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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Sicily’s Rich Artistic History Understood Through its Intended Religious Lens

As a crossroads for some of the world’s most prosperous cultures, Sicily has experienced art in its purest form. With temples, mosques and churches on every street corner, the island is a place to experience art as it was once intended to be experienced.
The Church and Monastery of Santa Caterina embody Baroque architecture, with intricate detailing and ornate fixtures.

We walk around museums to feel something, to be witnesses to art, narratives, and cultures that both precede and exceed our lifespans. We carefully inspect canvases and porcelain statues, fulfilling the museum’s purpose in the setting created primarily for our perception. However, for years, art was not intended for us, but for something greater. Humans solely played their part as pieces in the grander scheme of artworks designed to honor what we believed was most important. 

Nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean, and a thriving crossroads of trade for centuries, Sicily has experienced the great influence of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and Spanish culture through carefully constructed art and architecture. From grand cathedrals built on ancient Greek ruins to Norman palaces that showcase an incredible fusion of culture, Sicily is a thriving illustration of civilizations coexisting in harmony as they build off one another both literally and figuratively.  

Sicily’s name stemmed from the island’s original inhabitants, namely the Sickens and the Sicels. They ruled over the island during the Bronze Age but were soon conquered by the expanding Greeks and Phoenicians in the 5th century BCE. For the exceeding centuries, the Greeks inhabited the island’s eastern coast in Gela and Siracusa (Syracuse), while the Phoenicians remained in the west, primarily Palermo. With religion as their primary method of explaining the world around them, Greek and Phoenician temples and monuments were constructed throughout the island to honor the powers that they prayed to — some of which remain to this day. In addition to territory in Sicily, the flourishing Greek empire conquered parts of southern Italy. The Latins inhabiting northern Italy at the time referred to these Greek-speaking territories as Magna Grecia.

It was ultimately this geographic proximity that led to Greece’s heavy influence on Roman culture, best seen in their similar column-based architectural styles and kindred polytheistic mythologies. 

Syracuse, a Greek settlement in southeast Sicily, quickly gained momentum courtesy of its convenient location amidst the era’s most prosperous trade routes, and it remained the largest and richest city on the island until the 9th century, when it was replaced by Palermo. As Syracuse (Siracusa) rivaled Athens for power and prestige in the Mediterranean, Greek domination on the island became utterly prominent in 480 BCE after the battle of Himera. In this momentous battle, the Greeks defeated a group of Phoenician invaders, the Carthaginians, and ushered in a golden age for the Greek empire.

As a symbol of their glory in war with the Carthaginians, Greek tyrant Gelo built a doric temple on the highest point in Ortigia, a small island that held Syracuse’s thriving urban center, and named it the Temple of Athena. In the 3rd century BCE, the Romans took Carthaginian territory on the island during the first Punic War and later defeated Syracuse, asserting total control over the Island. Although they used Sicily primarily for its plentiful grain supply, the Romans constructed countless grand structures to assert their power such as a large amphitheater in Syracuse. 

A few decades following the death of Jesus, Saint Paul’s message of Christianity reached Sicily, and its influence remained prominent as the island was liberated from the Goths, a Germanic tribe who conquered much of Western Europe following the fall of Rome. The chaos that enveloped the island was resolved when the island came under Byzantine control in 535 CE. In the 7th century, the Byzantine Orthodox Bishop of Syracuse, Zosimus, ordered the construction of a cathedral on the battered remains of the Athena’s temple. Upon incorporating notorious Byzantine arches, the newcomers left the original Greek columns as the foundation, a feature that remains to this day. Named Siracusa Cathedral, the church was dedicated to the Birth of Mary, a figure who was somewhat conflated with the Greek goddess Athena in the minds of early Christians, as both women gave birth to sons despite being virgins. 

In 878 CE, Sicily was conquered by the expanding Arabs, and the Siracusa Cathedral was sacked of its precious metals and converted into a mosque. The original ceiling was removed and the walls were extended upwards as the Muslims added mosaics and apses, features that were later modified by the Normans. The cathedral’s facade reflects baroque detailing, a style adopted by the Spanish during their reign over the island in the 13th to 18th centuries. 

