Bordering the medieval walls south-west of the city of Palermo in Sicily, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, dedicated to St John of the Hermits, is considered one of the most fascinating ecclesiastical buildings, and one of the finest examples of Arab-Norman architecture in the city, notable for the exotic charm of its five brilliant red domes. Located near the Palace of the Normans, in the stretch that once lapped by the waters of the River Kemonia, one of two rivers that once crossed the city, the other being Parpireto.
According to Sicilia Sacra by the historian Rocco Pirri, the site of San Giovanni degli Eremiti was once occupied by a Benedictine monastery founded by Pope Gregory the Great in 581. However, during the 9th-century, Muslims from North Africa wrested the island from the control of the emperor in Constantinople when they destroyed the monastery and built a mosque on the site.
The 250-year Muslim rule of the Mediterranean island of Sicily ended in 1071 by an army of the Normans when Roger I, known as the Great Count, ended the rule of the Emirs in Sicily. However, he did not do any harm to the Muslim inhabitants of the island, who were tolerated during the Norman rule of around 120 years of Sicily.
After that, around 1136, the church and convent of San Giovanni degli Eremiti were built, mostly on the top of a pre-existing structure, by Roger II, son of the Great Count and the first king of Sicily. He reconsecrated the mosque as a church and charged the monastery to the famous Sicilian monk Saint William of Montevergine, founder of the Benedictine order called Williamites. It is said that the Saint miraculously tamed and domesticated a wolf after it had killed one of his donkeys.
San Giovanni is adjoined to the right by a square construction which is what is left of the old mosque. Its distinctive feature, the striking red domes that deck the top of the building, are not likely remnants of the mosque, but rather the Norman-era homage to the Arabian style. They were restored at the end of the 19th-century by an architect who found pieces of red plaster on the dome, and decided to paint all the domes in brilliant red.
Essentially based on geometric form, the church is on the Latin cross plan with a nave, two aisles and three apses. The nave is composed of two large square bays separated by a mighty ogival arch, a pointed arch composed of reversed curves and the upper convex, and ends with a three-apsidal transept. The almost semicircular central apse of the church is pronounced outside beyond the structure of the wall.
A vital role is played by the light that penetrates the interior of the church, which was created mainly by the wise use of the ogival openings that were originally covered by barriers preciously perforated in plaster, and once shielded the windows. While each of the square spans is crowned with a dome, the presbytery, ending with a niche, also has a dome. The proximity of the monastery to the royal residence immediately made it a privileged place for the burial of high dignitaries of the Norman court.
As the interior of the church is quite empty, its main charms are the brightly painted domes and the well-preserved cloister. The elegant cloister, the remains of the ancient Benedictine monastery, probably built around the end of the thirteenth century, is almost reduced to a state of ruin, except the small twin columns with capitals decorated with vegetable motifs, supporting the ogival arches, and including an Arab cistern. The decaying beauty of the monastery and the decorated columns of the cloister labyrinthine columns are accessible through a carefully created 19th-century Mediterranean garden consisting of different types of towering palms, prickly pears, citrus fruits, olive trees, and others that encompass the walled site.
Although San Giovanni was extensively modified during the following centuries, as part of a program of recovery of several Sicilian monuments, the architect Giuseppe Patricolo undertook a radical campaign of restoration of the entire complex of San Giovanni at the end of the 19th-century, aiming at restoring the alleged original appearance of the magnificent monument. Today, the complex enlisted in the UNESCO Heritage Site is one of the nine monuments in the Arab-Norman route of Palermo.