Following a Byzantine dream?!! It sounds strange, I know, but I have a “valid excuse”… Last year my friends from Calabria sent me some photos of this Byzantine jewel. Deeply fascinated by their description, since then I’ve had the specific dream – to visit the Cattolica di Stilo and, of course, to share my sensations with you, my dear readers and followers!
The origins of the name
The Cattolica di Stilo is a byzantine church situated in Stilo, in the province of Reggio Calabria.
Stilo, in Greek – Stylos, means “column”. So, the name “Stilo” was assigned to the town either for the “column-like” form of Consolino mountain or for the vicinity to the ancient Greek city – Caulonia. In some nautical documents of the 16th century, we can also find the denomination “Stilida”.
The term “Cattolica” most probably derives from the Greek one “Katholikon” which means a monastic settlement. Actually, at that time the area was densely populated by hermits and considered one of the most important religious and cultural reference points.
Some historical facts…
For sure, you will wonder – what does a small Calabrian church has to do with the Byzantine Empire?!!! It’s easier than you think! The Byzantines were the heirs to the Eastern Roman Empire. When Rome fell under the barbarian invasions, Constantinople (ancient Byzantium and now Istanbul) remained the only capital of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines decided to take back the lost Italian territories and organized an expedition that led to the famous Greek-Gothic war. This is the reason why you can admire a lot of Byzantine churches in Italy!
Now, after this small “deviation”, let’s return to our church… There exist different opinions regarding the foundation date. Some archeologists dated it to the 9th-10th centuries, others as Paolo Orsi – to the 11th-12th centuries or even to the 13th. However, for the first time, the Cattolica di Stilo was mentioned in the Vatican Register only in 1324! Of course, like other churches, in the past, it was used both as a religious cult and as a burial place.
The architecture of the “Cattolica di Stilo”
The architecture is typical of the middle Byzantine age and has a cube form surmounted by five domes: four small ones placed at the corners of the facades and the central larger one in an elevated position. As you can see, the central, dominant drum is illuminated by four mullioned openings while the angular ones have two single-lancet ones.
The perimeter walls are in bricks and about 70 cm thick. Due to the morphology of the place, the entrance to the church is located only on the southern facade.
The mystery of the columns
Inside the church, you can admire four columns that are different from each other both in forms and in materials. For example, one of them is made of granite, the other three – of marble. Moreover, you’ll be certainly surprised to see also the upturned column! The two columns immediately at the entrance, contain the inscriptions: the right one – in Greek, the left one – in Arabic. It’s supposed that these four columns derive from ancient Roman villas.
Holy Water font
By the way, have you noticed a non-Byzantine “foreign” object inside the byzantine church?! Yes or no, I’m looking forward to helping you! Of course, I mean Holy Water font dated 16th century when the church already passed to the Latin-rite.
The fresco “Christ Pantocrator”
While entering, look immediately up! On the ceiling, just to the right side, you can admire the fresco “Christ Pantocrator”. Four angels hold an almond with Christ. The adult features of Christ’s face testify to his incarnation and redeeming sacrifice. On the walls around the fresco, there are apostles. No doubt, you can easily identify the first face to the right – Paul. The face behind him is most probably John.
The fresco “Sleeping Virgin”
Now, let’s give a look at the fresco with Sleeping Virgin on the left wall! The colors of Virgin’s clothing have their specific meaning: red – a symbol of human nature and blue – a symbol of divinity. The yellow French lilies on the blue mantle convey serenity and joy in accepting death. Sleeping Virgin is surrounded by the sorrowful apostles and saints. At the base of the fresco, you can see an angel with a sword who cuts the Demone’s hands to prevent him from touching Virgin. At the topper part of the fresco, there is almond with Christ holding Virgin… What does it mean? Of course, the assumption of Mary’s soul!
On the left side of the fresco – the scene of the annunciation: Archangel Gabriel gives good news to Mary and blesses her. On the right one – Longinus glorifies God.
The lunette “Presentation of Jesus to the Temple”
Joseph and Mary present their firstborn to the Temple. The old Simeon and the prophetess Anna welcome them. After having taken the Baby in the arm, the old Simeon expresses the joy of having seen Jesus.
As might be expected, not all the frescoes were interpreted with success. Some saints remained unknown, others are the hypotheses of scientists. Beneath you can see some images. I wish you a good vision!
My article is over. I hope that I managed to convey to you the desire to discover this Byzantine treasure! Since 2006 the Cattolica di Stilo is on the list of candidates to become part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. In 2015 it was chosen to represent the Calabria region at Expo 2015. Trust me, it’s really worth a visit! While there, seize the opportunity to visit also the Cattolica’s “twin” – Saint Mark at Rossano!