The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the cathedral of Syracuse, located in the historical center of the city, on the Ortygia island. The cathedral incorporates parts of a Greek doric temple dedicated to Athena, which was converted into a church with the advent of Christianity.
During the 5th century BC, the first tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, built on this place an imposing Doric temple dedicated to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess associated with wisdom and warfare. With the advent of Christianity, the temple became the first Christian church in western Europe in the 7th century AD.
The Byzantines made significant changes to the Christian structure and, later, the Muslims, after their conquest of Syracuse, transformed it into the main place of Islamic worship in the area. The church became a mosque, undergoing the changes that the Islamic cult required.
With the Normans, the city rediscovered Christianity and, therefore, the building resumed its main role as a Syracusan Catholic church. The Normans rebuild the church and gave it a majestic but austere facade.
During the terrible earthquake of 1693, that razed to the ground several cities in eastern Sicily, including most of Syracuse, the Norman facade of the church was destroyed, but its internal structure, including the columns of the Greek temple, remained standing.
The church was rebuilt in the 18th century, with a new facade designed by the architect Andrea Palma. The facade was built in two phases – the work began in 1728 and was stopped in 1731, with most of the modifications of this period made in Baroque style, and then, between 1751 and 1753, the church was completed with the addition of decorations in Rococo style.
The facade of the church is rich in decorations and, for this reason, is considered the highest expression of Baroque architecture in the whole province of Syracuse.
The facade has two orders separated by an embattled entablature. The lower order is formed by six tall columns with Corinthian capitals, of which the four central ones support an elaborate broken tympanum and frame the central portal. The other two portals, smaller, are delimited in their external part by the two lateral columns, which hold the statues of San Marciano and Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Syracuse.
The upper order is composed of only four Corinthian columns that support the upper tympanum, surmounted by an iron cross. In the center of the order, there is a niche housing a beautiful statue of the Immaculate.
Inside, parts of the Greek temple are highly visible. The interior was not modified since the Norman times, keeping its original medieval form. The ceiling of the central nave dates back to 1528, and is composed of sturdy wooden beams.
The presbytery was designed by the Syracusan architects Pompeo Picherali and Luciano Alì. The structural part of the central apse is formed by four Corinthian-style columns that support a Baroque ciborium with decorations, bas-reliefs and polychrome stuccoes.
The wooden choir was carved in 1770 by Corrado Mazza and is covered by a dome designed by Luciano Alì. Behind the choir, there are two wooden balconies, with one of them supporting the organ of the cathedral, recently restored and fully functional again after almost 30 years of silence.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Cathedral of Syracuse is located about 1.7 kilometers away from the Syracuse railway station. To easily find the church on foot, use the map below.