Today is the feast of Saint Rosalia of Palermo, a recluse of the twelfth century who according to liturgical sources died in 1160 at the age of 35. (1) Most of what is known of her life has been assembled from several sources and put together at a later date, so it can sometimes be difficult to entangle her historical life from her legend, especially because she shares a range of hagiographical topoi with other saints. Rosalia was of a noble family, but spurned the wealth of her parents and left to live in a cave. She later moved closer to her native Palermo and spent the rest of her life in a hermitage on Monte Pellegrino. After her death, it is believed that a local cult took hold of Palermo relatively quickly, but no reliable and detailed sources remain from this first period, although church dedications from 1237 suggests that her cult enjoyed some stability. (2) The basic elements of her legend are typical of other female recluses of roughly the same period, such as Christina Markyate in England or Verdiana of Castelfiorentino in Tuscany. This might be seen as an argument against the historicity of her legend, but it should also be considered as evidence of a spiritual trend to which young Rosalia adhered. In any case, it is difficult to say for certain, since the first account of her life was written by Valerius Rossi (c.1590). (3)
Rosalia crowned by angels
Anton van Dyck (1599-1641), currently in Palermo
Image credits: José Luiz Ribeiro (wikimedia)
Few details are known of her cult in the later Middle Ages, but in the sixteenth century she attracted greater interest among certain Franciscans. The viceroy Giovanni Medina facilitated the establishment of a convent by the grotto which had been her hermitage. The convent was run by The Reformed Franciscan Order of Santa Rosalia at Monte Pellegrino. (4)
The veneration of Santa Rosalia received a great boost following events which began in 1624. It was in this year that an old woman called Girolama Gatto reportedly had a vision in which a woman dressed in white told her to go to Monte Pellegrino in order to get rid of her quartan fever. Girolama did so together with two friends and there she had another vision of the girl who told her that her name was Rosalia and that her relics were buried there.
The Franciscans at the nearby convent were told about this vision and began to excavate the area. On July 15, 1624, almost two months after Girolama had received her vision, the brethren found some bones four meters in the ground. This day remains the feast of her relics. The bones were brought to the city on the orders of archbishop Giannettino Doria and doctors and theolgians were set to examine the bones to decide whether they were genuine. The result of the commission was positive, but the archbishop was not convinced and ordered another examination. Shortly after, a plague struck Palermo and this was seen as punishment for undue scepticism on the part of the archbishop. The plague was lifted after the bones of Rosalia had been paraded around Palermo three times. (5)
Santa Rosalia intercedes for the plague-stricken Palermo
Antoon van Dyck, 1629, now at Museum of Art of Ponce
Image from wikimedia
Santa Rosalia was appointed patron saint of Palermo, and in 1626 a church was built at her old hermitage on Monte Pellegrino which remains a destination for pilgrims even today. (6) During this first period of Rosalia's patronage of Palermo, the Dutch painter Antoon van Dyck was in Palermo and painted several paintings depicting the holy recluse, some of which are used here. Rosalia has enjoyed a stable and long-lasting cult in Palermo, and every year on her feast day there are grand processions where statues of the saint are paraded around the city. Recently, she has become a symbol of the opposition to the Sicilian mafia, which has granted Rosalia increased relevance and popularity.
Songs are also sung, performed and even composed in her honour, as can be seen in the videos below. When I was in Palermo last year as part of a work trip, I serendipitously heard a band playing a song to "sacra Rosalia" in one of the cafès in the city. I am still trying to find a recording of that song.
Simulacrum of Rosalia (note her garland)
Statue from the procession in Palermo on her feast day, 2007
Image from Wikimedia
6) Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004: 461-62
For blogposts on similar saints, see these:
Fina di San Gimignano
Verdiana da Castelfiorentino
Margherita da Cortona
Agnese da Montepulciano