The large number of shrines in Sicily reflects the island's magnificent ecclesiastical, cultural heritage. They house sacred remains, whose memory is carefully preserved by local communities and they're sources of inspiration for pilgrimages and for visits by those interested in art and culture.
We suggest here an itinerary among those most renowned and with particular appeal, both because of the sacred events to which they relate and because of their historical and artistic value.
In the province of Catania, a city devoted to the worship of Sant’Agata, there's the Santuario di Maria Santissima di Valverde. This is linked with the conversion of the brigand Dionisio following the appearance of the Madonna, which happened in this very spot in 1038.
The evocative Santuario Madonna della Sciara in Mascalucia, in Contrada Mompilieri, is linked to the terrible 1669 eruption which buried the original, ancient place of worship under a thick layer of glowing lava. After years of fruitless excavations to recover the image of the Madonna, a marble work attributed to Antonello Gagini, a “pious woman” indicated the precise location in which the precious statue was found intact. A small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected at this spot and entitled “della Sciara”, that is, ‘of the lava’, the lava which protected it. The shrine, and the cave where the discovery was made, are immersed in the typical landscape of Etna, and are an oasis of silence and spirituality.
At Trecastagni, the Santuario dei Santi Alfio, Filadelfo e Cirino dates back to the mid-17th century. The central nave was built on the ruins of an ancient aedicule which the first Christians had erected on the site where the three martyrs had stayed in 252. The complex events related to the life, burial and rediscovery of the three Saints make this place of worship particularly interesting from a historical point of view.
The Santuario della Madonna del Ponte was built in Caltagirone in 573, a year after the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the Baby Jesus in her lap, miraculously appeared to a deaf-mute child on the water of a fountain. The ancient fountain is now incorporated within a chapel in the shrine where the faithful continue to draw miraculous water.
In Siracusa, the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime draws crowds of pilgrims from all over the world. The miraculous event which gave rise to the cult of Our Lady of Tears dates back to 1953, when human tears began to flow from the face of the Madonnina, a small Madonna represented by a half-bust in glazed plaster. To give the statue of the Madonnina a worthy shelter, the current shrine with modern and innovative architectural forms was erected in the centre of the city in the 1960s. It’s about 103 metres high and can hold over 15,000 people.
Near ancient Noto, the Santuario Madonna della Scala del Paradiso is an 18th-century building built over the ruins of a pre-existing church, destroyed by the 1693 earthquake. The shrine refers to an image of the Madonna, initially painted on a rock wall and then transferred to the current church, which depicts her with the Baby Jesus on her lap and, on her right, a staircase symbolically stretching up to the sky.
In Augusta, with an outstanding view over Etna, there’s the Santuario Santa Maria Adonai. Inside, the fresco on the rock wall depicts the Madonna with Child in the act of supporting a cross. The original cave was discovered in the 16th century and this led to the building of the small rural church.
In Ragusa the worship of San Spiridione, to whom many images are dedicated, is very much alive. One of the best known is located inside the recently built Santuario della Madonna del Carmine, while in Scicli, the Santuario della Madonna delle Milizie dates back to the year 1000, a beautiful example of Byzantine art.
Some sources date the construction of the Santuario di Maria Santissima di Gulfi in Chiaramonte Gulfi to the fourth century, others as far back as the Greek city of Akrillai. Inside the current church, a commemorative wall plaque records the visit of Saint Gregory the Great, who left his mark when kneeling in front of the altar of the Nativity. One ancient belief is that the object of worship, a statue of the Madonna, comes from Constantinople and was made during the period of the iconoclastic persecution. Mysteriously saved from destruction, it was said to have miraculously arrived on the beach between Scoglitti and Santa Croce Camerina.
In Trapani one of the most important sites of the Christian faith is the Santuario della Madonna dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Catalan Gothic style. The church houses a marble statue depicting the Madonna, 165 cm high and attributed to the sculptor Nino Pisano, and a statue with the relics of Sant’Alberto of Trapani, the patron saint of the city.
