More Sicilian Baroque: The Chiesa di Santa Caterina in Palermo

Sicilian baroque is perhaps one of the more interesting regional variations on the baroque. In the past we've shown you an example of this, the Church of the Gesù, located in Palermo, the capital of Sicily.  Today we are going to show you another example, also located in Palermo. the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. For those of you who detect similarities in Sicilian baroque with Spanish baroque, you certainly would not be wrong as this distinctive style began in this region while it was under Spanish rule. But while Spanish baroque is frequently characterized by gold gilt ornamentation, Sicilian baroque relies on a much more neutral palette, peppered with coloured accents. 

The church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was, up until 2014 attached to the Dominican order and construction on the present church begin in 1566, being completed thirty years later in 1596 -- though it was not consecrated until well after this. 

While the facade of the church is relatively sober, the interior opens up into a proverbial jewel box, replete with marbles, frescoes, statuary and sculptural details. 

Looking back toward the narthex. The grille up above is where the Dominican nuns would be during Mass in order to maintain their cloister.

Surrounding the main cupola are allegorical depictions of the continents of Africa, America, Asia and Europe, representing the missionary aspirations of the Dominican order.

The high altar, which sits atop a predella of five steps, is constructed of polychrome marbles, including rare red porphyry and deep blue lapis stone columns on the exposition throne where the crucifix otherwise sits. It has a triple gradine and is framed by two carved and gilt sculptures of angels.  Sitting above this is a triumphal image of the Holy Spirit. 

Located within one of the transepts is one of the most impressive altars in the entire church, that which belongs to the patron saint of the church, St. Catherine of Alexandria. 

St. Catherine is depicted wearing her martyrs crown and holding her martyrs palm; beside her is the wheel upon which she was martyred.  This particular detail below also gives you a sense of the rich polychrome detailing located throughout the church -- details which can be easily lost in these images. 

Located down along the nave are various small chapels, each of which are ornate enough that they could be the main altar of smaller churches. 

Left to Right: Chapel of St. Dominic, Our Lady of the Rosary and the Immaculate Conception 

Left to Right: Chapel of the Seven Dolors, of the Most Holy Crucifix, of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

To once again emphasize the intricate detailing found both in this church and in Sicilian baroque more generally, here is a detailing showing a portion of the altar rails that surround each chapel as well as the main altar. 

Detail of the altar rails of the side chapels

Beneath the main cupola, on the pillasters which support it, are found statues of Dominican saints scuplted by Giovanna Battista Ragusa; St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter Martyr and St. Vincent Ferrer. 

St. Dominic

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Peter Martyr

St. Vincent Ferrer

If you're wondering about some of the female Dominican saints, they are most certainly there as well. There are quite a number of carved reliefs showing female saints of the Dominican order, such as this one of St. Catherine of Siena. 

Obviously the elements shown to this point are some of the primary liturgical and devotional points of interest, but what really makes Sicilian baroque are the colours, the details, and especially the use of polychrome marble inlays.  Here is a selection to give you a sense. 

The Sacrifice of Isaac

One can well imagine how this splendour would have been all the more magnified when the candles on the high altar were lit, incense wafted through the rays of light streaming through the windows, the nuns sang the chants of the Mass while the priest celebrated Mass in the ancient Dominican rite liturgy. A window into heaven. 

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