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Sicilian history and culture live on in ancient sanctuary


Gibilmanna offered solitude as well as view from the mountaintop

By Jeanne Mae Outlaw Cannavo

During a recent visit to Sicily I had the occasion to visit the Sanctuary of Gibilmanna. Situated about 2,400 feet above sea level, it is believed to be the first shrine in Italy dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Just outside of the coastal town of Cefalù, in the province of Palermo, our bus driver drove us safely to the summit of the Pizzo Sant’Angelo, a peak in the Madonie chain. The journey up the mountain, on a windy and narrow road, offered stunning views of the town below and the azure waters of the coastline where the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean meet.

The name Gibilmanna translates to Mountain of Manna. Gibil is an Arabic word for mountain and manna is a Hebrew word referring to a sweetish substance that is collected from local mountain ash trees in late summer. The Sanctuary and the Museum of Art of Gibilmanna are immersed in a natural setting that has attracted thousands of pilgrims from all over Sicily and beyond for centuries. When it is not crowded, the air is filled with the sounds of local birds and the bells calling the faithful to Mass. The sanctuary and the adjoining convent are believed to have been originally occupied by the Benedictines, with the annexed church dedicated to the Madonna. It was one of six such convents founded in Sicily in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great. Most likely it was abandoned and went into ruin during the Arab domination. In a document dated 1228, when the Priory of Gibilmanna was established, it is noted that only a few ruins remained of the Benedictine monastery. In 1535 the church was assigned to the Capuchins who, to host a small group of friars, reconstructed some rooms of the old convent.

The new convent was built between 1619 and 1624. In the same years the adjoining church was built, larger than the previous one to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims who came to worship. Over the centuries, the church has had several modifications, the last of which, at the beginning of the 20th century, affected the main façade, which was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style.

To reach the sanctuary from the parking area, one must either walk up a number of steps or take the road around to the entrance of the church. Once inside there is a chapel devoted to the Madonna and an imposing baroque altar made of marble dating back to the second half of the 17th century. The altar was fashioned by Baldassare Pampillonia from Palermo and designed by Paolo Amato. The work, initially built for the Cathedral of Palermo, was put up for sale in 1785 and purchased by the Capuchin friars of the convent. The entire complex is full of cherubs, angels, scrolls, corbels, statues, a very rich trabeation and two twisted columns. The base of the marble altar is full of architectural and floral decorations and in a side chapel, there is a fresco depicting the Madonna with Child, by an unknown artist, that dates to the 13th century. The main alter features a painting of the Assumption.

During our visit there was a Mass for a couple celebrating 50 years of marriage. Many from the group who traveled with us joined the family for the Mass, while others went off to explore the museum and the adjoining library. They are located in the rooms of the convent once used as stables, warehouse and forge, now carefully restored and readapted in the last years of the twentieth century.

We were greeted by Professore Adelelmo Napoli, who was gracious enough to take us through the lower section of the museum and explain the works of art that he has recreated by hand over many decades. Of all the exhibits in the museum, I found the Sala San Francesco the most fascinating. This area of the museum holds an extraordinary collection of musical instruments crafted by Professore Napoli. A well-known Sicilian artist, he also crafts items from the local wood into sculptures depicting the cycle of life as he has witnessed on the mountain, as well as intricate walking sticks. One of the most interesting pieces was “Terrore del Fuoco,” a piece carved from wood he retrieved after a fire on the mountain. “Terror of Fire” shows a man watching in horror as the flames surround him.

Adelelmo, or Elmo, has also re-created a collection of musical instruments that are not just associated with those used by musicians today but many which are precise functional replicas of musical instruments used by musicians of ancient civilizations dating back to the pre-Christian era. The professor not only explained the history of the instruments, which were marked by name and origin, but took the time to play several of them and to explain to us the different materials he used to make sure they were authentic replicas. One of the most interesting musical instruments was a harp that was once in the museum of Baghdad which was destroyed during the war. Elmo explained how he researched blueprints to reconstruct the harp exactly as it was in the museum. Another beautiful piece was an “Organo Portativo,” a portable organ which brings to mind our more modern-day accordion. The largest sculpture in the museum was a replica of the Sanctuary.

The museum continued with an additional nine rooms on the upper floors with works representative of Franciscan art. They come from the Capuchin convents from the many provinces of Sicily including Val Demone, Geraci Siculo, Petralia Sottana, Castelbuono, Pettineo, Tusa, Savoca and Giarre. There are exposed finely embroidered sacred vestments, true masterpieces of Sicilian art; paintings, including a 17th-century polyptych of Fra ‘Feliciano da Messina, called the “Raphael of the Capuchins.” There is a statue of the Pietà by Jacopo del Duca; an organ with marsh reeds from the 17th century which is noted in sanctuary records as the only example in Europe. In addition, there is a rich anthropological section where the working tools used by the Capuchins are collected such as carts, looms, plows, a forge and many other objects which testify to the rural, pastoral and daily life of rural Sicily in the past.

Next to the museum there is a library, of note not so much for the number of volumes but for the quality. Many of the texts date from the 16th century and offer an interesting account of life in ancient times.

While this sanctuary was built to offer solitude for a life of prayer and service it was also used as a defensive position against those who would attack the leaders who held power at the time. Now it draws the faithful not just for prayer but also to enjoy and learn about the many cultures which shaped the history of the area. IAH

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