Santa maria del Gesù

The monumental complex of Santa Maria del Gesù located in the upper part of the city of Modica is a rare example survivors in part to the catastrophic earthquake of 1693 that levelled the Val di Noto, It remains one of the highest and most valuable evidence of the constructive and figurative late Gothic civilization spread in Sicily between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.
Construction of the building is linked to a historical moment of extraordinary economic, cultural and civil prosperity. It was 1478 when the Minori Osservanti Franciscan Friars settled down in the territory, founding the church and convent. Within a few decades, the complex took shape thanks to substantial funding by the Counts Federico Enriquez and Anna Cabrera. They through a perpetual disposition which sanctioned their union, also led to a flourishing future of the complex of Santa Maria del Gesù. From its construction until the end of the seventeenth century, the convent was home to significant studies of philosophy, theology and Holy Scripture, becoming an important cultural site on the South-Eastern Sicily. Here eminent representatives of Franciscan spirituality and of the Mediterranean culture lived and worked, among them the historian Placido Carrafa, first to trace the history of Modica from its origins until 1651. The side chapels are of great value, erected immediately after the construction of the church, as a privileged place for funeral burials, chosen site of the most important families in the city, who came to include the overall presence of fifteen altars. In the seventeenth century, the architectural complex suffered severe damage, caused by the earthquakes of 1613 and 1693, due to which followed decisive interventions, which characterized the spatial articulation and interior decoration of the nave and even the side chapels. In 1866, as a result of the unification of Italy and the confiscation of church property, the convent was converted into a prison. This intended use involved significant changes to the conventual building and devastating effects for the church that was abandoned to the passage of time. After ups and downs, in 1990 the Department of Culture and Sicilian Identity has promoted a major restoration by the architects Emanuele Fidone and Bruno Messina. The complex of Santa Maria del Gesù today is the result of interventions and transformations under- taken within the church over the centuries. Even the square in front of the church presented itself very differently: a monumental driveway, full of statues, connected the old town to the convent.
The complex of Santa Maria del Gesù today is the result of interventions and transformations undertaken within the church over the centuries. Even the square in front of the church presented itself very differently: a monumental driveway, full of statues, connected the old town to the convent.


The complex restoration path has revealed useful elements to reconstruct the original internal modulation of the ecclesiastical building. The architect Emanuele Fidone and the art historian Marco Rosario Nobile (influential voice of the project), have speculated, through the structure of the outer walls and the discovery of three major keystones, an articulation of the nave to three large square spans with cross vaults, communicating on the right side with the lateral chapels. In one of the keystones there is the representation of St. Bernardino of Siena, who seems to bear the date 1525. Today little remains of the interior decoration. A significant discovery, made during the restoration, is that concerning the admirable fresco of the Madonna surrounded by saints in prayer, attributable to the early stages of construction and placed in the chapel to the left of the nave for those who enter. The restoration after the earthquake of 1613 date back to the first decades of the seventeenth century, made at the behest of Count Giovanni Alfonso Enriquez. It is learned in fact that in 1625 the Enriquez family visited the complex and the count, faithful to the will of their ancestors, bestowed a large sum for the recon- struction. The actions were immediate and, as mentioned by Carrafa, the date 1625 is engraved in some archivolts. The earthquake of 1693 was certainly the most catastrophic, but the lack of historical and archival information did not allow reconstructing the details of the damage that the building underwent. In eighteenth-century rebuilding the nave was radically transformed according to the tastes of the Baroque style, that prevailed in the island: the longitudinal openings that gave access to the ancient chapels were stopped up to give space to new altars and access to the chapels was made viable through a corridor, that still today passes through them transversely. The new configuration of the nave involved for first the scanning of the longitudinal walls with altars and paired Corinthian pilasters, second the transformation of the straight chorus that became semi-circular, then the construction of a endonarthex to support the choir and a new roof with a light barrel vault with lunettes. A restoration project for the recovery of the complex, long abandoned, was only launched in 1990, with the creation of new coverings for the side chapels and the basilica room of the church. In 2005, was carried out the restoration of the church and the recovery of the cloister.


The only two elements of the old late Gothic structure, preserved in time, are the façade and the cloister. Of singular beauty and workmanship, the facade, refers the beginning of the sixteenth century, is characterized by ogival splayed portal and a magnificent decoration of plant and animal elements, noble shields and iconographies that refer to the Order of Minor Friars. Two elegant single-light windows of Moorish style, different from each other, stand out symmetrically on either side of the count’s coat of arms, now no longer legible. On the stringcourse, there is a rose window, now reduced to oculus, and ultimately, the contemporary to the facade, resists the solid bell tower on the left side of the prospectus.


The same ornamental elegance is found in the cloister with a double set of arches dating back to the first decades of the sixteenth century that refers to the Arab-Norman style. The first set is marked by monolithic columns of limestone all different, drums and capitals are finely decorated and given back its original beauty despite the profound alteration due to the prison needs. The cover shows a modulation of square spans with a cross vault. Octagonal pillars and a wooden roof characterize the second set.