Gentle expressions of Sicily

The Madonnas of Sicily and female saints moved me deeply, most of the altars, churches and holidays are dedicated to them. Mild and tender faces, expressing serenity and unconditional acceptance.

Decorated with flower wreaths and gold, honored in processions, called in midnight prayers, their names imprinted on statues and frescoes, beloved females with the power of mercy. Palermian saint Santa Rosalia, Madonna Annunziata di Palermo, Madonna di Lourdes, Madonna di Monte Oliveto and many more, stoically listening to appeals for love, health, and rescue.

Sicily, Palermo
A figure in Church of San Domenico, Palermo, Italy.

Ma Donna is actually »my lady« in Italian, one can see the roadside Madonnas anywhere in Italy, accompanying different pathways and sides of buildings. Their main task is the protection as well as relief, or sometimes, commemorating a reported miracle.

The earliest depictions of Mary date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, when Early Christianity was present. The Madonna icon develops from the 5th century on, with the rise of cults of the Virgin in 12th and 13th centuries In Western tradition, causing the image of Mary to expand. The Italian Renaissance significantly impacted the popularity of the Virgin Mary, when masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and others fell in love with her beauty. The famous pietas, weeping Mary with dead Jesus in her lap, became a frequent part of the altars, with Michelangelo’s statue in S. Peter’s Church in the Vatican in front.

One of the specific depictions of the Virgin Mary is called the Eleusa, which means tenderness or showing mercy in the Greek language. It portrays Mary with the infant Jesus, nestled against her cheek, known as the Virgin of Tenderness.

Sicily, Palermo
A print of L’Annunciata di Palermo by Antonello da Messina, Palermo, Sicily.

What is thought-provoking is the changing perspective of the adorned Virgin Mary through the history. As early representations of Mary are stating, she was first seen as a Heavenly Queen, noble, compelling and potent. But, with the evolution of Christianity, especially the humble spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi, this image became an interpretation of a timid simple woman, sitting on the ground instead of a throne, with one mere function: the motherhood. It is true she still kept the heavenly halo, but not her personality. Fairtrade, exchanging character for a piece of heaven?

Sicily, Taormina
Church of Madonna della Rocca, Taormina, Sicily.

As it’s written by Robert Seymour Conway in his Ancient Italy and Modern religion book, ” the particular object of worship was not a person but merely an entity which performed a certain function.” The reason behind the choice of a female instead of male patrons is the former Greek influence in South Italy, which led to the worship of female divinities.

Sicily, Taormina
Taormina, Sicily.

There is a great debate about the difference between biological and cultural gender nowadays, which I won’t get into, but it is an interesting question, why on earth are supposedly female characteristics, like tenderness, mercifulness, and acceptance connected to virtues of humbleness, modesty, and quietness? Because the queen cannot be forgiving but also proud? And the king cannot be mighty but also gentle? As if human nature doesn’t consist of most complex and intricate features. It’s our paradoxical nature which maneuvers the evolution, not the simple categorisation of beings. A living creature can’t be contained after all. It is in their symbols, like the Virgin Mary and other female saints, where one can identify the crushing ideal, which still lives in the minds of many people.

Sicily, Catania
A figure of Maria SS. Della Provvidenza near Catania, Sicily.

But beautiful Madonnas don’t bother, quietly observing ruthless humanity. So much celebrated femininities at once, carved into stone, painted on canvases, so distantly calm. Glaring at people who still don’t know that tranquillity actually hides in themselves.





  1. roxannereid1
    November 4, 2017

    I didn’t know that about the Greek influence on female divinities in southern Italy. How interesting.

  2. November 4, 2017

    Great photos. Sicily has been on my radar for some time.

  3. November 4, 2017

    It’s interesting to look in what ways art has had an effect on religious dogma and philosophy throughout the centuries.

    Did you have any favorite altar or church in Sicily?

    • November 4, 2017

      There is a little church above Taormina, very small and modest one but the vibe is so peaceful … 🙂

    • November 4, 2017

      There is a little church above Taormina, very small and modest one but the vibe is so peaceful 🙂 Well I think the art is a pure expression of the human soul, so it has to have some impact on our rational side … even if we try to restrict it so much!

  4. Valerie
    November 6, 2017

    I love your photos of Sicily! Thank you for sharing!

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