Palermo: Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita

Oratorio del Rosario di Santa Cita.

Palermo is known for its many beautiful small oratories, but the Oratory of the Rosary of Santa Cita has got to be the most beautiful of them all. The building, which does not look very appealing on the outside, stands next to the former church of Santa Cita, dedicated to Saint Cita (or Zita), who lived in thirteenth-century Tuscany and became the patron saint of maid-servants. The church is currently dedicated to Saint Mamilianus of Palermo, a fifth-century bishop, but the name of Santa Cita has been preserved in the name of the oratory. The oratory dates from 1590 and was used by the Fraternity of the Rosary of Santa Cita (Compagnia del Rosario di Santa Cita). The lay brothers used the building for their religious and social activities.

The oratory of Santa Cita is especially famous for its beautiful stucco decorations that were made in 1686-1718 by Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732). Serpotta is perhaps the greatest sculptor or stucco worker ever to have lived on Sicily. What is most extraordinary about him is that, as far as we know, he never left Sicily and so cannot have gained his experience elsewhere (his father Gaspare, also a sculptor, briefly resided in Rome). I knew Serpotta’s decorations in the oratory from the first episode of the wonderful Sicily Unpacked series, in which art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli pay a visit to the oratory. In the episode Graham-Dixon also provides us with information about the material that Serpotta used for his creations: stucco mixed with ground marble. This led to a material that was so good that the artist no longer needed to paint it.

Counter-façade with stucco decorations by Giacomo Serpotta.

The most impressive decorations are those on the counter-façade of the oratory. The central scene we see here is the naval battle of Lepanto (now Nafpaktos in Greece) in 1571, which resulted in a great victory for a combined Christian fleet against the Turks. We see how ten galleys engage each other. In reality over 450 ships participated in the naval battle, but obviously Serpotta did not have enough space for so many vessels. What is interesting is that some parts of the ships (flags, sterns) and the fortresses on the shore have been painted using gold-coloured paint.

Battle of Lepanto.

Around the scene of the battle of Lepanto we see a bunch of fluttering naked putti (image above). One is holding a cuirass, another a helmet. Above the battle a putto sits next to an eagle while on the other side another putto drapes a piece of cloth around a lion. The whole oratory is literally riddled with putti, who can be seen performing all kinds of actions. Of even greater interest are the boys that can be seen below the fighting at Lepanto. They are no doubt based on the kids in the streets of Palermo in Serpotta’s own time; the sculptor was himself of humble origins. Next to the boy on the right lies a mysterious object. Initially I thought it was a kind of rag ball, but judging by the top of the object it must be something else.

Kid from the streets of Palermo.


Serpotta’s other decorations are all associated with the Mysteries of the Rosary. This of course cannot come as a surprise for a building that was used by the brothers of the Rosary of Saint Cita. Events from the life of Jesus Christ can be categorised as either Joyful, Sorrowful or Glorious Mysteries. On the left side we see five Joyful Mysteries: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity of Christ, Presentation at the Temple and Jesus among the Doctors. For the five Sorrowful Mysteries we must look to the right wall, where the Agony in the Garden, the Flagellation, the Coronation with the Crown of Thorns, the Ascent to Calvary and the Crucifixion have been depicted. Lastly, against the counter-façade we see the five Glorious Mysteries: Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost (descent of the Holy Spirit), Assumption of the Virgin and Coronation of the Virgin.

For the oratory Serpotta also made statues of the Biblical heroines Esther and Judith, which were placed under the triumphal arch. The altarpiece in the oratory is also worth a closer look. It represents the Madonna of the Rosary (Madonna del Rosario) and was painted in 1695 by the famous master Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), who was seventy years old at the time. Do not forget to admire the beautiful floor of the building, for which black, white and red marble was used.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Palermo: Oratorio del Rosario di San Domenico – – Corvinus –

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