The church of San Cataldo is definitely the most conspicuous building on the Piazza Bellini in Palermo. With its Arabic lancet windows and three red domes the church could just as well have been a mosque. The San Cataldo, which has been UNESCO world heritage since 2015, is a fine example of Arab-Norman architecture in the city. The church was built between 1154 and 1160 on the orders of Maio of Bari, who intended the building to serve as a private chapel. He was the most important admiral – ammiratus ammiratorum or Emir of Emirs – under the Sicilian King William I “the Bad” (1154-1166). In those days an admiral was not so much (or at least not exclusively) a naval commander, but rather an advisor and minister of the monarch. Maio of Bari basically served as Prime Minister of the kingdom.
Maio of Bari
As his name indicates, Maio of Bari was born in the city of Bari in Southern Italy, which was then part of the kingdom of Sicily. His father was a rich oil merchant and judge, who made sure his son got an excellent education. Maio was clever and had political skills, so that he was quickly able to enter into the service of William’s father, King Roger II (1130-1154). Under Roger he reached the high office of chancellor (cancellarius). After William I had ascended the throne on 26 February 1154, one of his first acts was to give Maio a promotion. The office of ammiratus ammiratorum had been vacant for a while after the execution of the previous person to hold it, Philip of Mahdia, in 1153. Now Maio was appointed in the vacancy and he would definitely leave his mark on the King’s policies. When William was stricken by a serious illness in the autumn of 1155, Maio and archbishop Hugh of Palermo were basically in charge of the kingdom. Maio was also the driving force behind the 1156 Treaty of Benevento, which saw the kingdom of Sicily make peace with the English Pope Adrianus IV (1154-1159).
The power of the man from Bari – which was, by the way, destroyed by William in 1156 in revenge for a Byzantine invasion – was immense. However, he was also immensely hated by the people and the Norman aristocracy on Sicily. On 10 November 1160 Maio of Bari was killed in the streets of Palermo. The murderers were led by one Matthew Bonnellus (Matteo Bonello), a scion of an old Norman family. As the people and nobility rejoiced at the murder, King William was initially forced to pardon Bonnellus. However, the murderer then began to plot against the king. In March of 1161 William became the victim of a coup staged by his half-brother Simon and his nephew Tancred of Lecce. William, his wife Margaret of Navarre and his children were imprisoned and the royal palace was looted. Moreover, the Arabs in Palermo were attacked by the rebels; Muslims still formed a sizeable part of the population of the capital and they were considered inherently loyal to the King.
The coup was ultimately a failure. The conspirators agreed that William had to be deposed, but they had a serious dispute over who was to succeed him as King. Would the crown be passed to William’s young son Roger or to his half-brother Simon? The dispute quickly led to indecisiveness, and as a consequence a group of bishops loyal to the King was able to exhort the people to liberate their monarch. This subsequently happened, but during the skirmishes young Roger was hit in the eye by a stray arrow. The boy – he was just nine years old – did not survive. William’s heart was broken, but he was nevertheless mild vis-à-vis the rebels. Simon and Tancred of Lecce were given free passage, and between 1189 and 1194 the latter would serve as the last King of Sicily from the House of Hauteville. During the coup Matthew Bonnellus had marched on Palermo to support the rebels, but he had been too late. Although William initially treated him with clemency as well, he later had him arrested. On the orders of the King, Matthew’s eyes were gouged out and he was hamstrung and thrown into prison. There the man who had murdered Maio of Bari died shortly afterwards. Remarkably, the street just west of the cathedral of Palermo is named after Matthew Bonnellus.
Maio of Bari was the last admiral of admirals of the Kingdom. No new ammiratus ammiratorum or Emir of Emirs was appointed after his death. Maio’s legacy to Palermo is his church of San Cataldo. As was already mentioned, construction of the building started in 1154, and upon Maio’s death in 1160 it must have already been completed. Shortly after the murder the relatives of the admiral lost possession of the church. The expropriation went like this. Instead of appointing a new Prime Minister, King William set up a triumvirate consisting of his former tutor Henry Aristippus, a Count named Sylvester of Marsico and the bishop-elect of Syracuse, an Englishman named Richard Palmer. It was Sylvester of Marsico, a relative of the King, who confiscated Maio’s property. In 1161 Sylvester’s daughter Matilda was buried in the San Cataldo, as is demonstrated by an inscription that has been preserved.
In 1182 the church passed into the hands of the archbishop of Monreale. The San Cataldo remained archiepiscopal property for a long time, but was used as a post office in the nineteenth century. Thanks to a restoration in 1882-1885 by Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905) the church nowadays looks like a church again, although a great many of the original decorations of the building have been lost. Since 1937 the San Cataldo is administered by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, who have reconsecrated the building for religious worship. The cross that is the symbol of the Order is ubiquitous inside the San Cataldo.
The church is dedicated to Saint Cataldus, an Irish monk who was said to have served as bishop of Taranto in Apulia in the seventh century. As Maio of Bari was himself from Apulia (Bari is about 75 kilometres north of Taranto), Cataldus may have been of special significance to him. However, in the church we do not find any artworks that refer to the Irish saint. The San Cataldo is, moreover, a small and fairly empty church. The nice Cosmatesque floor, the altar and the capitals of the columns are original, much unlike the crucifix with a Christus Triumphans who looks like a bodybuilder. Make no mistake: the San Cataldo is a church one visits for its exceptional Arab-Norman architecture, not for its art.
- Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 59;
- Chiesa di San Cataldo (Palermo) – Wikipedia;
- John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
- John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 170-171, 190-193, 216, 221 and 225-233.
 Philip was a Greek eunuch from North Africa who was condemned to death for secretly converting to Islam. This made him guilty of the crime of apostacy. The story is extremely dubious (see John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 157-160).
 A bastard son of William’s father Roger II. Roger had appointed him Prince of Taranto in 1148.
 A bastard son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, the eldest son of Roger II. Roger III died in 1148, about six years before his father.