Palermo: Santa Maria della Catena

Santa Maria della Catena.

In many of the more interesting churches of Palermo visitors have to buy a ticket to enter, and the very interesting church of Santa Maria della Catena is no exception to this rule. The lady who sold me a ticket said that it would get me a discount if I wanted to visit other churches, but the discount system was so complicated that I decided not to investigate any further. The main advantage of an admission charge for the Santa Maria della Catena was that I was given a lot of information (in English) about the church. This information provided a solid basis for this post.


Catena is the Italian word for chain. In the Middle Ages the harbour of Palermo was from time to time closed off with a long chain for reasons of security. On the north side this chain was fastened at the Castello a Mare (a palace from the Arab-Norman era) and on the south side at a chapel that had a fresco of the Vergine del Porto, the Virgin of the Harbour. In 1392, during the reign of Queen Maria and King Martinus I of Sicily, this Virgin was said to have performed a miracle. What supposedly happened was this. The execution of three convicted criminals had to be postponed because of bad weather. The three men were locked up in the chapel and clapped together in chains. The men then prayed to the fresco of the Virgin, who caused the chains to break. Without the guards noticing anything, the prisoners were able to escape. Although they were later caught again, the Queen and King ordered their release. After all, no one should question the will of the Virgin Mary.

Side view of the church.

Interior of the church.

Since the 1392 miracle the chapel was referred to as Santa Maria della Catena, Our Lady of the Chain. The events led to a constant stream of donations to upgrade the small chapel to a much bigger church. However, it was not until 1490 – or 1492, a hundred years after the miracle – that the construction could start in earnest. The design of the new church is attributed to the architect Matteo Carnilivari, who is also known for building the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo. Carnilivari died in 1506, after which the new church was completed by others in 1520. The Santa Maria della Catena is a fine example of the Catalan-Gothic style, especially when it comes to the façade of the building and the conspicuous loggia. Baroque decorations that were added later were removed again during a restoration in 1884-1891 led by the architect Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905). The church suffered heavily during World War Two, but fortunately all damage was repaired in 1950.

Things to see

Visitors climb a flight of stairs to get to the loggia at the front of the church. Three entrances then give access to the building. All three are nicely decorated with sculpted reliefs by Vincenzo Gagini (1527-1595), a son of Antonello Gagini (1478-1536). Above the main entrance we see the Madonna and Child. If you look closely, you will notice that the Child is holding a chain. The Madonna and Child are flanked by angels and two of the evangelists, Saints John (with an eagle) and Matthew (with an angel).[1] Above the right entrance the Nativity of Christ with the prophets David and Isaiah has been depicted, and above the left entrance the Adoration of the (headless) Magi with two more prophets. These prophets do not have captions, but they are possibly Solomon and Baruch. The statue in a niche in the upper part of the façade is that of Saint Christina of Bolsena. Together with the Virgin Mary she is said to have ended a famine in 1592 by causing a grain ship to enter the harbour right on time.

The Christ child with the chain – Vincenzo Gagini.

The Nativity with the prophets David and Isaiah – Vincenzo Gagini.

Cappella della Madonna della Catena.

The most important attraction in the church is the second chapel on the right. This Cappella della Madonna della Catena is the original chapel that holds the miraculous fresco of the Virgin. During the construction of the church the chapel was entirely incorporated into the new building. On the back wall of the chapel we find the aforementioned fresco of the Madonna breastfeeding the badly balding Christ child (basically a mini adult). For some reason the fresco was overpainted in the sixteenth century. Perhaps people were offended by Mary’s naked breast? The four statues of female saints in the chapel are attributed to Antonino Gagini (ca. 1505-1574) and Giacomo Gagini (1517-1598). The men were half-brothers, sons of Antonello Gagini from two different marriages.

In the church we find several frescoes by the painter Olivio Sozzi (1690-1765). Also interesting is an old Roman sarcophagus from the second century. In the fourteenth century it was reused as a casket for Lucca Palici. She was the wife of the Sicilian nobleman Giovanni Chiaramonte, captain-general of the army of the kingdom, who died in 1339. Lastly I would like to mention the third chapel on the right, the Cappella della Madonna delle Grazie. The altar here is once again from the workshop of the Gagini family, with the information provided by the church claiming it was made by Giacomo Gagini. I especially liked the scenes of the delivery of the keys to Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.

Tomb of Lucca Palizzi.

Delivery of the keys to Saint Peter – Giacomo Gagini.


[1] The information sheet that I was given claims that the evangelist is Saint Mark. But Mark is depicted with a lion, which is completely absent here.

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