The Byzantines remained on the island during Muslim rule, but the two cultures did not exist exclusively. This was no small feat, considering the Crusades were occurring simultaneously, as Christians and Muslims fought over their right to the holy land in Jerusalem.

As I walked through the cathedral during my family’s trip to Sicily in April 2024, I knew little of the history of the island. Still, the distinct layers of marble infiltrated with intricate mosaics spoke wonders, sparking my interest in how such a fusion could occur, when contrasting religion so often seemed to spark conflict not harmony.   

In demonstration of this coexistence, mosques throughout Sicily were often constructed with the aid of Byzantine architects, and the two architectural styles developed cohesively, contrasting only in small nuances. 

While Islamic artists tend to order their mosaics in abstract geometric patterns, Sicily’s Byzantine artists organized their mosaics to create angelic depictions of Christian icons. This greatly contrasts the Byzantine outlook on icons during The Great Schism, when they rejected the presence of such figures. However, due to Sicily’s accessibility in the Mediterranean, and its ability to experience the migration of many different groups, the Schism’s effects manifested themselves very differently in Sicily than in the rest of the world. The outcome was structures like the Cathedral of Monreale, with Norman architecture and depiction of icons, but the use of Byzantine materials such as mosaics. 

Islamic mosaics, on the other hand, do not include icons, as their religion does not have a physical depiction of Allah. However, in addition to their geometric patterns Muslim (sometimes referred to as Moorish) architecture utilized domes in their constitutions, a prime example of this being the famous red domes that sit atop the Church of San Cataldo in Palermo.

The Church sits in the city’s center, adjacent to the Church of Martorana, a building of Norman-Arab architecture style, filled with Byzantine gold mosaics. Although these buildings are ultimate definitions of respective Muslim and Byzantine culture, neither group was responsible for the construction of such monuments; instead, the Normans were. 

The Normans, led by Roger I, were Scandinavian Vikings who migrated from the north and adopted Christianity during their encounters with the French. They conquered all of southern Italy, with the exception of Naples, by 1091. Upon their arrival, Greeks, Byzantines, Normans, and Arabs coexisted on the island. Roger II, who grew up learning from the island’s plentiful Arabs and Greek scholars, created a new legal code in 1140 that established equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity. His law code combined ideas from French Norman law, Byzantine law, and Muslim law. In accordance with his diplomatic fusion of cultures, Roger II emulated his interest in the island’s vast culture through the Norman Palace of Palermo. 

The palace was built under the rule of Roger II around 1130 on the remains of a Phoenician fortress that houses the notorious Palatine Chapel. An obvious fusion of cultures, the chapel features Byzantine gold mosaics, Arabic calligraphy on the ceiling, and Norman architecture throughout. “It’s an evolution of art,” expressed Walter Giorgis-Blessent, a Bronx Science World Languages and Art History teacher. “Byzantine art, for example, is from Greek art. It’s not a matter of one being more important than the other.”

Culture thrived under the Normans because of their tolerance and receptiveness to all cultures inhabiting the small island. However, all their work towards cultural harmony dissipated as the Angioini French dynasty ruled Sicily from the 13th to 15th centuries. Their reign was characterized by political and economic instability and ended with the chaos of the Sicilian Vespers, a revolt against Charles I, who was seen as an oppressive foreign ruler. 

Under the later rule of the Kingdom of Argon, Sicilians were seen as second-class citizens to the primary Spanish citizens and under isolationist policies, Sicily missed the renaissance that revolutionized the rest of Italy. Fortunately, as the Spanish obtained power in Sicily and southern Italy between the 16th and 18th centuries, they instigated the Baroque movement. 

Born in late 16th century Italy, the Baroque movement was a result of the counter-reformation as the Catholic church struggled to entice congregants back into catholic worship as many people were converting to Protestantism. With ornate detailing and grandeur flair, the movement was an attempt for the Catholics to consolidate papal power. In missing the Renaissance, Sicily was also late to adopt this new artistic movement. 

