he church of San Cataldo is in piazza Bellini, beside Martorana, but is very different from the latter because of its unique style. It is on a higher level than the rest of the buildings of the area because the authorities decided to lower the old Santa Caterina (now piazza Bellini) plain.
It is a mystery when the church was built (for sure around the half of 12th century) and who wanted it to be erected. Nevertheless, it seems that it was an important admiral and great chancellor of the Norman king William I, somebody called Maio (or Majo) of Bari who ordered the construction of San Cataldo. Another admiral, George of Antioch, had already made build a church right there, that is Martorana. So it seems that Norman admirals loved to erect wonderful churches. Then, Maio became owner of the church of Silvestro di Marsico, where in 1161 he buried his daughter Matilde, as remembered on a tombstone inside the building. In 1182 William II gave the church to Benedictine community of Monreale, and they kept it until 1787. Nowadays, San Cataldo is the seat of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
San Cataldo could be the only building erected in Palermo under the reign of William I. The church did not undergo many adjustments over the centuries, but in 19th century it was restored by Patricolo (who also restored Martorana to give it back its medieval magnificence). The latter actually eliminated every modification and recreated the original Norman appearance.
The church has clear features of the Romanesque style of Apulia. In fact, San Cataldo resembles the Apulian Molfetta Cathedral. Probably because the builder, admiral Maio, came from Bari therefore he was likely to call workers from his own home region.
San Cataldo was built in the shape of a parallelepiped upright smaller part (tholobate) supporting three typical red domes, real symbol of Norman Arab Palermo. On the back of the building from the outside you can see the apse protruding from the parallelepiped The other two apses are inside the wall of the church. When you look at the top of the building you can see beautiful battlements and frames decorated with little palms similar to classical Muslim patterns.
The inside of the church is quite different from any other of the Norman Arab itinerary. There are neither Byzantine mosaics like in Martorana or in Monreale Cathedral, nor later modifications like in Palermo Cathedral. San Cataldo seems quite plain inside, but delightful. This church can really convey the idea of the medieval European (not Byzantine) religiosity: considering divinity in a plain and severe way. The inner atmosphere seems to exclude the rest of the world, almost as an impregnable fortress. Such impression is given by the Romanesque features: in fact, Romanesque architecture was the main representation of a Christianity excluding the world and controlled by fear, rather than the faith in divine salvation. Luckily, in San Cataldo architects and artists have been able to mix this element with others very different from Romanesque that eased this severity. In fact, the ogival arches inside the building create soaring lines (typical of Gothic that was spreading at the time) with a buoyant use of space. Also the great number of windows, that let get in a lot of light, make the church look more open and dynamic. The windows of the main building are framed by blind arches slightly protruding.
San Cataldo has three aisles with six columns. Three vaults covered by small domes create the central aisle. The little columns supporting the apses are very slender so that the space seems wider. The capitals between columns and apses are older than the church itself: in fact, they had been taken from buildings erected before San Cataldo. The most beautiful capitals are those decorated with classical foliage patterns.
The cosmatesque floor successfully completes the sight: it is the original medieval one, remarkable for its mosaics depicting sophisticated geometric patterns. Also the altar, made of a marble panel, dates back to the construction of the church and is decorated with engravings that represent the Angus Dei surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists.