S. Cataldo’s Church has been built near the ancient walls of the city in 1154 (during the reign of king William I) and it has been named after Saint Cataldus, bishop of Taranto, probably by choice of the Great Admiral Maio of Bari. It is situated in Piazza Bellini and it is in an elevated position, because of the lowering of the roadway in the 19th century.
It is possible that the church was the private chapel of the court great admiral Maio of Bari’s palace, who owned a few buildings in this area. The fact that there is no ornamental element on the west side of the building could confirm the hypothesis that it was indeed part of a private residence. In 1160 Matteo Bonello murdered Maio and his palace was destroyed. The church was left in charge of royal admiral Silvestro di Marsico, who buried here his daughter Matilde, as it is witnessed by an inscription in the church itself. In 1175 the church was sold to the Dogana dei Baroni and in 1182, according to king William II’s intentions, it was assigned to the benedictine monks of Monreale along with the palace, still surviving at that time.
Starting from 1869 the church – which had lost the function of parish church- along with some adjacent rooms, was used as a branch of the Royal Postal Service. After the Italian Unification, in 1875, a ten years restoration led by Giuseppe Patricolo reinstated the original layout but unfortunately – even if the modern inclusions were removed – the ruins of the norman palace were destroyed too. Since 1937 the church – in its current appearance – belongs to the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Three of the four sides of the building show the compact cubic shape of the construction, regulated by a characteristic geometric pattern. The church appears as a unique and compact block-like parallelepiped, with the three typical red-coloured cupolas on the top, heritage of the peculiar Siculo-Norman art of Palermo. Three sides – the front and the two lateral ones – are geometrically divided by blind arches with archivolts (series of receding arches), wich help to give a sense of enhanced height to the building. Every arch has an ogival window. The whole shape has a decorated border on the top, an openwork frieze typical of some Islamic architecture (esp. in the Maghreb region) and a now difficult-to-read latin inscription running below the frieze.
Inside the church, the rectangular floor plan features four pillars, creating three naves. These pillars divide the inner space along the lines of the Fatimid tradition, with cubic and spherical volumes interacting with each other. The shrine is placed in a higher position and it is accessible by two steps; it is enriched with two small pillars flanking the apse. The decoration of this church is quite simple, maybe because of the impossibility to complete the interior after Maio of Bari’s death.
It is possible that in the initial project the walls were supposed to be covered by mosaics, as it is possible to infer from the opulent flooring, that is full of marble and aniconic porphyry patterns. This hypothesis is strengthened by the correspondence between the pattern of the floor and the ceiling of the church, suggesting that the project was to make the decoration homogenous through all the surfaces of the interior. This decorative apparatus is also an example of the widespread interest in mixing features of the Byzantine tradition (e.g. the marble circles on the floor) with elements of the Islamic art (the geometric band-like patterns), so characteristic of the Siculo-Norman art.
When: everyday 9.30-12.30 am and 3.00-6.00 pm.
How much: 2.50 € (reduced 1.50 € if you already have the ticket for one of the following: S. Maria della Catena, S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio, Diocesan Museum, the Cathedral, SS. Salvatore, Villafranca Palace, Diocesan Musseum of Monreale)