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The Magione
by Luigi Mendola

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The facade, the nave and apse, the cloister.One of Sicily's secret treasures, it is overshadowed by the majestic cathedrals of Sicily, and it may be the world's smallest basilica - a word which, contrary to popular belief, signals the canonical status of a Catholic or Orthodox church rather than its size. Yet the Magione stands apart from most of Sicily's splendid Norman-Arab churches (among which Monreale's cathedral is the most spectacular) as the conventual church of the Teutonic Knights. As such, it was significant during the Crusades and for a few centuries thereafter. In Sicily the Templars were eventually suppressed by Frederick II, and the presence of the Hospitallers - to whom Charles V entrusted Malta as a fief - was never very great here. The Kingdom of Sicily was one place where the military-religious and crusading orders were guests, never masters.

The Magione began its life around 1190 as the Church of the Holy Trinity. Under the sponsorship of Matthew of Agello (or Aiello), the rather controversial Royal Chancellor of Tancred de Hauteville, Sicily's last Norman ruler, the church, which included a cloister and dormitories, was given to the Cistercians. This was one of the religious orders introduced in Sicily in an ongoing attempt to "latinize" the "Greek" (Orthodox) Christians under Catholic clergy. This trend was begun with the Benedictines just two decades following the Great Schism. Indeed, the Benedictines had already established themselves at Saint John of the Hermits, within view of the Norman Palace, and of course at Monreale Abbey as well as Cefalù.

Matthew had proved himself a faithful retainer, having served at the courts of both William I and William II. It appears that it was Matthew's son, Richard, who oversaw the foundation of the Magione complex in a green area near the Termini Gate of the city walls. King Roger II, a friend of Saint Bernard, founder of the Cistercians, had already granted the order several feudal estates in Sicily. All the monks lacked were appropriate churches. A slightly older one in Palermo was the Holy Spirit, famous as a site of the Vespers uprising, in what is now a cemetery. The French-influenced architecture of both these Romanesque structures is somewhat similar; for example, they have pointed roofs and lack the cupolas of earlier Norman-Arab churches in western Sicily, such as San Cataldo, the Martorana and Saint John (all in central Palermo and open to the public). That said, the exterior of the Magione's apse reflects the same Arab influences as those of the cathedrals of Monreale and Palermo.

Here, on the edge of the district now known as the Kalsa, from the Arabic al Khalesa (the elect), an Arab-era structure (built before 1070) once stood. This was not far from the citadel of the emir Halil bin Ishaq identified as early as 937.

In 1194, Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and heir, through his wife (a daughter of Roger II), of Sicily's Norman kings, arrived in Sicily. Friendly to the Teutonic Order, Henry established a church for them in Messina, Saint Mary of the Germans - of which only a few walls and arches remain. It is one of very few churches in Sicily which could be said to be Gothic, though hardly exemplifying that style's true form. Seeing in these German knights a source of loyal military support in a realm full of potentially troublesome Norman vassals, the new King of Sicily gave them several important estates. One of these was the Magione and its monastic fiefs, which he confiscated from the Cistercians shortly before his death in 1197. The presence of the Teutonic Order in Palermo ensured the protection of young King Frederick by faithful German knights for over a decade during his minority.

The Magione complex was far more than the church and cloister. The knights built dormitories, an armoury and stables, surrounded by thick walls, some of which - along with knights' tombs, arched two-light windows and recent excavations - can be seen in what is now a small local museum on the side of the cloister opposite the church. (The museum's entrance is at Via Teatro Garibaldi 27, to the right of the apse.) There was even a well, a rarity in Palermo at that time, present in the centre of the cloister courtyard. Resembling a small castle, the premises were fairly large; indeed, the name Magione comes from the Norman French maisoné, a large house.

Further expansion was undertaken in 1458 on the orders of the vice preceptor, Leonard von Mederstorsen, but by then, toward the end of the Middle Ages, the days of the Teutonic Order in Sicily were numbered. In 1492, at the request of Pope Innocent VIII, the King of Spain, who was also the King of Sicily, "resigned" the order from Sicily, an act coinciding with other unpleasant initiatives, such as the expulsion (or forced conversions) of the Jews in Sicily and Spain. Indeed, some Jews are buried here.

Beginning around 1500, the basilica was administered by the Archbishops of Palermo as a residence for priests and abbots until 1780. In that year it passed unto direct control of the crown, and in 1787 the entire complex, along with its feudal estates, was given to the Constantinian Order of Saint George, an order of knighthood under the protection of the House of Bourbon of Naples and Sicily (later the Two Sicilies).

With its assignment to the Constantinian Order, the Magione returned to one of its early roles as the conventual church of a knightly order enjoying royal patronage. This ended with Sicily's annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, but some vestiges of the order are still visible. For example, there is the cross of the order in relief above the gate leading into the gardens before the entrance to the church.

As a royal benefice, the basilica was claimed by the new monarchy but soon restored to control of the Archdiocese of Palermo. Since the eighteenth century, most of the church, inside and out, had been defaced by extensive modifications and seemingly endless quantities of plaster and stucco. Early in the twentieth century a restoration was begun but only completed following the Second World War. The bombings of 1943 destroyed part of the church, especially the roof and apse, and laxity in addressing the question of the reconstruction delayed completion of some areas (particularly the cloister) until 1992. The Magione is now a parish church.

Some works of art present here are clearly more important than others. The small figure, in profile, of a Teutonic knight is visible in a fresco of the Crucifixion in the Saint Cecilia Chapel, completed some time after 1400. A stylized Teutonic Cross of the same period is displayed inside the basilica, overlooking the tomb and effigy of Francesco Perdicaro, a nobleman who died in 1567. Featuring a large floral motif, what is now the main altar was carved when the Teutonic Order was still resident at the Magione, but it was originally the base for the tabernacle. In the museum next door the tombs and "flat" effigies (in relief) of two knights can be seen in the floor near the entrance. Here it is also possible to view the cloister from the other side.

The legacy of this place, that of the peoples of medieval Sicily, is quite an eclectic mix.

Located near the square of the same name a short walk from Via Roma and Palermo's main train station, the Magione is open most weekdays.

About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.

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© 2011 Luigi Mendola and Best of Sicily