In the heart of Palermo there is a small British architectural treasure: Holy Cross Church, a building with important art objects, but unknown to many residents of Palermo.
The architecture and the decorations are unique and a charming combination between artistic simplicity and richness. On one hand, the exterior and the vertical architectural objects go back to the Gothic style typical in Northern Europe; on the other hand, the golden mosaics in the apse are of Byzantine inspiration which is often seen in Sicily.
Holy Cross Church is located in via Roma (on the corner with via Mariano Stabile), and it is the centre of religious activities for the English speaking community of Palermo, as well as the memorial chapel of the Whitaker and Ingham families. In fact the church was built between 1871 and 1875 thanks to Joseph Whitaker and Benjamin Ingham junior, who wished to construct at their expense a church in which to worship according to the rites of the Church of England. They were the heirs of Benjamin Ingham senior, a British gentleman who had settled in Sicily and built a small economic fortune from Marsala wine. The Whitaker-Inghams left signs of an innovative architectural culture and landscaping art in west Sicily, especially in Palermo, and their influence is still well visible in various buildings of the city. (For more on the history click here.)
Returning to Holy Cross Church, the Whitakers and Inghams were determined to give an English imprint on the building by importing doors, windows, stained-glass and floorings from London firms.
At the same time, they didn’t forget their new homeland, as was stated by Tina Whitaker, Joseph’s wife, in 1935: “… the architectural style of the church, being Arab-Norman, is very relevant to Palermo, with its brilliant mosaics so characteristic of that period of Sicilian history when Normans lived under Arab influence …”.
The project was assigned to the London based architect William Barber and work started in 1872 lead by Colonel Henry Yule. The church was opened on the 19th of December 1875 and is now a Chaplaincy of the Diocese in Europe, Church of England.
The church’s floor plan is Romanesque with three naves, while the various ogee stained-glass windows, the large rose window and the tall spire bell tower are inspired by Gothic architecture. The marble and the stones used to build the church come from Palermo, Carrara, Devonshire, Cornwall and Derbyshire. The three windows on the main elevation of the West wall symbolize the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene and St. John, those who were witnesses at the foot of the holy Cross. In the large rose window above them is figured the Adoration of the Lamb by angels. All the stained-glass windows were designed in London by Lavers, Barraud & Westlake and built by Cox & Sons. Several windows were damaged during World War II, some of which were redone while others replaced with plain yellowish glass (like the side windows in the apse).
The focal point of the church is the marvellous apse, with the fascinating decorations designed by the famous British architect Francis Cranmer Penrose, and realised by the Ditta Salviati of Venice.
Within a series of trefoil niches there are mosaics of twelve Apostles (with St. Paul instead of St. Simon) and in the centre the resurrected Christ being worshipped by angels. A frieze runs around the apse’s walls and the inscription reads “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”. High up in the apse are five stained-glass windows representing the trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the pouring out the Spirit at Pentecost.
The ceiling of the apse is also decorated with golden mosaics representing the four evangelists with Christ in the centre and placed below four angels are the four doctors of the Western Church - St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great. Interesting are the heads on the corbels supporting the marble pillars around the apse, which portray figures important to the English Church and Reformation: St. Augustine of Canterbury, Wycliffe, Cranmer, Edward VI, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth I.
The four capitals at either side of the reredos behind the altar represent, from left to right, England and Wales with the rose, Ireland with the shamrock, Sicily with the small iris, and Scotland with the thistle.
On various walls of the church are numerous brass memorial plaques in memory of the Whitaker and Ingham families, their descendants and employees.
You are more than welcome to visit Holy Cross Church in Palermo, where regular Services of Holy Communion are held. Every Sunday the pipe organ is played. Additional events are held at the church such as plays, concerts and book presentations, and the church is available for events (subject to approval), and for weddings (the blessing of civil marriages). (text: Paolo Coniglio, Treasurer, 2009)
Further readings: La Chiesa Holy Cross a Palermo (S. Lo Giudice, Edizioni Salvare Palermo, 2008) e I luoghi dei Whitaker (E. Sessa, E. Mauro e S. Lo Giudice, Edizioni Salvare Palermo, 2008). Both texts are in English and Italian.
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