I’m not usually a fan of Baroque, but there are some churches in Palermo that are simply incredible and just have to be seen. Over the next three posts are photos of some of my favourite religious buildings. This post focuses on the polychromatic churches of Chiesa del Gesù (aka Casa Professa), Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria and Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione al Capo. You’ll find them all on my map.
Polychrome is the “practice of decorating architectural elements, sculpture, etc., in a variety of colours.” In 18th century Palermo, many churches were redecorated in a highly elaborate Baroque polychrome style using inlaid coloured marbles. Anthony Blunt, in his role as an art historian (as opposed to a spy), described the decoration as “either fascinating or repulsive, but however the individual spectator may react to it, this style is a characteristic manifestation of Sicilian exuberance, and must be classed amongst the most important and original creations of Baroque art on the island”. I quite like it although I can understand why some find it too busy.
Chiesa del Gesù (Church of Saint Mary of Gesu)
This church is also known as Casa Professa because it is the ‘mother church’ for the Jesuits in Palermo (there’s another in Rome, also very famous).
In contrast to the relatively plain facade, the interior is a riot of polychromatic decoration using marbles of many different colours.
Most of the coloured marbles originate from different areas of Sicily. The grey comes from Billiemi, the yellow from Castronovo and the red from Piana dei Greci. There is also’Libeccio‘ from Custonaci (with contrasts from ivory to yellow, green or dark red), and ‘Alabastro Cotognino‘ from Monte Pellegrino (yellow to brown).
Some of the marble is from further afield. Often the decoration is inlaid on a slab of white Carrara marble (from Lazio) or instead against a “touchstone” of black marble (from Flanders) which brings out the whole. This strong chromatic contrast is a particular characteristic of Baroque marble decoration in Palermo.
In English the decorative technique of inlaying polished stone is known as ‘pietra dura‘. That term has a more general meaning for Italians who more specifically describe polychromatic marbles as ‘marmi mischi’, when two dimensional, or ‘marmi tramischi’, when three dimensional.
Please click on this gallery to appreciate the decorative details in full.
There are many other other beautiful and interesting things to see in the church. However I don’t think it’s worth paying in to the museum section, although it does let you get a more close up view of some of the chapels.
Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria)
This is the sixteenth-century church beloinging to the fourteenth-century Dominican monastery of the same name next door (see my coming post on cakes!).
The linear Renaissance facade is fairly bland but inside there is another lavish mixture of marbles, inlays, stuccos, friezes and other artworks in the Baroque style. I particularly liked the marmi tramischi.
It’s worth paying in to see it even if you don’t like Baroque because you can also get great views of the city from the church’s terrace, in particular over the Fountain Pretoria on one side and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana) and San Cataldo on another (see previous posts).
Chiesa dell’Immacolata Concezione al Capo (Church of the Immaculate Conception)
This church is much smaller than the others, and seems to be less visited by tourists, despite being on the busy Capo street market strip.
Its diminutive size just makes the decoration all the more intense and I literally gasped as I entered the space.
The dazzling ceiling frescoes (by Olivio Sòzzi), and the marmi mischi and tramischi on the intricately ordered walls, stand in striking contrast to the chaos of the market just outside the door.
I particularly liked the beautiful inlays on the front of the marble tables in each side chapel.
Examples of polychromatic marble decoration can be found in many other churches in Palermo but these are the best ones.
Even more Baroque decoration next…