Erice churches: the town of one hundred churches

Erice was known as the town of one hundred churches. Even today many are visible and some are open to worship. From the Norman era believers started to build churches and monasteries. There were lots of holy buildings. The most ancient churches in Erice are St. Cataldo, St. John the Baptist, St. Julian and the Cathedral.

Mother Church or Cathedral

The quadrangular bell tower featuring mullioned windows with two lights belongs to the first half of XIV century, but originally it was a guard tower.
The tower of King Frederick is next to the Cathedral. From the top of this tower, on which it is possible to climb by a not easy staircase, you can enjoy a breathtaking view.
Outside, the church of Our Lady of Assumption preserves its original Gothic look. Pronaos with lancet arches is a XV addition. The rose-windows of the facade is recent.

On the southern side of the Cathedral wall, the nine crosses embedded in the thick outer part are still clearly visible. According to tradition they were built using the material from the temple as it was dismantled.
In 1856 started a long period of restoration which changed the original Gothic shape of the church.
As one comes in from the main entrance on the right there is a holy-water vessel from XVI century . At the end of the apse there is a beautiful marble icon by Giuliano Mancino (1513).

The statue of Our Lady of Assumption

In the middle of the apse there is the statue of Our Lady of Assumption with the Holy Child, from which comes the name of the church. The beautiful statue is by Francesco Laurana. Some bas-reliefs depicting the Saints Evangelists inside niches  surround her.
Dalmatian artist Francesco Laurana while living in Palermo was commissioned to make the statue of Our Lady. The only condition was  it should have been like the statue of Our Lady in Trapani.

The artist’s sculpture was surprisingly so beautiful that Palermitans did not allow it to go out of their town. So Laurana had to make one more statue, while the original remained in the Cathedral of Palermo. Anyway this is probably only a legend and the statue in Palermo could be by Domenico Gagini.

Erice Churches

Saint Cataldo, the Irish saint

Saint Cataldo was an Irish saint, who Normans worshipped. They brought his devotion to Sicily. Certainly the church already existed in 1339. It was a Gothic church with a nave and two aisles. In XVIII century they rebuilt it in its present form .

Saint Stephen painting on wood  is a fine work by Andrea Carreca from Trapani. The small Oratorio Sales in Saint Cataldo or the Chapel of St. Francis de Sales is a small hidden treasure.

The old church of Saint John the Baptist

Among Erice churches, the one to St. John the Baptist is in a panoramic position of particular beauty, which allows you to admire the whole valley and the coast up to Mount Cofano. It has a lovely garden.

The church is certainly very old and, according to the inscription of a plaque, dates back to Constantine. It was rebuilt in the first half of the XV century. Between 1631 and 1672  they enlarged it and built the dome bearing this date. Instead, the construction of the bell tower begun in 1691. The bell tower was completed a century later, in 1798, with the stucco decorations in its interiors.

Closed to prayers for many years, it has been  subjected to a questionable restoration work, sadly with the removal of funerary tombstones and the 18th century ceramic floor.

most ancient building  existing in Erice

The oldest entrance (to the east) has an ogival portal (XIV century), with multiple ring nuts, decorated with zig-zag elements and preceded by an original stone staircase that extends like a fan.

The portal and the flight of steps of the easter side are considered, after the stones of the walls and the temple, the most ancient building evidence existing in Erice.

Erice churches - Saint John the Baptist

Inside the church of Saint John the Baptist one can admire a sculpture depicting St. John the Evangelist by Antonino Gagini and a statue of St. John the Baptist by Antonello Gagini. Also noteworthy is the stucco decoration of the altars. The apse keeps the medieval frescoes from the rock church of Santa Maria Maddalena.

The church now is an auditorium.

St. Martin’s Church and the Mary of the Light

The old church is gothic as are all Erice churches. But in 1682 it was totally rebuilt.  In 1702 they added  stucco decorations and the bell tower. At the end of the 18th century some paintings and more stuccos embellished it. The carved wooden choir by Bernardo Castelli and the wooden statue of St. Martin on horseback by G. Curatolo are of exquisite workmanship. In 1858 it was further embellished with frescos, stuccos, and the altars decorated with Libyan marble.

It keeps the Blessed Mary of the Light, by an unknown XV century sculptor, one of the most beautiful statue in the churches of Erice.

The only decorative element on the simple facade on which stands the small clock tower is the monumental entrance with a Baroque portal, rich in cornices and strong projections, capable of creating clear and dark contrasts.

The original Saint Ursula’s church

St. Ursula church is among the churches of Erice the only one that has kept its original appearance.

This holy building is the expression of a rare and curious synthesis of stylistic elements. It is near Porta Spada and has a front garden surrounded by a wall. On the façade there is the 15th-century portal in yellow tuff and, at the top, the belfry with two lights.  The priest Michele Lombardo built it in 1413  in honour of Saint  Ursula. The church was enlarged in 1450. On the high altar is the statue of Saint Ursula by Giovanni Basile.

