Looking like a squat woman standing next to her bean-pole of a husband is the Cattedrale alla Madonna Assunta (cah-the-drah-leh ah-lah mah-doh-nah ah-soon-tah), the Duomo of Messina (doo-oh-moh).
First things first: In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Church maintains a hierarchy. Parishes are run by pastors, who answer to bishops, who run dioceses and answer to cardinals, who run the Magisterium and answer to the Pope. Got all that? Good. The cathedral of a diocese (kind of like the Church’s version of a province) is simply the seat of the bishop. So, whatever church the bishop of a diocese holds the title of pastor in is the diocese’s cathedral. Not every big church is a cathedral, and not every cathedral is big. Case and point: La Basilica di San Pietro, while being one of the grandest churches in Rome, is not a cathedral.
The Duomo in Messina, on the other hand, actually holds the title of cathedral.
Second things second: Back in the day, it was very expensive to build domes on top of buildings. So much so, in fact, that there was usually only one church in the city that brought in enough money to pay for one. Namely, the church that gets a cut of all the other church’s offertory collections in addition to its own, or the cathedral. Some money from each parish goes to the diocese, much in the same way as tax money from each city goes to the state. Because of this, usually the only church in town with a domed roof was the cathedral. In Italian, the words duomo (dome) and cattedrale (cathedral) came to be used as synonyms. The cathedrals all have different names, but no matter what city you’re in, the people will call it ‘il Duomo.’ Guidebooks have adopted this tradition, and if you’re looking at the entry for any given city with a cathedral, it will be labeled as ‘il Duomo’ in your book.
The Duomo of Messina has the same unfortunate history as the campanile, as they are literally right next to each other. Honestly, reading up on these two buildings is sort of like reading A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, only instead of three siblings there are only two and instead of Count Olaf there are earthquakes and World Wars.
Originally built by the Normans, who occupied Sicily, during the 12th century, the cathedral was reconstructed and restored several times. Most notably, the same earthquake that damaged the campanile and killed 60,000 people in 1908 did a number on the Duomo. Almost as soon as the restoration work was done, the Allied Forces invaded Italy through Sicily, and a bomb dropped on the city started a fire that completely wrecked part of the church. The church that stands today is a reconstruction of the original church building.
I would argue, just as I argued was the case with the campanile, that the fact that there is a church building standing today demands respect and is enough reason to find it interesting. The people of Messina spent a lot of time, effort, and money reconstructing and restoring this church, and they did their best to maintain the original appearance of the church. From the outside, you would never guess that it was a ‘new’ building. The ceilings, the mosaics, the flooring, and the marbling inside are all so stunning that a casual visitor would never guess the trauma that visited that place.
The first thing to do when you enter the cathedral is look up. The wooden ceiling is beautifully painted in bright colors and gold leafing, and pictures of saints are wound around with gorgeous designs. After staring at the ceiling for a bit, let your eye wander to the front of the church, where a mosaic Jesus gives a benediction whilst surrounded by two of the archangels, his mother, and St. John the Baptist. Once you let your mind absorb how much work went into the ceiling alone – and several times over, at that – meander through the columns and see whose faces you come across.
A must-see in the cathedral, I would suggest, is the tesoro, or the treasury. This is a neat little museum tucked away on the right-hand side of the church, and it houses what valuables remain from older editions of the church. Everything from reliquaries to monstrances to the vestments the priests wore is on display there. It’s easy to overlook this little museum, but please don’t. The artifacts are just gorgeous and it’s well worth the €3.50 entrance ticket. Bonus: If you buy a combined ticket for the campanile and the tesoro, you save one whole euro and a half! The price for a campanile/tesoro combined ticket is €5.
Please note: The Duomo is a functioning church. At several points during the day, the cathedral will close for prayer services and masses. Furthermore, if you’re visiting in the evening hours, please be advised that vespers begins promptly at six o’clock.