FREDERIK II OF SWEVIA AND THE ENIGMATIC SYMBOLS OF THE MAIN DOOR OF THE CHURCH OF SAINT AGATHA'S PRISON IN CATANIA,
by Giancarlo Burgio.
The thirteenth-century portal of the Church of St. Agatha's prison in Catania ordered by Emperor Frederick II in memory of the quelled revolt of this city, shows sculptures and symbols whose meanings are still shrouded in mystery despite in the more recent centuries many scholars have tried to interpret them. With the help of photographic enlargements, moreover, you can notice some details that tend to disprove what has been proposed in the past.
In the cathedral of Catania in front of the chapel dedicated to St. Patron Agatha, there is the most lavish funerary marble monument of the church, which belongs to Rev.mo Monsignor Pietro Galletti.
Born in St. Cataldo, October 27, 1664, was bishop of Catania from 1729 to 1757 the year when he died at the age of 93. Many works attributed to him during his bishopric.
In Crociferi Street built the Church of St. Camillus of PP Crociferi, and the church of St. Francis Borgia of the Jesuits. In both churches there are two plaques dedicated to him.
By the same Galletti were edified both the marble prospectus of the Cathedral under the direction of the brilliant engineer G. B. Vaccarini, both in the inside the exploitation of valuable paintings survived to the earthquake of 1693, with superb golden gilt. At own expenses rebuild and decorated the large archive of the archbishop's court destroyed also it by the funereal cataclysm that struck Catania and the whole Val di Noto in the late seventeenth century.
Just for the rehabilitation of the facade of the cathedral was needed to transfer out the portal of the old church fortunately remained intact after the collapse of the bell tower that fell only in the central body of the old basilica. Galletti then removed it the first time in 1734 by placing into the entrance of the old Municipal House, and then moving permanently in 1762 as a portal of the Church of S. Prison (see Bishop Romeo: Sant'Agata V. M. e il suo culto - St. Agatha VM and his cult).
The portal of considerable historical importance, follows the architectural style of the Sicilian XI century. In fact, besides to be a rare remainder of medieval art in Catania, it contains in its symbols a page of history of the town in the time of its construction. It was made by Frederick II Hohenstaufen around 1236 (more than 140 years after the construction of the temple built by Roger in 1094), in the period of the fights between Frederick and Pope Gregory IX. Many cities even Sicilian sided with the one or the other front, and Catania tightened around its own Bishop Gualtiero, an highly charismatic and influential personage all over the city for its close proximity to the Pope. In the same time Frederick withdrew several alleged privileges granted by previous rulers to the city of Messina, with the excuse of being incompatible with his concept of "authoritarian state". This precipitated a revolt in 1232 in several Sicilian cities that the same sovereign had to quell with the blood. After Messina brought destruction to Centuripe while Syracuse and Catania limit themselves to the surrender. The history tells that to sign the surrender the emperor sent ambassadors to the city that were rejected at first. Then the Swevians came in Catania, put to flight the entire population, and headed towards the cathedral where in the meantime most of the commanders had taken refuge. Tradition says that Frederick, having issued the order of condemning them to death, wanted to enter personally into the sacred temple, and opening a missal saw appear in letters of fire the famous statement: "NOLI OFFENDERE PATRIAM AGATHAE QUIA ULTRIX INIURIARUM EST" (don't offend the homeland of Agatha, because she is an avenger of the injuries that anyone do to it). Sentence almost strict and intimidating certainly not attributable to "the will of a saint" (dear to me), but that can find a reason in the decision of Frederick II to commute the corporal and mournful punishment for the citizens of Catania, in a sentence no less severe than the first, that is the humiliation and the repentance. To bring one of the major cities in Sicily to its knees meant to infer a serious blow not only to the rebellious cities but also to most emblematic figure for Catania and the Pope himself, that is the bishop. In fact the order given by the emperor was the immediate construction of a castle majestic and impressive (Ursino) away but in front of the Cathedral; and to sculpt a series of emblematic figures who serve as a warning to the citizens of Catania and to the wayfarers, figures to place at the entrance of the fortress-cathedral of Catania.
