The oriental coast of Sicily is always identified in popular culture as the place where the sicilian barocco conquered the landscape, showing its particular architectonical elements. Even if this is almost true, most of the main monuments of Catania have a complex history only hidden behind a baroque appearance, imposed mostly by 18th century reconstruction of the city after the terrible earthquake that occurred in the year 1693. The Cathedral of Saint Agatha is surely the most complex (and historically difficult in reading) monument of the city, and we’d like to make in this page a summary of its main characteristics.
The Cathedral was build mostly by Roger the Northman (born in Hauteville, in Normandy, in the 1036 ca.), Great Count of Sicily and principal actor of the re-conquest of Sicily by Christianity after about two centuries of Muslim domination; the Count was a glorious commander, but even a devote Christian, that used to promise by vow to the Lord the construction of important monasteries and churches during the most difficult battles he had to sustain (and the war against the Arab domination spanned for about twenty years). Catania in those times was probably not in so-well conditions, but we have no exact idea of the city structure in the Arab period; we only know that, near the actual Cathedral, there was one of the principal mosques of the city, in the square now named of St. Thomas of Canterbury (a church dedicated to this saint was after built where the mosque was, and it has been completely destroyed by allied-force during the II WW). In the place where the Cathedral has been build there were some ruins of a thermal bath called Thermae Achillianae (baths of Achilles), we don’t know why (an hypothesis id that actually there were a monument dedicated to the Greek hero, but this is only a supposition). The thermal baths started where now is collocated the Catania’s most known monument, the fountain of the Elephant, and the big construction had its most relevant structures in the zone between the first ten meters of the Cathedral and next ten meters in front of the façade of the same church; in the backyard of the roman bath, where now visitors can admire the left apse (repository of the Consecrated Body) during the byzantine period was built a little church in honor of St. George, an holy place for the Christian population of the city during the Arab time.
Between the years 1086 and 1092 he Count started to build his new Cathedral here not only because of the presumed holiness of the place, but mostly because he had there a great quantity of stone and columns, all from the thermal bath (probably ruined during the Arab period, but that’s only a supposition). And the new church was an important investment, so great that he decided to merge the project with that – fundamental – of a modern and structured castle for the protection of the city: the result was an hybrid between a monumental church and a military structure, a build known by medieval architects by the name of Ecclesia munita (fortified church), more typical of the Northern Europe than of the Mediterranean architecture. After 1693 earthquake this characteristic part of the church can be seen in the apses’ zone, accessible in via Vittorio Emanuele II, under the bell-tower. Visitors must remember that man’s medium stature in the middle ages was significantly lower than now, and that the original floor was probably about 1.5 meters under the present. The great apses show a typical pseudo-gothic décor that is commonly known in Italy as “gotico normanno”, or Northman Gothic: it’s probable that this style, fusion of the Arabic architecture and Christian necessity, was after carried back in France by the Northman returning home after years of war, where was reinterpreted by local masters as the famous French Gothic, and then International. Because of this, we can say that this is the first Gothic Cathedral in world.
Northman Gothic: apses, transept and hidden structures in façade and parietal structures;
Renaissance elements: décor in transept structures (monumental doors and tombs) and wooden choir;
XVI cent. Baroque: apses’ frescos;
Post-1693 baroque: whole décor, and containing structures.