In 1451 the Confraternity of Saint Ursula joined it. The confreres took part in the Good Friday procession, whipping themselves to blood according to a tradition suppressed in the last century.

Until a few years ago the Saint Ursula church hosted the six precious sacred groups of the “Mysteries” carried in procession on Good Friday. Unfortunately the secular structures of the church collapsed.  Now they have been moved to the church of Saint Julian.

Saint Julian Church and the Mysteries

According to tradition, the Norman Great Count Roger decided its construction. It seems however it dates back to the first centuries of Christianity. Between 1612 and 1615 they rebuilt the church, more impressive and with three naves.

In 1927 it was closed due to a collapse of a part and reopened, after almost 80 years, in 2005.

This church contains the “Mysteries”, the statuary groups which represent the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life.

The adjoining rooms houses the “ceroplastic”, an art already common among the Romans that in Erice was a prerogative of the Carmelite nuns of Saint Teresa.

 Procession of Mysteries takes places on Good Friday in a deep mistic silence. The XVIII century groups represent the main scenes of the Passion of Jesus Christ. After leaving  Saint Julian church, the believers carry the statuary groups on their shoulders. Flowers and big wax torches enrich them.

Saint Albert from the Abbati family

Built before 1423, the church was in honour to the Carmelite saint who lived in the 13th century. People of Erice have always considered him a fellow citizen. The Abbati family, in fact, was one of the most important in Erice. They owned a palace which was the birthplace of Saint Albert. In 1568 a group of Erice nobles established the “Compagnia dei Bianchi”, so named by the color of their dress, white. They chose the little church as their main seat. This company gave assistance to the poor and to condemned to death. During the 17th century, even with alms and with the contribution of the city administration, they renovated and enlarged the church.

Other interventions around the end of the XVIII century, saw the interiors with a single nave  decorated with stuccos. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the devotion to the Saint gradually faded and the Compagnia dei Bianchi also ceased to exist. The church, after the Second World War, was occasionally a venue for social events, an artisan workshop of the Erice carpet and finally a theater. Recently it has been restored and reopened for worship.

Saint Dominic church now conference room

A square pronaos surmount the rectangular building. Today the church of Saint Dominic  is a conference room of the “Ettore Majorana International Centre for Scientific Culture”. Inside there is a large hall with long benches in light wood and seats, while a chair occupies the presbytery area.

The façade of the church has a 15th-century portal, with a pronaos of Renaissance inspiration added in 1862. Stuccos and arabesques entirely covered and decorated the timber vault, such as the major altar.  The columns became pillars with Corinthian capitals. Nothing remains today in memory of the old interior, but the exterior has remained as they were.

Saint Carl church in the highest area of the town

The church of Saint Carl, as it is today, was built in the highest area of the town after 1744, when the original church annexed was demolished. Since its foundation the complex, consisting of the church and convent, has been inhabited by the nuns of the Franciscan Third Order. They were famous for the preparation of the typical “badia desserts”, still produced today by the pastry chefs of Erice, according to the ancient recipes. Nuns enlarged the complex with the proceeds from donations.

The façade consists of non-square masonry, typical of the Erice buildings, while a single rectangular window and a simple bell tower interrupt its architectural simplicity.

The church contrasts the simplicity of its external structures with a rich interior decoration. It is abundant the use of stuccos with architectural and floral motifs.

Of particular interest is the 18th century majolica tiles floor,  from Trapani.

Saint Peter church

The original church dates back to 1365. In the 16th and 17th centuries they enlarged it. In 1745, according to a project  by the architect Giovanni Biagio Amico, they demolished it and rebuilt a new. It was one of the most popular churches  for its location in the centre of the village.

The building is very simple and bare, but the entrance portal is in Baroque style. it culminates with a battlement where the bells are located. Framed by two Ionic columns, the portal is surmounted by a small entablature with two large volutes. At the center of it there is a votive aedicule and above it the pontifical coat of arms.

Monastery of the SS. Savior ruins

The monastery of SS. Savior covers an area of about 1700 square meters. It rests on a series of very ancient cisterns which could be connected to the pools linked to the cult of Venus from Erice.

The building was the palace of the noble Chiaramonte family in the 13th century, who followed the Norman Ruggero d’Altavilla in Sicily.

Benedictine nuns settled there at the end of 1200. In 1588 the monastery could accommodate up to 50 nuns.

The monastery was a centre for the production of silk, gold, silver and coral decorations for sacred clothes, as well as of the famous sweets.

After the unification of Italy and the law of 1866 which suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property, the monastery ended his centuries-old existence.

Church and Convent of the Capuchins

Coming down from the third road of Erice, you will come across a green area where there are a Convent (for a long time a great place for meditating) and a very beautiful Church.

This place has always been a place of spiritual retreat for meditation,

The monastery of the Poor Clares of the “Sacred Heart” of Alcamo is going to move to  the former Capuchin convent in Erice.

There are still many many churches to discover in Erice…until the next time!