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Saint Sebastian at Siracusa

From Scotland, with love
March 20, 2021
Ortigia, ancient heart
March 20, 2021
Ph. © Antonio Gerbino

The Cult of the “portuali” at Siracusa: San Sebastiano

The celebrations for Saint Sebastian have ancient roots, and Siracusa has commemorated them for centuries, finding in the soldier-saint a strong link running through the history of the city right up to today. The bond between Saint Sebastian and Siracusa is documented by historians and marked by votive shrines erected in his honour, almost to underline his presence especially in the area around the Harbour. Together with Saint Rocco, he is the saint who protects against pestilence, defined as “depulsor pestis” by the Church and invoked against the invisible sickness that over the centuries used to appear amongst the population reaping countless victims.
In 1501, to fulfil a promise made by the city to the Virgin, a church was built called S. Maria dei Miracoli - Saint Mary of the Miracles - to commemorate the end of the plague, and on the doorway with its Renaissance decoration we find the Virgin Mary along with the saints protectors against the plague, Sebastian and Rocco showing their wounds as is characteristic of their iconography. The arrows that pierce the body of Saint Sebastian recall the signs of the sickness that was often brought from across the sea. That’s why the little church stands close to the Porta Marina - the seaward gate and the only one of the old city gates that is still standing - and why the saint, who is celebrated as Co-patron saint of the city, inspired particular devotion in the harbour workers, known as “vastasi” in Sicilian dialect.
The Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Their devotion was such that their pay-packets even included a contribution called “San Sebastiano” that was taken to pay for the annual celebrations in honour of the saint, celebrations that still take place today in January - the only difference is the variable date. Up until a few years ago, the celebrations took place on the 20th January, which is the saint’s day recognised by the Church, but then it was moved to the following Sunday so everyone can take part, as it is not a city holiday - the patron saint’s day is on the 13th December for Saint Lucy.
But we must return to the special relationship that Siracusa has with the saint, and this is testified to again by the harbour workers who had a little chapel built next to Porta Marina in the early 20th century.
It was built in neo-classical style, with fluted columns on either side of the entrance that support a large pediment with a cross on top. Inside there’s a stone altar decorated with a niche lined in red in which there’s a small copy of the cult statue venerated in Siracusa.
Once there was also a silver statue of the saint, mentioned in some of the inventories of the Cathedral up until the 18th century when it disappeared. The statue of the saint was kept in a church, a small medieval treasure that stood in what is today Piazza Minerva, on the site where the extension of the Senate House was built. At the end of the Twenties, the church was ceded to the Town council and the statue of Saint Sebastian was moved to the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia, next to the monastery of the Nuns of Saint Lucy, where it can still be found today, in the niche of the second altar on the right.
The medieval Church of San Sebastianello, now demolished.
The Confraternity of San Sebastian carry the statue out of the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia
The Festivities of San Sebastiano were famous in the past, and almost rivalled those of the Patron saint Lucy. It started in the morning and ended late at night, and it was the most important celebration in Ortigia. San Sebastiano was taken in procession through most of the historic centre, with some stops in special places, such as the square of the Graziella, a lively popular quarter. When the statue arrived in this open area, it was greeted with applause and the band playing, while the people entertained themselves with the game of the “cuccagna” - climbing the greasy pole - traditions that have unfortunately been lost, but which are preserved in the memory of those who have passed them on.
Marzo 2021

Studia all’Istituto Statale d’Arte, si specializza in Pittura e Arti Visive all’Accademia di Belle Arti di Noto e completa gli studi sul patrimonio artistico presso l’Istituto di Scienze religiose S. M. di Monte Berico. Studioso del culto di Santa Lucia, ha pubblicato diversi volumi tra i quali, di recente, Santa Lucia nella pittura aretusea. Pale d’altare e dipinti devozionali nelle chiese della provincia di Siracusa. Ha catalogato il prezioso corredo del Simulacro argenteo della Santa e ha diretto la collana editoriale della Deputazione della Cappella di S. Lucia di Siracusa. Per Morlacchi editore ha collaborato al testo Lux in tenebris lucet.