Following a volcanic eruption in 1669 and an earthquake in 1693, much of Sicily was redesigned and followed Baroque style as their model. And while Michelangelo created the foundation for Baroque through his Renaissance sculptures, Bernini and Caravaggio were crucial Italian artists in the development of Baroque. 

The Baroque architectural movement was meant to demonstrate the power of the church, appealing especially to the lower classes who longed for such splendor. Baroque paintings followed a similar theme. However, rather than flaunting fancy decor and riches, paintings at the time sought to portray the world in its entirety, not solely the pristine, ‘presentable’ aspects. The Baroque era largely contrasted with Renaissance paintings which depicted the church as flawless and untouched. Baroque artists like Caravaggio sought to highlight all perspectives of religion. “There’s different aspects of Baroque, with the depiction of these impoverished settings, and poor people, who then became priests and bishops, were uplifted. There was this very human side of Caravaggio,” said Giorgis-Blessent. 

In 1608, Caravaggio was a criminal in addition to being a renowned artist, and had miraculously escaped from prison in Malta and fled to Syracuse. Upon his arrival in Sicily, he was commissioned to paint ‘The Burial of Saint Lucy,’ for the Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro. The painting is a dramatic depiction of the martyring of the Sicilian saint, an event that occurred in the church’s location in 304 CE, when Saint Lucia’s throat was pierced by a knife after devoting herself to the Christian faith.  

Caravaggio’s attentiveness to light and shadow is carefully highlighted by the Basilica in which it stands today. While visiting the church this past April 2024, I sat in the first row of pews, admiring the melodrama of the painting, when suddenly darkness consumed the canvas, and I was only able to make out a few strokes of paint on the darkened canvas. Surrounding the piece, I later learned, were a series of lights on a two-minute timer. For two minutes, I was able to witness Saint Lucy’s vulnerable body overcome by those around her, her neck highlighted by the little sunlight that Caravaggio created. Then, for the next two minutes, I watched the beauty that Caravaggio had created disappear, mirroring the rapid pace in which something can both hit its peak and the hit rock bottom, a trend seen in the many civilizations that both rose and fell with Sicily. 

The utmost vulnerability of Saint Lucy as she is surrounded by movement so clinical even as they strive to end her life, highlights the deeply moving and human aspect of Caravaggio’s work that reveal why his work has stood the test of time. 

Sitting in the pew of a building whose message never seemed to resonate with me, I appreciated the painting in front of me in a way that I was never able to, while sitting on a museum bench. I understood it as more than simply a component of people’s lives, but something that introduced purpose and reason. My lack of personal religious experience escaped me, and my eyes carefully took in the painting’s subjects, seeking the motivation for each of their stances, their expressions, and their existences.   

“As a priest, I have tried to try to infect others with this same passion for sacred beauty, especially found in the great Churches,” said Father Roger Landry, Catholic chaplain at Columbia University. “I think that beauty is more accessible to everyone and more readily life-changing than listening to polyphonic masterpieces or visiting museums housing religious art.” 

Under Caravaggio’s watchful eye, I sought to understand the church’s place on the island, and in the world — the grander scheme, some might say. 

As I walked through the cathedral during my family’s trip to Sicily, I knew little of the history of the island. Still, the distinct layers of marble infiltrated with intricate mosaics spoke wonders, sparking my interest in how such a fusion could occur when contrasting religion so often seemed to spark conflict, not harmony.  

About the Contributor
Willa Huber, Staff Reporter
Willa Huber is a Spotlight Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She enjoys journalism that is creative, informative, and grants a voice to people and legacies that are often discounted as obsolete or unimportant. Moreover, she enjoys powerful quotes and photographs that speak for themselves and demand the reader’s attention. Outside of school, Willa can be found at her dance studio, with daily classes and rehearsals consuming the majority of her free time. In accordance with her love of dance, she has a strong appreciation for music. Her favorite genre is classic rock, and she enjoys playing along to her favorite songs both on the guitar and the drums. Her favorite bands include Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, and Simon and Garfunkel.