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  • Otranto's Skull Cathedral

    By Anthony Parente

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    Cathedral Santa Maria Annunziata - Photo by Berthold Werner - CC BY-SA 3.0
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    Cathedral interior - Photo by Lupiae - CC BY-SA 3.0
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    Chapel of the Martyrs - Photo by Laurent Massoptier - CC BY 2.0

    On the heel of Italy's famed boot on the east coast of the Salento peninsula in the Puglia region is the ancient town of Otranto. Otranto is a beautiful seaside town that gives you majestic views of the Adriatic Sea. The town is home to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Annunziata. It is the largest Cathedral and an architectural wonder in the Salento area of Puglia. To the town the church is more than just a place of worship. It has become a symbol of Christianity.

    This Roman Catholic Cathedral dates back to 1088 where it was consecrated on August 1st under Pope Urban II. The facade has a gabled shape with a central rosette window and from the exterior looks like churches you will find in other towns throughout Italy. When you enter the doors, you will see just what makes this cathedral special. The interior is laid out in a Latin cross plan divided into three naves by marble columns including three semicircular apses. The central ceiling is adorned with Moorish style wooden coffers with gold details. In the 12th century Archbishop Gionata commissioned a floor mosaic that covers over 600 square meters and consists of over 600,000 pieces of limestone. Work was carried out by the monk Pantaleone and depicts the tree of life that was in the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. You will find several biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, but there are a number of unrelated figures (mythological creatures, kings, rulers and even the signs of the Zodiac) that make it extremely difficult to comprehend the underlying meaning of the mosaic. The tree itself sits on top of a male and female elephant. The mosaic is an amazing work of art and one that is worthy of a visit to Otranto.

    The walls at one time were covered with frescoes, but when the Ottomans over took the Cathedral and turned it into a mosque, they destroyed many of the frescoes only preserving those of the Madonna, who is one of the most honored figures in Islam. Once you have admired the mosaic floor, the coffered ceiling and remaining frescoes on the walls you can make you solemn walk to the Chapel of the Martyrs. From afar you see an altar with the statue of Mary with the infant Jesus, but as you get closer and look around the altar you will see seven display cases housing the skull and bones of the 800 citizens who have become known as the Martyrs of Otranto. It was the summer of 1480 when the town of Otranto was besieged by a fleet of Ottoman ships. Its location on the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic Sea made it a prime target for the Ottomans as they planned to invade and conquer Italy. The city was overtaken, and the remaining 800 citizens were given a choice. If they renounced their Catholic faith and converted to Islam, their lives would be spared. They refused to denounce Christianity and they were led to the hill of Minerva (now called the hill of martyrs). The first victim beheaded was Antonio Primaldo. As the story goes his body remained upright and all attempts to push it over failed. His body stayed in that position until all 800 were killed. Amazed by what he had just witnessed an Ottoman officer dropped to his knees and converted to Christianity. He was killed by his own men.

    The Ottomans only controlled Otranto for less than a year as the Christian forces overtook the city and the Turks surrendered. The bodies of the citizens that were beheaded were taken to the Cathedral. The right apse was enlarged to create the Chapel of the Martyrs. It is as if the bones are looking over the Madonna and infant Jesus acting as their protector and it is a constant reminder of those who gave their life for their faith. These 800 martyrs were beautified in 1771 by Pope Clement XIV and later canonized in 2013 by Pope Francis.


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