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A splendid Flemish painting, a 'must-see' when travelling Sicily

Posted by Suzanne on 16 Sep 2016



A 'precious' triptych

Glimpsed through an ornate set of iron gates, in the light filled San Gandolfo chapel in Polizzi Generosas Chiesa Madre, there is a ‘precious’ triptych with beautiful Flemish detail.



Must be seen

Attributed to the 15th century Flemish master Rogier van der Weyden, this work, depicting a peaceful Madonna and the bare footed sacred child, flanked by angels and Saints Barbara and Catherine, is not to be missed when travelling Sicily.



The legend of this 'outstanding' work

My fellow traveller and I had organised to see this lovely painting one Saturday this summer when staying in Polizzi (we had phoned the number displayed on the side doors of the Chiesa Madre).

We were met by local volunteer Signore Nino Di Stefano, who passionately shared some of the painting’s legend. He spoke of a shipwreck off Sicily's coast, the ship was carrying this treasured triptych. And, he pointed out some mysterious symbols in the painting's left hand corner.

Recently restored by a Palermo trained artist (it took her 4 months to complete), who was recommended by the Belle Arti in Palermo, it is now displayed with the eye of a curator.



A tempest, shipwreck and a monk 

The legend goes that it arrived on Sicilian soil, due to tempest and shipwreck, sometime in the late 1400’s and finally came to Polizzi’s Chiesa Madre in or around the beginning of the 17th century.

The writer Raleigh Treveylan notes in his wonderful book 'The Companion Guide to Sicily' that the ship carrying the triptych 'foundered off Cefalu' with the ship's owner offering the painting to 'the poorest local church in town' when a 'destitute looking monk from Polizzi' came along and 'was counted the winner'.

It is yet to be determined who painted this treasure which is the subject of the beautiful book, ‘La Gran Signora nel Trittico Fiammingo di Polizzi Generosa’ (Palombi Editori 2001, in Italian) by Polizzi photographer Luciano Schimmenti and scholar of theology and philosophy Crispino Valenziano.


The beauty of the details

I enjoyed the serenity of the Madonna, the saints and the angels resplendent in Renaissance fabrics: the finest, translucent cloth draped over the high Renaissance hairlines of crowned holy women; gowns embroidered with exquisite floral patterns, silver like threads and precious stones; necklines beaded; tailored bodices bordered with jewels; and fitted sleeves of velvet, finished with wide, tapered cuffs.


The botanical world

The flora, finely depicted: palms; strawberries; the pomegranate; arum lilies; dandelions; ranunculus; violas; margheritas, and other mysterious plants are stunning.

And, the fauna and landscape, the turreted buildings and figures, partly hidden, all add to the charm of the Madonna and child painted in Flemish detail.


A list of botanical names 

In the Schimmenti & Valenziano book there is a large double page photo of the triptych with all the botancial names of the plants numbered and referenced. It is a great reference.

Before I left that day, a small group of tourists from Palermo arrived. I lingered a little to get one last look at this beautiful triptych housed in Polizzi’s main church, high in the Madonie Mountains.








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