The Santuario della Beata Vergine Maria del Paradiso, situated in Mazara del Vallo in the Trapani area, is the result of the deep devotion the citizens of Mazara have had for Maria Santissima del Paradiso since the end of the 18th century. This worship became more intense after 1977, when the image of the Virgin, housed inside the Cappella del Paradiso della Casa Santa, [Chapel of Paradise of the Holy House] miraculously assumed a human gaze and looked down upon the faithful for a few days.
The Santuario di Santa Rosalia in Palermo, can be reached along the fascinating, panoramic road to Mount Pellegrino. Constructed around the 17th century, it was built around a crevice of rock close to the top of the mountain, the spot where the bones of Santa Rosalia were found on 15 July 1624. The shrine’s structure is unusual: the façade of the 1600s is built into the rock; as you enter there’s a finely worked vestibule and then immediately afterwards a dome which “opens” to the sky. Finally, there’s a sumptuous iron gate leading into a karst cave, the “heart” of the shrine. Santa Rosalia became patroness of the city of Palermo following a miracle in June 1625, when the procession of her relics halted the plague which had struck the city. She has since been called the “Santuzza” by the people of Palermo.
Likewise in Palermo, the Santuario della Madonna del Rosario is located on the outskirts and is dedicated to this protector of Sicily, who is venerated throughout the region. TheSantuario di Santa Maria di Gesù should also not be forgotten, it’s one of the most important from an architectural point of view and was built by the Jesuits in the 1500s.
In Altavilla Milicia, the Santuario della Madonna della Milicia houses a painting dating from the second half of the 14th century and later altered several times. The canvas has now been restored to its original image of the crowned Madonna enthroned with the Baby Jesus on her knees bearing a package; the hand of Saint Francis, on one side, points to a worshipper on his knees in prayer at the Madonna’s feet.
The Santuario di Maria Santissima del Rosario di Tagliavia, in Corleone, comes under the Diocese of Monreale. At the beginning of the 19th century, the image of Nostra Signora del Rosario was found in the very location where the shrine now stands. According to popular tradition, a spring of water with miraculous properties emerged at the site of the discovery: when given to animals suffering from serious diseases, it healed them immediately.
In Gangi, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, the Santuario dello Spirito Santo is linked to a tradition of a deaf-mute farmer miraculously becoming able to speak. One day, while intent on digging a well, he struck a boulder on which the image of the eternal Father was outlined with a dove on his chest. The man, realising that the stone was bleeding, cried out, scared by the miracle. A church was built on the exact spot.
The Santuario della Madonna del Ponte in Partinico, for centuries a destination for Christians, is an evocative place of prayer immersed in nature approached via a beautiful ceramic staircase.
In the countryside around Cefalù the Santuario di Gibilmanna is an oasis of peace and spirituality. Inside there are images dedicated to the Virgin, including a statue of Maria Santissima Regina del Paradiso, attributed to Antonello Gagini. It’s said that during the celebration of 1760, in which the Bishop of Cefalù crowned the Virgin and the Baby Jesus with the crowns received from the Vatican, there was an enormous crowd present and a blind-mute regained his powers of speech and sight.
In Monreale, the Santuario della Madonna del Popolo is located inside the Basilica of Santa Maria la Nuova. The object of veneration is a statue depicting the crowned Virgin, with the Baby Jesus on her right arm. The celebration of the Festa della Madonna del Popolo dates back to the 17th century and is the oldest festival in Monreale.
In the province of Agrigento, in Sciacca, the Santuario di San Calogero al Monte, which became a minor basilica in 1979, stands on top of a mountain and has a breathtaking view. The cave, which according to tradition was where the hermit San Calogero, now lies beneath the current church. There’s a majolica representation of San Calogero vecchio with a deer wounded in the neck on his right and a genuflecting archer in prayer on his left. An eighteenth-century wooden case on the church’s main altar houses a statue of San Calogero del Gagini.
Likewise in Sciacca, there’s the Chiesa Madre, the Santuario della Beata Maria Vergine del Soccorso, which dates back to 1108. In 1656, after the collapse of the façade, the Norman foundations required attention so as to keep the apses and Gothic arches intact. The church was rebuilt to a design by the architect Michele Blasco between 1656 and 1686 and today has an unfinished Baroque façade.
In Naro, an attractive ancient village in the area of Agrigento, the Santuario di San Calogero draws many of the faithful who, grateful to the black saint for the favours received, bring bread shaped like the part of the body healed as a gift. In fact, San Calogero is venerated as a miracle worker and healer of diseases.