We owe to prof. Musumeci the interpretation of the symbols placed on it. Prof. M. Musumeci, a learned archaeologist and expert of medieval symbolism argued that the portal with its symbols was built in 1241 by a "bishop intruder" one Enrico Palimberga, just to flatter the Emperor Frederick II. All that described below is taken from “Monumenti di S. Agata esistenti in Catania” (Monuments of S. Agatha existing in Catania) by Sciuto Patti (1892). The portal, built of white marble of Carrara, is formed by concentric arches and slender columns, but what is most striking are the symbolic representations that give a clear picture of the historical event mentioned above. On the first column in the left is represented the Emperor comfortably sat on his throne stroking with his right hand his beard, instead of the sword or the scepter, like a symbol of pride and prestige. By contrast to the first column of the right, the piece carved, at least as written by Musumeci, do not longer exists because the piece disappeared with the earthquake of 1818. An accurate description of the portal (and thus of the missing figure) comes from the Guarneri in his "Le Zolle Historiche Catanee" of 1640, when the portal was still located in the Cathedral. This figure was formed with a lady on her knees and humble, with the loose hair backward (representing Catania) who bear in his arms a bull, and on the back of it there is an Irco (or ram), both with the horns not broken but twisted backward. Going to right on the second column we see a choked bird that is one-head eagle, emblem of the Norman dynasty. Beside the seated emperor, on the second column to the left there is the Hydra with many heads, with the chest to the ground and even it choked. This represents all the Sicilian cities that like Catania were placated by Frederick. In the third arch, to overhang the columns, there are other two allegories: the first in the right is a monkey with a ball in his mouth for representing the man who does not reach his intent, evidenced by the globe not swallowed symbol of the power never reached. In contrast to the monkey is represented, as described always by Guarneri and Musumeci, a fox sitting with his broken feet and with the defaced head. The same Musumeci claims to understand in it the depression and the annihilation of the beggars monastic orders. And it is always of the same author the interpretation of the last two figures, almost mirror-image, that overlook the pillars of the two panels of the door. This is a she-bear holding between the nails her delivery in the act of offering it to the emperor.
Looking the portal today we can see as some of the figures are not situated in the places described by Guarneri and later by Musumeci, or perhaps because of error of description or exchanged during transportation of the entire portal.
Other small details can be seen clearly as a stone shaped like a bird's head placed on the Hydra, snippet this coming from who knows where or added by who knows who, endorsed by the fact that the description of 1640 speaks of the Hydra as a bird with its defaced head. Even the Norman eagle seems to be the missing real symbol described by Musumeci, unlike the lady on her knees with the bull in the arm that is easily positioned on the first right capital and missing only of the head.
About the two figures placed above the shutters (the bears) it is evident as especially the left represent more a lion with thick mane that bites a hare while with his paw retains the prey. Perhaps the strength of the emperor that wants to keep between its jaws around the neck a city now in his power. And finally I like to draw attention to the very showy relaxation with which Frederick II sits on his throne, almost wanting to enjoy his moment of glory; and on a beautiful embroidery throughout his mantle that the time wanted deliver us, as it did with the whole body of architecture.
As Bishop Romeo finishes in a paragraph on p. 247 of his book "...speciosa era quell'età, in cui, chi più sapeva trattare di quei simboli, più era tenuto in conto. Era il secolo di Dante, e i simboli, che il poeta creò, non sono anche oggi indegni della nostra ammirazione (singular was that age, where, who more could codified these symbols, more was estimated. It was the century of Dante, and the symbols, that the poet created, not even today are unworthy of our admiration".
Other articles in English: click here
G. Rasà Napoli – Guida alle Chiese di Catania – Palermo, 1984 (p. 42; p. 266).
G. B. Guarneri – Le Zolle Historiche Cataneee – Catania, 1640 (pp. 270-272).
Sciuto Patti – Monumenti di S. Agata esistenti in Catania (pp. 165-167).
S. Romeo – S. Agata V. M. e il suo culto – Catania, 1922 (pp. 245-247).
M. Musumeci – Opere archeologiche ed artistiche (pp. 119 e sgg.).
D. Mack Smith – Storia della Sicilia medievale e moderna (p. 73).
Note. The photos of the portal are by Roberto Burgio.