In the upper part of Termini Imerese, between the landscape visible from the ‘’belvedere’’, where sea and sky merge, and the greenery of Villa Nicolò Palmeri, there is a jewel worth visiting: theChurch of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria. It was built in the second half of the 14th century in what was, once, the city’s Jewish quarter, where its inhabitants lived and traded.
The exterior of the Church
The Church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria is unique in the area. Fascinating in its construction and colours. It is the perfect balance among Christian culture, legend and art.
The church is composed of a large rectangular hall with a wooden truss roof. It is possible to access from Piazza S. Caterina through an ogival portal in carved stone, surmounted by a bas-relief depicting Santa Caterina between two angels. In the south-east corner of the hall, a door leads to a space with a single-pitched wooden roof that serves as a sacristy and bell tower, accessed from Via Iannelli.
Panel number 5
The most valuable work, however, is the fresco that covers all the walls, attributed to the Graffeo brothers. A cycle composed of 32 rectangular panels depicting all the most important moments in the life of Santa Caterina. It is curious to discover that the very first panel is kept in the Civic Museum of Termini Imerese. This was the result of restoration work carried out in the second half of the 19th century.
The Sicilian inscriptions
The panels are divided into two orders, between which there is a long frieze with inscriptions in dialect: the longest in Sicilian on non-paper material, a unicum. It is supposed that the Sicilian was used in place of Latin to make the work accessible to the believers.
The first five panels describe Saint’s childhood, depicted from the beginning with the nimbus. In the first panel, the mother and the father, king Costo, with sumptuous clothing, hand little Caterina over to hernurturer, her point of reference in the first steps towards the faith. In the third panel we find the nurturer depicted during the apparition of an angel who prophesies to her the life of Caterina. The background is bare, consisting of two trees, a small hill and a sky that nowadays has lost its colour. The fourth panel describes the dream in which Jesus and the Virgin Mary appear to the Saint. The latter, who had already been baptised (the fourth panel), kneels and holds out her hand in expectation of receiving a ring as a gift, a symbol of the marriage between her and God.
Historical background and the persecutions
In the following panels is depicted the year 305, during the economic-military crisis of the Roman Empire. At the end of the tetrarchy of Diocleziano, Massimino, Costanzo Cloro and Galerio, the new Cesare of the east will be Massimino Daia. In the seventh panel, he is depicted on a throne, a symbol of his sacredness. In the presence of his ministers and the crier sent by Caterina, the new Emperor orders to make sacrifices and to worship an idol, realised by himself.
Caterina and Massimino
In the eighth panel, we can see Santa Caterina going to the Emperor to urge him to worship only Jesus Christ. Massimino is struck by the beauty and eloquence of the Saint but decides to postpone the discussion. In the ninth panel, he orders the soldiers to imprison Caterina for her impudence. Later (in the eleventh) she is summoned before the Emperor and succeeds in winning the argument.
Massimino decides to call fifty philosophers to convince her to abandon the Christian faith. The famous scene is depicted in the twenty-first panel where, at the bottom, we find some philosophical texts, while the only book to remain in the hands of the characters is the Bible, indicated by one of them through a particular gesture of the hands. Caterina admonishes the believers with her left hand, while with her right hand she points to God, reproducing the same hand position. Following the failure of the philosophers and their conversion (the fourteenth panel), Massimino decides to condemn them to the stake.
Caterina, summoned by the Emperor, receives his proposal of marriage and after her refusal, she is imprisoned. In the eighteenth panel the martyrdom of the Saint is depicted. She is shown with her hands tied and her torso naked to the waist. Despite the tools used by the executioners, the Saint’s face is calm and relaxed in peaceful resignation. Spalletta is thought to be the author of this fresco.
The Empress’ conversion, the fasting
Panel number 19
In the nineteenth panel, two angels, in front of the Empress Faustina and the lieutenant, heal Caterina from the torture she has just undergone. The Empress has her hands joined in prayer, a symbol of her acceptance of the Gospel message. The Emperor summons the Saint before him. He is unaware of the help of a dove of God who had nourished her during the fast (the twentieth and the twenty-first panel), so he is incredulous to see her not physically tried at all by her imprisonment. Caterina (the twenty-second panel), at the centre of two armed soldiers, tries to convert the Emperor by confessing to him that only thanks to God she had not starved and her soul had not suffered.
The gear wheel
The twenty-third panel is unusual because it is double and lacks an inscription. The scene shows fragments of a broken gear wheel and the hand of an angel holding a sword. The latter tears it to pieces before the torture takes place. The Emperor is saved from falling pebbles, while many are injured or die.
After death, the veneration
Panel number 31
The thirty-first panel concludes the cycle. After the death of the Saint and her removal from Alexandria to a peak on Mount Horeb (Sinai) by two angels, the believers start to visit her tomb. The reference made in the panel is towards the three miracles the Saint performed on the three men, one blind, one infirm and one with an injured right hand. Indeed, according to the tradition, an oil gushing from the Saint’s bones is miraculous and cures the three devotees.
Translation kindly made by: Alice Scalia
By Giovanna Muscarella