The Life and Adventures of Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

I described, in my previous post, the sanctuary of Saint Rosalia, which is a baroque church facade with a drippy cave behind it. Now I’ll tell you about her amazing life.

Santa Rosalia painted by Van Dyck in Palermo, whilst the artist was desperately hoping NOT to catch the plague
Santa Rosalia painted by Van Dyck in Palermo, whilst the artist was desperately hoping NOT to catch the plague

Santa Rosalia was born in about 1130, when Sicily was ruled by the Normans. The king was Roger the Second. I’ve been inside his bedroom, by the way, in the Palazzo Dei Normanni in central Palermo. It is entirely lined with mosics of tigers, mountain lions, deer and the other animals he loved to hunt on Monte Pellegrino, all of them depicted in exquisitely colourful detail against a background of solid gold chunks.

King Roger's bedroom. I've been in here but Santa Rosalia never entered.
King Roger’s bedroom. I’ve been in here but Santa Rosalia never entered. He was a Norman King, but notice how Islamic the floor looks.

Before Roger conquered Sicily, it had had been ruled by Arabs, and they civilised the place a lot. They built palaces and set up courts that were much more advanced and magnificent than anything the Europeans had ever seen. So, although the Normans were from France, and were Christians, they started to live like Arabs. They wore Arab clothes, ate Arab food, and ran their palaces like Arab palaces, with harems. The only thing about them that was not Arab was their religion, but they even modified their version of Catholicism to be more in line with Arabic traditions, by making the women cover their heads in public for example.

Rosalia grew up in Roger’s court, in the Palazzo Dei Normanni, and she must have been kept in the harem with all the other women. She was a daughter of Duke Sinibaldo of Quisquina delle Rose, who was a nephew of the king. Since she was living in the royal palace, that meant the king was in charge of her.

Palazzo de Normanni in Palermo, where Santa Roslia grew up.
Palazzo de Normanni in Palermo, where Santa Roslia grew up.

One day King Roger went out hunting on Monte Pellegrino. He was with a group of men from the court, and among them was Count Baldwin, who was a guest at the palace. Roger was attacked by a wild lion and Prince Baldwin very bravely fought it off, and saved the king’s life.

A wicked lion
A wicked lion

The king offered him anything he wanted as a reward, and Baldwin asked to have Rosalia as his wife. Rosalia had long blonde hair and blue eyes and was about twelve or thirteen years old.

Baldwin, like many other men at the time, was overwhelmed by her beauty. Rosalia was clearly not overwhelmed by his. The day after his proposal, she appeared in court with all her long blonde hair chopped off, and said she wanted to become a nun.

First she took refuge in the Convent of the Basilian nuns in Palermo. That’s a church now, by the way, and it’s absolutely beautiful. But even there she could get no peace. She was visited constantly by her parents and by Count Baldwin, trying to convince her to marry him. In the end she was so desperate that she just ran away completely and lived in a cave.

Nobody knew where she was at first, and they were all desperate. She lived for twelve years all alone on Mount Quisquina and then moved to Mount Pellegrino, and lived in a cave on the mountain till she died, aged about thirty. She lived her whole life praying and devoting herself to God.

The cult of Santa Rosalia is connected to a particular event that occurred in Palermo during an episode of plague, three centuries after she died all alone on the mountain top, sheltering in her cave.

On the seventh of May 1624 a trading vessel arrived from Tunis and docked in the port of the city. Previously the vessel had called at Trapani, where it had been impounded because the crew was suspected of spreading the plague. The alarm was quickly raised, but the Viceroy of Palermo, one Emanuele Filiberto (who was absolutely tiny, by the way), was talked into letting the ship unload. The ship’s captain, one Mahomet Cavalà, together with the harbourmaster, headed off to the Royal Palace to give the pint-size Viceroy numerous gifts – camels, lions, jewels and tanned hides – sent to him by the King of Tunis. Silly, greedy little Emanuele was one of the first to die of the plague.

As feared, plague started spreading through the city. It lasted the whole month of May and to the middle of June, with people dying in their thousands. The authorities blocked off the ports and the streets, banning anyone from leaving the city. Thus the people in Palermo at that time knew they may be living under a death sentence, in mass quarantine – the only means of protecting the rest of Sicily and Europe.

The artist Anthony Van Dyck happened to be visiting Palermo at that time, and he was trapped there too. He started working on a self portrait, perhaps intending something to survive him when he died.

I once visited the Palermo City Archives and saw the original books there, handwritten and bound in cream parchment and brown string, listing the names of all the people who died of the plague in those terrifying months. There was shelf after shelf of them. Following that was shelf after shelf of books listing the property left behind by people whose entire families had died; they had no heirs, so their property devolved to the state.

