Palermo: Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere (La Magione)

La Magione.

It was starting to get dark when I arrived at the gate that gives access to the complex of Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, more commonly known under its much shorter name La Magione. The date was 5 January and most Christmas decorations had not yet been removed. The church is at the end of a long and green lane, and the Arabic pointed arches immediately draw the visitor’s attention. The lower three arches are the three entrances of the church, while above them we see five more pointed arches (the middle three of which are blind) and above these another three (including two blind ones). La Magione, built in the second half of the twelfth century, is perhaps one of the last examples of Arab-Norman architecture. The history of the church is closely related to the chancellor (‘Cancelliere’, cancellarius) who ordered its construction. His name was Matthew of Salerno, but in the history books he is usually called Matthew of Ajello[1], and that is the name I will use in this post. Until his death in 1193 Matthew of Ajello played an important role in the Norman-Sicilian kingdom.

Early history

The church was possibly built at the site of an older mosque. After all, before the Norman conquest of 1072 Palermo had been an Arabic city that was said to have had no fewer than 300 mosques.[2] According to the brochure that I got after buying my ticket, the construction of La Magione started in 1150. This is rather unlikely. The great historian of Sicily John Julius Norwich for instance states that the construction did not start until about 1160 and was completed during the regency of Margaret of Navarre (1166-1171), the widow of King William I “the Bad” and the mother of King William II “the Good”, who was then still a minor.[3] Many sources, by the way, mention 1191 as the year of completion of the complex. Matthew of Ajello granted the church and adjacent convent to a group of Cistercian monks. But who was this Matthew of Ajello?

Gate with the coat of arms of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George.

Interior of the church.

Matthew of Ajello, whose exact date of birth is unknown, was born in the twelfth century in the city of Salerno in Campania. He entered into the service of the Norman-Sicilian court as a secretary (notarius) and was assigned the task of drafting official documents. Later he was promoted to protonotarius, the highest rank among the secretaries. Until 1160 Matthew served under Maio of Bari, who was chancellor (cancellarius) and Emir of Emirs (ammiratus ammiratorum) under King William I (1154-1166). Then on 10 November 1160 the unpopular chancellor was murdered in the streets (see Palermo: San Cataldo), in an attack that left Matthew of Ajello injured. In 1166 King William died and his teenage son William II ascended the throne. As the boy was just twelve years old, his mother Margaret of Navarre acted as a regent, and she wanted to get rid of the protonotarius. Instead of appointing him chancellor, an office he had coveted for years, she decided to give the job to her cousin Stephen du Perche. The next year this Stephen was also ordained as archbishop of Palermo.

In part due to the intrigues of Matthew of Ajello, Stephen du Perche was forced to step down again in 1168. Matthew was reinstated, but for the moment had to content himself with the office of vice-chancellor. It was not until about 1190 that he would finally be appointed chancellor. In the meantime the situation in the kingdom of Sicily had changed drastically. King William II had died childless in 1189, his death prompting a power struggle on the island. Three factions competed against each other. The first faction was led by Constance of Sicily, a posthumous daughter of King Roger II. She was married to the German emperor Henry VI and was supported by Walter of the Mill, the powerful archbishop of Palermo. A second faction was led by Roger of Andria, a nobleman who had the support of most of the Norman barons on the mainland. Lastly there was Tancred of Lecce, an (extramarital) grandson of Roger II, who received support from Matthew of Ajello and Pope Clemens III (1187-1191). It was Tancred of Lecce, crowned in 1190, who made Matteo his chancellor.

Tabernacle from 1528, possibly by Antonello Gagini.

When he was still vice-chancellor, Matthew had tried to prevent the marriage of Constance of Sicily and Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. He knew very well that the throne would pass to Constance (and therefore to Henry) if William II died without having produced an heir. “King” Tancred initially managed to hold his position on Sicily, but after his death on 20 February 1194 the Norman-Sicilian kingdom was history. Formally his young son William succeeded him on the throne as William III of Sicily, under a regency of his mother Sibylla of Acerra, but mother and son did not stand a chance against the fury of Henry VI. At the end of August of 1194 Henry’s fleet took Naples and just one month later he had captured all of Southern Italy, which was then also part of the kingdom of Sicily. Next he crossed the Strait of Messina, taking Palermo on 20 November 1194. On Christmas Day he was crowned King of Sicily in the cathedral of Palermo. Constance of Sicily, who was of course the true heir to the throne, was not present at the coronation. The next day she would give birth to a son in Jesi in the Marche. This Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) would become King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor. Matthew of Ajello did not live to see the fall of the Norman-Sicilian kingdom: he passed away in 1193.

