Palermo: San Giovanni degli Eremiti

San Giovanni degli Eremiti.

The terrain around the former church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is one of the most idyllic spots in all of Palermo. If you go for a stroll there, you can image yourself being somewhere in the Middle East. The former church and adjacent cloister are surrounded by a charming garden full of citrus and pomegranate trees, roses and jasmine. Because of its exceptional Arab-Norman architecture the San Giovanni degli Eremiti was included in the UNESCO list of world heritage in 2015. The exterior of the church is truly remarkable, with its five red Arabic domes. On the other hand, there is virtually nothing to see inside the church, the exception being a largely decayed Byzantine fresco.


There are many uncertainties regarding the early history of the church. Tradition dictates that there was a Benedictine convent on this spot as early as 581. This is just 34 years after the death of the man who formulated the Benedictine rule, Saint Benedictus of Nursia (ca. 480-547). This is quite early, but not impossible. More problematic is the fact that Sicily was a Greek island through and through, the kind of place where one would not necessarily expect Latin Benedictines. However, we also know that the future Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604), himself a Roman who did not speak a word of Greek, founded six convents on the Sicilian estates of his family. This must have been one of these convents.

According to tradition, the future Pope Agatho (678-681) was associated with the Benedictine convent. Agatho was evidently a Greek – ἀγαθός is the Greek word for “good” – so again one might ask why such a man would join a convent of Latin-speaking Benedictines. Once again: it is not impossible. In the sixth and seventh centuries it was probably much easier for the Benedictines to maintain their position on Sicily than in the next century. After all, it was the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (717-741) who, as a consequence of the feud between Rome and Constantinople over iconoclasm, brought the Sicilian dioceses under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of the latter city. The Pope in Rome was left empty-handed.

San Giovanni degli Eremiti with its five domes.

In 831 a Muslim army that had crossed over from North Africa a few year previously captured Palermo. The city was converted into a culturally Arab city with many Islamic houses of prayer. The Benedictine convent was abandoned and the church henceforth used as a mosque. The Muslim conquest of Sicily must have contributed to the disappearance of Latin (Roman Catholic) Christianity on the island: the west of Sicily was largely Islamic, while in the east there were large groups of Greek (Orthodox) Christians. The tide turned for Latin Christians with the Norman conquest of Sicily between 1061 and 1091. The Catholic Norman Counts and – later – Kings developed tolerant policies vis-à-vis other religions, but at the same time encouraged the immigration of Catholics from Southern Italy. And so it came about that, around the year 1132[1], King Roger II of Sicily (1130-1154) had a church dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist built on the site of the mosque. The adjacent convent was granted to Benedictines from the Abbey of Montevergine in Campania.

Cloister and garden.

In terms of architecture there are great similarities between the San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the church of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi elsewhere in Palermo. However, the latter church is dedicated to the other Saint John, i.e. John the Baptist. It is not entirely clear what the words degli Eremiti refer to. Literally these words mean “of the hermits”, which might be a reference to the fact that the Benedictine monks lived secluded lives at the convent (although this cannot have been true with regard to their abbot; see below). Another explanation links the words to the presence in the vicinity of a sanctuary of Saint Mercurius, who was called “Hermes” in Greek. Nowadays there is still an oratory dedicated to San Mercurio north of the church. Although it was only founded in the sixteenth century, the oratory may very well have been connected to an older tradition.

Cloister and garden.

Interior of the church.

The church of San Giovanni and the new convent stood close to the royal palace of Palermo. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the Benedictines had a special relationship with the royal family and were showered with privileges by Roger II. Their abbot automatically became the personal chaplain and confessor of the King. He was also automatically granted the rank of bishop and was required to say mass in the royal chapel, the Cappella Palatina, on all holidays. Lastly, all members of the royal family, with the exception of the Kings themselves, were to be buried in the cemetery of the church.[2] This last condition was not strictly enforced, but it is clear that the San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the adjacent convent enjoyed considerable prestige. For many years the convent was one of the richest and most powerful in all of Sicily.

Unfortunately the golden age of the complex ended in the fourteenth century. Norman Sicily had perished in 1194 and the ties with the royal family were severed. In 1464 Pope Paulus II (1464-1471) attempted to breathe new life into the convent by bringing in fresh Benedictine monks from the Abbey of San Martino delle Scale near Monreale, but this move proved to be mostly unsuccessful. In the sixteenth century the convent was disbanded and the church of San Giovanni was given a secular clergy. The church and adjacent cloister owe their present appearance to a restoration carried out in 1882 by Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905). The architect took the restoration so seriously that he demolished virtually everything he assumed was not part of the original complex from the twelfth century. The result is a freestanding building, which only on the south side almost touches another building, i.e. the church of San Giorgio in Kemonia (currently San Giuseppe Cafasso).

Inside of one of the large domes.

Things to see

Remains of a Byzantine fresco.

One does not visit the complex of San Giovanni for its art, but for its Arab-Norman architecture and beautiful garden. Of the cloister the double colonnade has been preserved, although it is no longer covered. In the centre we see an Arabic well or cistern. The cloister moreover offers a nice view of the little domes of the church (the Baroque bell-tower is that of the San Giorgio in Kemonia), but those who want to see all the domes can best admire the church from the Largo Michele Gerbasi (see the second photo in this post). The conspicuous rectangular hall attached to the right apse is – presumably – a remnant of the former mosque.

The church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is just a small building. It has the shape of a Latin cross, but its interior is not divided into a nave and aisles by columns. The nave is two bays deep, each bay being covered by a red dome with a square base. The central apse has a smaller dome, just like the right apse. The left apse serves as a base for the bell-tower, which is topped by the fifth and final dome. The church is basically a colourless empty shell, the only colour being provided by the information panels that have been set up inside. Those who want to see a decoration should enter the aforementioned rectangular hall through the right apse. On one of the walls a Byzantine fresco has been painted. The upper part of the Madonna and Child in the centre has been lost, while of the saint on the left only the head and a part of the upper body have been preserved. The situation is slightly more satisfactory with regard to the young saint on the right, but not enough of him has been preserved to enable us to identify him.



[1] This is the year mentioned most frequently in the sources and also on information panels at the complex. John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 89, claims the church was built in 1142.

[2] John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 89.

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