The city archive of Palermo
The city archive of Palermo

The citizens of Palermo prayed day and night to their four patron saints: Santa Cristina, Santa Ninfa, Santa Olivia and Santa Agata. They organised religious processions. The churches were packed with masses going on around the clock, begging God and Jesus and the Virgin Mary for help. Yet the plague killed more and more people.

According to contemporary records, Vincenzo Bonelli, a soap-maker residing in Via dei Pannieri who had lost his wife to the plague, went up on Monte Pellegrino for a walk and got lost in a storm. Some versions of the story say he liked hunting, and was hoping to catch some wild animal to eat.

Whatever his reason for being on Monte Pellegrino, he experienced a vision: Saint Rosalia appeared to him and guided him to the cave on top of the mountain, where he found some bones. These were her bones, she told him, and if they were taken to Palermo and given a Christian burial, the plague would stop.

Vincenzo went straight to the Archbishop of Palermo, Cardinal Giannettino Doria, taking the bones of Saint Rosalia with him. At first the cardinal sent this crazy soap-maker packing. The plague continued. The soap maker returned.

Offerings to Santa Rosalia, left in her grotto in thanks for prayers she has answered
Offerings to Santa Rosalia, left in her grotto in thanks for prayers she has answered

Vincenzo refused to take no for an answer, pestering the cardinal again and again as the plague raged on through the city. Eventually he agreed to organise a procession and conduct a funeral. The bones were carried in solemn procession through the streets of the city, and finally given full funeral rites.

As Rosalia had promised, the plague immediately stopped spreading. She was instated as the new patron saint of Palermo and the four old saints were fired. They still stand, looking ashamed and redundant, around the four corners of the spectacular Quattro Canti crossroads in Palermo.

Meanwhile Rosalia is honoured in statues all over Palermo.

Statue of Santa Rosalia in her grotto on Monte Pellegrino, which follows teh iconography developed by van Dyck
Statue of Santa Rosalia in her grotto on Monte Pellegrino, which follows teh iconography developed by van Dyck

The iconography of Saint Rosalia was created by van Dyck during his stay in Palermo, enforcibly prolonged by the quarantine sanctions imposed on the city. He painted over his unfinished self portrait with a magnificent depiction of Rosalia, and painted image after image of her, always dressed in a simple brown nun’s habit, holding a skull (her own, no less) and a pick axe, a symbol of the axe used by Vincenzo to enter into the cave where her bones had lain for three centuries.

I AM ON HOLIDAY IN ENGLAND TILL THE END OF THE MONTH, BUT I LOOK FORWARD TO READING YOUR COMMENTS AS SOON AS I CAN!

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23 thoughts on “The Life and Adventures of Santa Rosalia, Patron Saint of Palermo

  1. You’re making me wonder how Roger II lasted long enough to be offered a menagerie and assorted treasures by the King of Tunis. I suppose that if a parade of cave bones worked to stop a plague, a preternaturally long reign is also possible.
    Your posts nearly always conjured up an old memory. I remember growing up and having a special fascination for my grandma’s dressing table cum shrine which was devoted entirely to La Santuzza, It was a sacred tableau that shimmered with votive lights 24/7 and every bit a sanctuary as the Sanctuary up there on Mt. Pellegrino. Thanks for the memory.
    And BTW, great shot of the Palazzo with the traffic light and street lamps in the foreground. I think Roger II would approve.

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    1. Whooooooops! Thank you for pointing out that ludicrous gaffe!!!!! I’ve corrected it now, as the gifts were of course for the Viceroy himself.

      In doing so I found out a lot more about him, on an interesting web page about an exhibition of Van Dyck’s Sicilian paintings in London, that I sadly missed last year. You can do the online tour instead, though:

      http://www.artface.co.uk/2012/05/06/van-dyck-in-sicily-painting-and-the-plague-1624-25-by-natalia-voinova-ends-27-may-2012/

      BTW my own bedside table look a bit like a shrine to Santa Rosalia. I prayed to her to make me find a husband and have a child, and she granted my wishes with almost unseemly haste! I think she’s one of the Catholic church’s most prolific wish-granting saints ever!

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  2. Fantastic story! I love that she cut off her hair and refused to marry. And the power to appear in a vision and lead someone to her bones. Wow. I’m so happy she answered your prayers for a husband and child!

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    1. It’s a remarkable and wonderful story, isn’t it? I just thinking of her with everyone trying to force her into a marriage she did not want, and how much courage it must have taken for such a young little girl. I just hope she wasn’t too scared or too unhappy.

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    1. It was so beautiful I spent about half an hour just staring at he walls and ceiling. I’ve spent many an idle moment wondering what kind of furniture could live up to such stunning walls, but really I have no clue as to what it would have been like. Probably something cast from solid gold, though….