Later history

As soon as he had been crowned King of Sicily the Emperor Henry turned out to be a tyrant, so it must have come as a relief to the Sicilians when he died in 1197 at the tender age of 31. Shortly before his death Henry had expelled the Cistercian monks from their convent founded by Matthew of Ajello. The reason was simple: Matthew of Ajello had been Tancred’s chancellor, and Tancred was Henry’s enemy. Henry replaced the Cistercians with brothers of the German Order, also known as the Teutonic Knights. Henceforth the church and convent were the residence (mansio in Latin) of the preceptor of the Order, which probably explains the name La Magione. The complex of La Magione had possessions all over Sicily and was very wealthy. In 1221 the Teutonic Knights were for instance granted the church and lepers’ hospital of San Giovanni dei Lebbrosi elsewhere in Palermo.

Tomb of Francesco Perdicaro – Vincenzo Gagini.

In 1492 the Teutonic Knights were expelled from Sicily. The complex of La Magione was now administered by an abbot who was under the direct authority of the archbishop of Palermo. In the 1780s the complex became the personal property of the House of Bourbon, the house that spawned the Kings of Naples and Sicily. The Bourbons gifted La Magione to the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George in 1786, and it is the coat of arms of this Order that we still see on the Baroque entrance gate (image above). The Order was founded at the end of the fifteenth century by the head of the Italian-Albanian family Flavio Comneno. Members of the family claimed to be descended from both the Roman and Byzantine emperors, but there is no evidence that they actually were. At the end of the seventeenth century the last scion of the Flavio Comneno family ceded the title of grand master to Francesco Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721) then granted the church of Santa Maria della Steccata in Parma to the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George in 1718. Almost seventy years later the Order also obtained accommodation in Palermo.

Madonna and Child – Gagini studio.

The Constantinian Order remained at La Magione until 1860, after which the complex was acquired by the Italian state. The church and adjacent convent were probably in disrepair at the time. At the end of the nineteenth century a first restoration took place under Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905). Between 1920 and 1924 Francesco Valenti (1868-1953) led a second restoration. Parts of the church were rebuilt and all sorts of Baroque and Neoclassicist elements were removed. As a result, the original Arab-Norman building was kind of resurrected. Unfortunately bombardments in 1943 heavily damaged La Magione, but this damage was repaired after World War Two.

Interior and cloister

Marble columns with nice capitals divide the church into a nave and two aisles. Next to the high central apse there are two lower apses at the end of each aisle. For a medieval church La Magione has surprisingly few medieval decorations. Many of the decorations date from the fifteenth or sixteenth century and can therefore be considered Renaissance elements. We can for instance admire a marble triptych from the fifteenth century, a tabernacle from 1528 that was possibly made by Antonello Gagini (1478-1536) or his studio and a beautiful Madonna and Child that are definitely a Gagini studio work. The Gagini family was originally from Bissone in present-day Switzerland. It was Domenico Gagini (ca. 1420-1492), Antonello’s father, who settled in Palermo in 1463. Another interesting object is the tomb of the nobleman Francesco Perdicaro from 1567. The monument is a work by Vincenzo Gagini (1527-1595), one of Antonello’s sons.

Cloister of La Magione.

Visitors must definitely go and see the splendid cloister next to the church. From the cloister one has a nice view of the left side of La Magione, with its alternating windows and blind pointed arches. In the middle of the cloister is a garden with rose bushes and a water well, and on the walls we can find the scant remains of frescoes. The best preserved fresco is a Madonna delle Grazie, but the quality of the work is quite mediocre (or perhaps the restorers did a poor job; photo here).



[1] His eldest son Richard was Count of Ajello in Calabria.

[2] John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, p. 177.

[3] John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 254 footnote.

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