During the time of Crusades, the Norman Count Roger de Hauteville freed Agrigento from Saracen rule in 1087. Two centuries of Arab domination had caused misery and social decline and Roger’s priorities were to reinforce the city and to bring peace and harmony to its citizens of different races. As a fervent Christian he also wished to re-establish Christianity in Agrigento; after two centuries of Islamic rule the Diocese had to be reinforced and the population converted back to Christianity. For this difficult mission Roger appointed Gerlando de Besancon, a man of exceptional human and spiritual capabilities, as the new Bishop of Agrigento. Gerlando immediately commissioned the construction of a new cathedral, located on the highest point of the city and allegedly built near the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Zeus. The cathedral was completed in just 6 years (1093-1099).
He was much beloved amongst both rich and poor inhabitants of Agrigento, and many influential citizens of other religions were soon converted. In the same period the Normans changed the Arabian name of “Kerkent” to “Girgenti”, a name which the city maintained until 1929 when it was changed once more to “Agrigento”. Shortly after his canonization, Gerlando was named Patron Saint of Girgenti. Even today his name is invoked by the population of Agrigento seeking his protection in case of natural calamities, praying “San Giullannu, senza dannu” (Saint Gerlando, protect us from damage). The only Saint which can compete with him for popularity and devotion is Saint Calogero.
In the MUDIA diocesan museum there is a special hall dedicated to Saint Gerlando where you can admire a wooden statue and a portable altar which was used by the crusaders to celebrate Holy Mass on the battlefield prior to the battle. Exactly what the connection between the altar and Saint Gerlando was is one of the unsolved mysteries of the cathedral.
A small and suggestive museum space has recently been set up in the north aisle of the Cathedral: the “Sala dei Sarcopagi” an authentic archaeological treasure composed of two beautifully preserved sarcophagi from the Greek and two from the Roman age. Among them, a true sculptural Roman jewel stands out, the famous Sarcophagus of Phaedra: a masterpiece that tells the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra with bas-reliefs of sublime beauty. With perfect lines and balanced proportions the bas-reliefs on all four sides depict the myth of Hippolytus and Phaedra in meaningful illustrations evoking a sense of wonder and compassion for the tragic story of the two protagonists, annihilated by impossible love. “I think I have never seen anything more superb in terms of bas-reliefs “(…)” The work is perfectly preserved, for me I consider it a model of the most graceful period of art”. So wrote Goethe in the 19th century during his “Journey to Italy” in front of the sublime beauty of the Sarcophagus of Ippolito and Phaedra dating back to the second century A.D. Today, after 40 years, this archaeological treasure celebrated by travelers on the Grand Tour, it back to the Cathedral: this admirable sarcophagus in fact constituted its ancient and precious baptismal font.
The transept with single lancet windows and the bell tower are the only surviving parts of the Norman basilica. In the course of the centuries the cathedral was enlarged, modified and redecorated several times and today it is a fusion of different styles. Nowadays it is a Latin-cross basilica with a main nave and two lateral aisles, pointed arches on octagonal pillars and a magnificently decorated coffered wooden ceiling. In a niche in the southern nave there is a glass coffin containing the embalmed body of San Felice Martire (although some say that it is the body of an unknown knight). The facade is in renaissance style, as is the tower with its 14th century blind windows and a balcony with the best view in town.
Inside the tower some mementoes of Sister Maria Crocifissa are treasured. Before being ordained she was called Isabella Tomasi di Lampedusa, ancestor of the writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, famous author of the novel “The Leopard” (“Il Gattopardo”). Amongst the various objects there is a mysterious handwritten letter called the “devil’s letter” addressed to the nun and written in characters which resemble Sanskrit; to date it has never been deciphered. The choir and the central nave of the cathedral are richly decorated in baroque style and are adorned with stuccoes and frescoes. The Cathedral’s Treasures are exhibited in the halls of the MUDIA – Diocesan Museum, located in the Bishop’s Palace, not far from the cathedral.
Visitors may enter the Cathedral through the main entrance located in Piazza Don Minzoni.
The Bell Tower is accessible through the Cathedral entrance only: the guided visit of the Tower is included in the “Art & Faith” itinerary proposed by the volunteers of the cultural association “Ecclesia Viva”.
We are waiting for you for a visit in total safety in compliance with the anti-Covid regulations in force.
From 3 to 31 August: Open every day from 10:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. – from 5:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m
Combo ticket: MUDIA Diocesan Museum + Cathedral and Bell Tower + Church of S.ta Maria dei Greci = € 4 per person.
Cathedral of San Gerlando: for further information or to book visits at different times
Cattedrale di San Gerlando, Via Duomo – 92100 Agrigento
The following coordinates indicate the point of interest
N 37° 18' 49.94''
E 13° 34' 33.89''