The Catacombs Of A Fishing Town In Sicily

The Catacombs Of A Fishing Town In Sicily

Riposto is a small town in the province of Catania that overlooks the Ionian Sea and closely admires Mount Etna. A loud fish market and the scent of the sea set the background for a secret hidden underneath the floor of an ancient church.

The church of the Madonna of the Letter

Church of the Madonna of the Letter

The Church of the Madonna of the Letter is Riposto’s oldest church and is located on the north side of the Square of Commerce, originally an exchange centre for local products. It is thought that the church was a Basilian monastery during the period of Arab-Norman domination in Sicily (11th – 12th century); then it underwent a series of transformations first when the Spaniards conquered Sicily (16th -18th century) and then in the 19th century when the space of the church was considerably enlarged. The Church of the Madonna of the Letter has a single nave that contains works of great artistic and historical value such as paintings depicting St. Emidio by artist Giuseppe Zacco (1786-1834), a small organ dated to the 18th century, a crucifix that is the exact copy of an ancient wooden Gothic artwork, all witnessing the different eras, styles and cultures that developed and built over time the history of the place.

A legend: 'Here you stop, here we leave you'

Madonna of the Sacred Letter, Giuseppe Zacco

Entering the Church of the Madonna of the Letter, one can only be impressed by the remarkable altarpiece portraying the ‘Madonna of the Sacred Letter’ drawn by Sicilian painter Giuseppe Zacco following the original Byzantine icon.

It is said that the painting came to Riposto brought by a family from Messina who, running away to sea for unknown reasons, decided to bring along on the boat an icon depicting the Madonna of the Letter so as to protect them during the journey. Once in Riposto, the fugitives were hit by a violent storm; in danger of death, the adventurous family prayed to Mary to save them. The boat sank but all the members of the family miraculously came ashore where they surprisingly found the Madonna. ‘Here you stop, here we leave you’ they said, and from then on no one has ever moved the Madonna of the Sacred Letter icon from Riposto.

The burial of the nobles

Church of the Madonna of the Letter, Crypt

A narrow staircase inside the church leads to the crypts, built by the Normans and used until the 19th century for the burial of the noble and clergy classes. The poor were instead buried outside the church, under the current churchyard. Today, a large number of skeletons are visible in the crypts of the Madonna of the Letter as well as the ‘colanders’ used to drain the organic liquids coming from the corpses, which are connected via a system of communicating vessels to the nearby sea. The seawater magically enters the crypts from underneath, and its level rises and falls according to the tides cradling that dark and mysterious place with the regular sound of the sea.

There is nothing to fear!

For fans of legends, natural phenomena related to the moon and tides, and the Christian worship of the dead, Riposto is the perfect destination to stir your passion for mysteries, just 25 km far from Catania.

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Rossella Scalia is a London-based architecture critic and independent researcher. She received her M.Arch from Reggio Calabria University (Italy) and her M.A. in Architectural History, Theory and...Read more

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