Saturday, September 05, 2020

The Feast of St Rosalia and the Cathedral of Palermo

Yesterday was the feast of St Rosalia, who has been honored as the patron Saint of Palermo, Sicily, since the 1620s, a figure whose life and career are shrouded in legend. She is traditionally said to have been the daughter of one Sinibaldo Sinibaldi, the lord of a place called Quisquina, in the year 1130 or so. The Norman court of Palermo was then one of the most splendid in Europe, an important center of culture, and Rosalia spent much of her time there, in the manner becoming a woman of her status. When she had reached a marriageable age, she was betrothed to a nobleman named Baldwin at the behest of King Roger II, whom Baldwin had saved from an attacking lion, but on the night before the wedding, as she was looking at herself in a mirror, she saw a vision of the Lord Himself in the reflection. She therefore cut off her beautiful hair, and presented herself at the court to announce her intention not to wed, but rather embrace the religious life. Sicily has still to this day a considerable number of Eastern Rite communities, all the more so back then, and Rosalia at first entered a Basilian monastery. There, however, she was subject to repeated visits from her family and former betrothed, who wished to pressure her to change her mind. She therefore fled to a grotto in a remote part of one of her father’s possessions, and lived there for 12 years, then moved to another grotto closer to the city itself, which she occupied in solitude until her death.
The chapel within the cathedral of Palermo which holds the relics of St Rosalia.
For whatever reason, Rosalia was not taken out of her grotto after her death; indeed, the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints states that her body was completely covered by a stalactite. Although the location of her relics was evidently forgotten, she herself was not, as witnessed by a number of churches and altars dedicated to her, and images of her, from the 13th century on. In the year 1624, Palermo was afflicted with a plague, as so often happened to port cities, and on May 7th, the Saint appeared to a woman who was praying at one of her altars and revealed the location of her relics. These were discovered, together with a crucifix, a small Greek cross, and a simple rosary. The relics were in due course carried in procession through the city, at which the plague ceased; in gratitude to St Rosalia, a large shrine was built over the grotto, and her relics were enshrined in a magnificant chapel within the cathedral, seen above. The citizens of Palermo traditionally honor her with a great procession on her feast day, which in this most grotesque of years, has been cancelled... because of a plague.

Here are more photos by Nicola of the chapel and the cathedral. The reliefs on the sidewalls of the chapel, added in 1818, depict the effects of the plague...
and St Rosalia interceding for its end.
Sicily is famously one of the great cultural crossroads of Europe, and it is hardly surprising that this should be reflected in the many different styles found within the cathedral of one of its most important cities.
The interior of the church owes its current appearance to a massive renovation in the later 18th and early 19th century.
The porphyry sarcophagi of Henry VI Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily (1165-97)...
of his wife, Constance of Altavilla (1154-98)...
and their son, Frederic II (1194-1250), also Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily.
The crown of Frederic II’s first wife, Constance of Aragon (1183-1222)
Various liturgical objects from the cathedral museum.

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