Visit Messina cathedral
The cathedral (duomo) of Messina, together with the belltower just a few metres away, are the most important sights in Messin, a large town in north-east Sicily.
Explore the Cathedral and Belltower of Messina
Italy This Way comment: the cathedral and belltower in Messina are both interesting to see, and in a large square which also has a fountain and cafes, so even if you only have very limited time in the town you can - and should - see these main highlights.
The Cathedral is dedicated to the Madonna of the Letter (the Patron Saint of Messina). The Madonna of the Letter refers to a story that Saint Paul visited Messina in 42 AD to spread the word of Christianity.
The people of the town were impressed and sent their ambassadors to Jerusalem to pay tribute to the Virgin Mary. In return, the Madonna gave them a letter promising eternal protection for the town: hence 'Madonna of the Letter'.
There has been a cathedral in this location since Byzantine times, and although it has been repaired and rebuilt several times over the centuries - typically following one of the many earthquakes that hit this region - the current cathedral is intended to be similar to the version built here in the Norman style in 1197.
The original cathedral was destroyed by a fire in 1254, and the first replacement took more than 200 years to complete. This version of Messina cathedral was much more decorative that the original, with a marble facade, mosaics and painted ceilings among the embellishments.
During the baroque period the cathedral was further decorated wth cherubs, cornices, garlands and several new altars and the original Norman appearance was now lost. After 1783 and a major earthquake, the belltower was replaced by two new towers next to the apse of the cathedral, in the neo-gothic style.
All these 'improvements' became a simple historic note after the earthquake of 1908, whih destroyed the cathedral, and it was rebuilt as closely as possible to the original Norman design, where possible using the original materials. Just 13 years after it reopened, the cathedral was struck by bombs during the Second World War and almost all the interior and contents were destroyed.
Rebuilt again, Messina cathedral is now an impressive edifice, even if all the statues and mosaics are in fact quite recent copies of the originals.
Among the highlights in the cathedral are the large paintings in the domes of Jesus and other Biblical characters, the statues in a line along both sides of the nave, the mosaic flooring, and the beautiful painting of the wooden ceiling. In the treasury of the cathedral you can see hundreds of items in gold and silver, from the entire period of the history of the cathedral.
The original belltower was built here in 1564. This tower was damaged by the earthquake that struck Messina in 1783, and finally collapsed in 1858, not having been repaired after the earthquake. There was a projet to build two new towers soon after, but these also collapsed with the earthquake in 1908.
The belltower we now see in Messina was byuilt from 1930-1933, based on the original tower and designed using paintings from the 16th century onwards as a reference.
The current single tower is square, and 60 metres high. At the top of the tower is a large astronomical clock: in fact, the largest astronomical clock in the world.
To see the clock in action you should be in the Piazza del Duomo at midday. In an impressive performance lasting around 12 minutes, various bronze statues emerge from the arches, turning on carousels and moving on the balustrades of the tower.
It is also possible to climb the stairs inside the tower and see the bronze statues. These represent various themes such as biblial stories, the Madonna of the Letter, a planetarium, and a Lion for strength. Also in the tower you can see the many levers and gears that operated the many movements.
When you reach the top of the tower you emerge on a balcony with views of the town and across the Messina Straits to Italy.
There are several other places of interest to see in Messina, including an impressive fountain in front of the cathedral. See the Messina guide for information.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.