Santa Maria dello Spasimo, Palermo, Sicily, Italy

The church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo is without a doubt one of the most unique and evocative ruins in Palermo, its appearance in many ways mirroring its curious history. Construction on the church and accompanying monastery of the Olivetan Order began in 1509 on land given to the order by Giacomo Basilicó. Basilicó had made a trip to the Holy Land and was fascinated by the Church of Our Lady of Spasimo, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The ‘Spasimo’, also known as the ‘fainting’ or ‘the Swoon of the Virgin’, was a controversial idea of the late medieval church. The belief being that on the way to Jesus’ crucifixion that Mary had fallen or fainted at the seventh station. The idea gained ground with many Catholics who viewed Mary as the ‘co-redemptrix’, this meant that Mary’s resolve to give birth to Jesus was essential to the redemption of mankind. During the counter reformation many in the Catholic church opposed this belief, feeling that Jesus was the only true redeemer and that the swoon was not mentioned in any of the four gospels. After the Council of Trent in 1563 rules were tightened around the portrayal of Mary, and in Rome many of the images that portrayed the swoon were censored.

The plans for the church were grandiose and it was never properly funded, initially it was only meant to take six years to build but construction stalled. A Turkish rising in 1536 threatened the city of Palermo and due to the Spasimo’s position at the edge of the city it was ransacked for brickwork, with parts of the structure removed to help reinforce the fortifications of the city. In 1569 the monks sold the church to the local Senate and moved to a complex outside the city walls known as Santo Spirito. In the late 1500s, after it was deconsecrated, it was used for theatre prior to its repurposing as a ‘lazaretto’ during the plague in 1624. A lazaretto was essentially a quarantine station for maritime travellers upon their arrival in Palermo. In the 1800s it first operated as a hospice and then a hospital, its was last used after the second world war as a store for valuable works of art from other destroyed sites.

The history of the Spasimo is as strange as the story of the painting by Raphael known as ’Lo Spasimo’ commissioned by Basilico in 1516 to be the centrepiece of the church. On route to Palermo the ship that was carrying the valuable cargo was sunk in a violent storm, all the crew died and the painting was assumed to be lost forever, however miraculously it turned up on the shores of Genoa in perfect condition. It finally made its way to the church but it was not to remain there, in 1661 the viceroy Don Ferdinando D’Ayala donated the painting to the King of Spain Philip IV, it remains in Madrid to this day.

GPS: 38.1146, 13.37144

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