts as a font (centre), and the Norman mosaics (left adn right) (photo taken by the author).


The polychrome marble floor was installed in the 15th century CE (photo taken by the author).

Earthquakes in 1542 and 1693 damaged the cathedral, with the one in 1693 being a particularly bad one. Damage to the cathedral sustained by the earthquake allowed for the Baroque façade to be designed and built by architect Andrea Palma as mentioned above.

The cathedral holds relics form St. Lucy, Patron Saint of Siracusa. According to Legend, she decided from a young age that she would dedicate her life to serving the Church. At some point her mother became ill, and so travelled with her to the tomb of St. Agatha in Catania to pray for her mother to be well again. Her mother recovered and Lucy explained that she wanted to give her life to the service of God and all her riches to the poor. A young nobleman who discovered her to be Christian brought her before the Emperor Diocletian. A judge ordered that she be taken to a brothel and made to be a prostitute but when the soldiers attempted to move her, she became immobile and the guards were unable to move her. She believed this was God’s will. There is also possible mention of ordeals by fire, but details were scarce on these. She eventually died in prison from her wounds in 304CE and was finally honoured by Rome in the sixth century CE.[6]

Before I leave you for another week, I just wanted to re-tell the story of a supposed miracle known as La Madonna delle Lacrime (Our Lady of Tears) that occured in Siracusa. In August 1953, a heavily pregnant woman, Antonia Iannuso, who claimed to suffer from bouts of blindness during a difficult pregnancy, claimed that her sight was restored when the portrait of the Madonna hung over the bed began to weep, and tears fell upon her eyes as she slept. News spread quickly and further witnesses claimed to see the image cry several more times. The miracle was later recognised by Pope Pius XII.[7]

Did you catch my visit to the Castello Maniace?

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[1] Ardito, F., & Gambaro, C., (2011). DK Eye Witness Travel Guide: Sicily. DK Publishers: London. p.142.

[2] Dummett, J., (2010). Syracuse: City of Legends. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp.161.

[3] ibid,. pp.126-129.

[4] Bennett, M., ‘Norman Naval Activity in the Mediterranean c.1060-c.1108’. In eds. Chibnall, M. (1993).   Norman Studies XV. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p.47.

[5] Ardito, F., & Gambaro, C., (2011). DK Eye Witness Travel Guide: Sicily. DK Publishers: London. p.143.

[6] Butler, A. & Orsini, M., (1857). The Lives of Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints Volume II. London: Henry & Co. pp.801-2.

[7] Dummett, J., (2010). Syracuse: City of Legends. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp.151-3.

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