The archaeological area of Santa Maria la Vetere in Militello Val di Catania will surprise you with its beauty. It includes the Church of Santa Maria La Vetere, with the cemetery area of crypts that extended under the central and northern aisles collapsed with the earthquak.
It is accessible thanks to the recent arrangement of the visit routes and is immersed in a luxuriant valley of vegetation dominated by the medieval donjon (tower) on the northern end of the plateau and the Cave of the Holy Spirit.
You can still admire all the bulwarks around the area, the staircases carved in the rock, the remains of channels and wells for water supply: these are the traces of the ancient population of Militello that resided here, since before the Normans.
In front of the church, the plateau was used for the Franca Fair which took place in September, on the occasion of the festivities in honour of the Madonna della Stella, since 1446. Perhaps some traces of holes that can be seen in the rock are attributed to these activities for structures wooden furniture.
Right in front of the entrance to the church there is a perfectly circular pool, shallow and with a Latin cross of the pomade type at the ends: perhaps it had a baptismal or purifying function, in connection with the ancient Norman church of Santa Maria and with the rock crypt.
The Church of Santa Maria la Vetere
The Church of Santa Maria la Vetere was called "la Vetere" (old) to distinguish it from the one built in 1722. in fact, the Church dedicated to Santa Maria della Stella was built by the Normans at the end of the 11th century. It was the first sacramental and parish church of the feudal lords of Militello, who exercised the right of royal patronage, by virtue of the Apostolic Law (which allowed the king of Sicily to appoint bishops and parish priests).
Recent investigations and archaeological findings (architectural fragments including cornices and capitals) have confirmed what has been handed down from the sources: Roger II in 1115 indicated the name of the parish priest to be replaced by the deceased presbyter; William II in 1180 granted 15 ounces of gold for the restoration of the church, perhaps damaged by the earthquake of 1169.
Therefore, the Church of Santa Maria was fully active in the twelfth century and was rebuilt several times. Messrs. Barresi, Blasco II (1432-1455), Antonio Pietro his son (1455-1500) and Giambattista (1500-1524) son of Antonio, had the merit of pulling Militello out of his provincial marginality first, as the commissions document to great artists likes of Andrea della Robbia, Francesco Laurana and Antonello Gagini.
The last two are attributed two exceptional works: the altarpiece of the "Nativity", today in the new church of Santa Maria, and the portal with prothyrum, completed in 1506, which miraculously survived the earthquake of 1693.
Two naves collapsed entirely, the only south aisle and some chapels were reassembled. Today the church is a treasure chest of beauty, which rises in its valley with its splendid portal decorated with painted high-relief sculptures and a porch decorated by a pair of lions to support the columns. The northern outer wall (wall of the inner nave in the seventeenth-century church) appears decorated with caryatids with naked breasts that frame the large windows.
At the end of the internal nave, a sixteenth-century statue depicting Saint Mary with the Child stands out. Externally, as well as the archaeological excavations revealed inside, a large cemetery was extended, with pits dug into the friable rock, used as ossuaries until recently. When the Normans built the first church, dedicating it to the Madonna, a rock settlement already existed here, served by canalization systems, wells and stairs to overcome the differences in height.
The rediscovered Madonna
The "finding" of the beautiful sixteenth-century stone statue, depicting Santa Maria con il Bambino, is a separate story. It was restored to its beauty by a recent restoration. This sculpture, in fact, lay in the warehouses and its appearance was profoundly different from that which one admires today.
Repainted entirely in bright colors who knows from whom, defined as "a pastiche of dubious taste", nobody could have imagined that under those acrylic paints hiding the original colors! A wise and painstaking work could restore its true beauty to this image of the Madonna, which according to Pietro Carrera came precisely from this church, placed first in the Chapel of the Nativity, then in that of Filippo Barresi (built in 1509).
The Cave of the Holy Spirit and the myth of the Templars
On the southern side of the Church of Santa Maria la Vetere opens the Cave (or Crypt) of the Holy Spirit, dug into the limestone.
This space, once it lost its cult function, was reused for the periodic emptying of the church ossuaries. The Grotto is still partly filled with earth mixed with bones, and it is a rocky oratory with an altar with niches and ogival seats on the walls.
The Grotto was once decorated with frescoes (the traces of which can still be seen in the 1700s) and it is "mysterious" for some of its symbols and there have been various interpretations (early Christian catacomb, Byzantine church). Some Greek crosses with the same arms, a cross with crosses and three perfect hemispheres are clearly visible, carved on the walls.
It could be hypothesized that in the Norman period two churches were built one next to the other: one of the Latin rite, dedicated to the Madonna, a rupestrian, of Greek-Byzantine rite, dedicated to St. Nicholas (whose symbol is precisely the three spheres), cults both brought by knights from across the Alps.
The Cave of the Holy Spirit could be a rupestrian oratory built around the 12th century, in which the rite was performed by a community of "peers" (as indicated by the typology of the sessions, with the exception of the one surmounted by the three spheres, which could be the scermi del Magister). Was it, perhaps, the Templars?
This suggestion should be confirmed. The transfer of the activity of this church, which later became a cemetery area pertaining to Santa Maria, could be attributed to the suppression of the Order by Pope Clement V in 1312, which involved the reassignment of their property also to other religious orders.
However, the cult of St. Nicholas was already well established and could have immediately moved near the Castle in the Purgatory area where there was a small church (San Nicolò il Vecchio) which had been completely destroyed in 1693 (leaving a memory of itself only in the local toponymy).
The Norman Dungeon
The Norman Dungeon is massive tower stands on the north-eastern side of the church. Recent studies have recognized the tower as a Norman donjon, a typical square sighting fort with both a defensive and a residential function.
These dungeons usually had two or three floors covered with vaults and divided by wooden floors. The ground floor often inaccessible and access to the first floor via a retractable ladder or a drawbridge. The internal accesses were made by wooden stairs or helical stairs made in the wall thickness.
The location of the building, next to the church, reveals the origin of the religious settlement, linked to the foundation of the fortified settlement (castrum). On the ground floor, the tower incorporates a chamber carved into the rock, perhaps a chamber tomb from an older age.