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  3. Another beautiful post. Palazzo dei Normanni is spectacular!! It was a fascinating place to visit even in the dreadful Sicilian summer heat. I can hardly wait until we make it back to this beautiful island

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  4. I am so amazed to be reading about Saint Rosalia for the first time – she must be very powerful, because she led me to find out about herself.
    I live in Darwin, Australia, and last Friday, September 4th, i saw that it was Saint Rosalia’s Feast Day in my Saints Calendar. Our Pro-Life group was up at the hospital praying for the babies at the time,and I said, “Saint Rosalia, I don’t know who you are, but you have a beautiful name and I would love you to be the Patron Saint and give your name to all the little babies aborted here this week.”
    I didn’t even know where she came from, or anything about her at all. That night my son, who just happened to be in Sicily on holidays with his girlfriend, sent me some photos of Palermo and a message to say he had spent the day visiting “dead people”.
    Out of curiosity i Googled the Capuchin Catacombs and was mesmerized by the beautiful face of little Rosalia Lombardo, and of course, when i researched her, i also found she had the name of Palermo’s famous SAINT ROSALIA!!! – also a beautiful, pure and innocent young girl. (I am sure Our Lord wants us to see some connection with this little incorrupt 2 year old Rosalia and the beautiful Saint Rosalia of the same city!)
    You are very lucky to be living in such a beautiful part of the world – Mount Pellegrino and saint Rosalia’s shrine look magnificent!
    I would love to do the barefoot walk up to Saint Rosalia’s Shrine one day – who knows – if she wants this, it will happen!!!

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  5. My daughter, a catholic school student is doing a project were they have to pick a patron saint that they have or have not been named after. My daughter “Lordan Rose” named after my mother “Rosa” who passed in 2003, (before my daughter was born in 2005). My mother and father, my older sister, my grandparents and great grandparents and so on and so on all born and raised in Palermo, Sicily. So I started to do research with my daughter and so many memories of my family vacations just started coming back to me. I remember when I was about my daughters age maybe 10 years old, walking up that hill of Monte Pellegrino with my mom dad and about 30 family members. So vivid to me I even remember the smell of air as child, (keep in mind i didn’t know what was at the top of that hill once I entered that cave). There it was… Santa Rosalia in the gorgeous gold apron in a glass case, it was magnificent!! Till this day I still have my mothers posed statue of Saint Rosalia no more that 8 inches long that sat on my mothers night table till her last dying day, now lays on my night table. One day it will lay on my daughters night table. Its not just about the heirloom its the significence of it all. the walk up that hill with my family the passion and the faith we hold as a family. My husband and I have both been talking about taking a trip back to our hometown of Palermo. Its time to take my children to Monte Pellegrino.

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    1. I love your family story. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.
      I have a special connection with Saint Rosalia too. I felt something special the first time I climbed up the mountain and prayed to her to give me a husband and children. She granted my wishes with incredible speed! So she’s definitely the favourite saint in this household! And she sits beside my bed, too.

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  6. Saint Rosalie appeared to me 28 years ago. I have only told a handful of people. She was indescribably, purely beautiful. Her clothes were layers of delicately embroidered and lace fabrics. They were a brilliant white. She had long wavy dark brown hair loosely piled on top of her head with 3 or 4 floppy pink roses tucked in front over her forehead. It was a hopeless and dark time for me. She came to me and just stayed with me. She sat with me and i believe she blessed me with the necessary grace and courage I needed. She said, “My name is Rose. Saint Rosalie. I know what you are trying to do and I’m here to help.” Then she said nothing and just visited with me. At the end, she breathed in and sighed out, “I used to love to dance.” She was smiling and remembering. Then she was gone.
    I am always looking for information about her. I was recently asking her to help because not knowing about her hinders the relationship! I’m so happy i came across your writing tonight. As I’m reading i thought, dang it, i missed her feast day then looked at the phone, September 5, 12:05am. I hope its ok that i make an entry on your site. I’ve never done this before. It’s very personal for me. I was raised a Catholic and went to Catholic schools my whole life (college too). I am not at all familiar with her and i have no idea why she came to me. Your blog has given me some things to think about. Thanks for letting me share! I feel connected to you by your love of St Rose. Pretty cool.
    Sincerely, Mary

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    1. She came to me too, not as a vision but as a guardian angel whose presence I felt guiding and protecting me at a very difficult time when I needed her. I wrote about her in my book about Sicily, and about what she did for me. That whole period of my life felt as if I were being carried along to my destiny, once she took me under her wing. So far I’ve only told my Catholic friends about this because I think they really understand.

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