In Messina the Duomo is actually the Santuario dell’Assunta. Its origins date back to the year 1000 and there are priceless works of art within, such as various works by Antonello Gagini, an 18th century crucifix, the portrait of Fra’ Gregorio, the work of Adolfo Romano, the high altar with its golden copper canopy and a pipe organ considered to be the second largest in Europe.
Messina is also the location of the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Rebuilt in 1954 after the earthquake of 1908, It’s today home to the students of philosophy and theology of the religious order the Frati Minori di Sicilia. In the sixties, a faithful copy of the cave of Lourdes was built right next door.
Still in Messina, the Santuario della Madonna di Montalto is located on a hill in front of Piazza Duomo and the city gate. The church building, faithfully rebuilt after the earthquake using anti-seismic measures, is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic. The view you can enjoy from the churchyard ranges over the Strait of Messina and the city and its main monuments.
The Monastery of Montevergine, now a shrine, is dedicated to Santa Eustochia Smeralda. Sister Eustochia, when still Smeralda Calafato, decided to take her vows at age 15 so opposing the wishes of her family who threatened to burn the convent down. A believer in poverty, she performed penance by sleeping on the ground and wearing sackcloth. Her body is surprisingly still intact after more than five centuries, even after the Messina earthquake. It’s preserved inside a glass case in the monastery, in an upright position.
The view you can enjoy from the Santuario della Madonna della Rocca in Taormina is particularly fascinating. It can be reached by climbing to the Saracen Castle, at the top of an ancient flight of steps. Erected facing the Ionian Sea and surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation, the shrine is carved into the limestone rock. The Virgin is much venerated by the faithful who, every first Sunday in September, carry her effigy in a procession and end the celebrations with a rich banquet.
On the far eastern side of the promontory of Tindari, overlooking the sea and with a view of the Aeolian islands and the Riserva di Marinello, there’s the Santuario della Madonna Nera. The church was destroyed by Algerian pirates in 1544 and then rebuilt in 1598. The building was enlarged in 1979 with the construction of a larger church to contain the continuous flow of pilgrims. The famous black Madonna, perhaps from the East, is linked to a legend: the ship which carried it, sheltering during a storm in the bay of Tindari, could not manage to set off again, despite the improvement in the weather. The ship was only able to continue on its route after the Black Madonna was taken to land and “freed”. It was then kept in the little church where the shrine now stands.
In Caltanissetta, the Santuario Gesù Redentore is a monumental shrine. The small square chapel acts as a pedestal supporting the statue of Christ the Redeemer on its top. The work is by the architect Ernesto Basile, son of Giovan Battista Filippo Basile.
Not far from Marianopoli, in the former fief of Castel Belici, there’s the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso di Belici, which attracts thousands of pilgrims during the festivities on 3 May. The crucifix, housed within, is attributed to Frà Innocenzo da Petralia, a pupil of Frate Umile Pintorno (17th century). However, popular tradition says that the crucifix was carved by a shepherd boy taking refuge from a flood of the river Belice in a cave near the current shrine, and that the sculpture was miraculously completed during the night.
In Enna, the evocative Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso di Papardura is partly built into the rock and contains rich decorations with stuccoes from the Serpotta school, as well as a wooden coffered roof. Outside the small, welcoming church you can enjoy a beautiful view of the valley below.
The Santuario di San Filippo Apostolo of Aidone is dedicated to Saint Philip the Apostle, whose celebrations take place every year on 1 May with the procession of his image and relics through the centre’s streets. A characteristic feature of this festival are the zigareddi: strips of coloured cloth which the faithful rub against the statue while making vows, so that they can return the following year.
In Agira the Santuario di San Filippo d’Agira was erected on an ancient monastery founded by Basilian monks on the sepulchre of Saint Philip. The saint, originally from the east, was sent to Sicily as a priest to evangelise the island. He lived in the monastery with his disciples, and it was here that his remains were found in 1599. At various times, the building has undergone renovations which have modified its original plan. The façade was built in the early decades of the last century, while its interior is predominantly 18th century. The crypt, known as the cavea, is where his relics were found.