The church of Santa Maria della Catena is a masterpiece of Palermo’s Catalan-Gothic architecture. Built on the pre-existing church of Santa Maria del Porto between the late 15th and early 16th century, it was probably designed by architect Matteo Carnilivari, and stands as a physical memento of how God’s merciful forgiveness surpasses human justice. The church was built, indeed, to thank God for forgiving the people men found guilty.
Here is a miraculous episode from the chronicles of the time: “In 1390, under Martin I of Sicily, three men were sentenced to death; they were being led from the ministry of justice to the gallows, which were usually erected in the large square of Palermo’s marina. Except – perhaps for their innocence, which the inaccurate trials at the time often confused with the appearance of guilt; or perhaps for some merit of theirs, which the Heavens knew better than mortals; or perhaps, finally, for an inscrutable, particular plan of the Providence – the hand of the Almighty favorably touched the three convicts. By intercession of the Holy Virgin, they found themselves free of their chains just moments from the punishment that was being prepared” (A. Riccardi, “Storia dei santuari più celebri di Maria Santissima”, 1840).
As one commentator explained, “The prodigious grace by which the small church of Santa Maria del Porto was transformed into the beautiful sanctuary of Santa Maria della Catena in Palermo leads us to reflect on the benefits and virtues of the Christian faith, which can bring comfort even to the delinquents who, refused by society, die in dishonor at the hands of their executioners. Faith can give even the innocent, who have been sentenced to dishonor and death, the strength to resign themselves and forgive” (“Scritti varii del canonico cavaliere Aristide Sala”, 1871).
There never was a better refuge for sinners.