Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

The den of Abra[h]am.

A colleague of mine informed me in late November that the Jewish community of Palermo was observing Hanukkah together for the first time in over 500 years since the expulsion of Jews from Sicily in 1492.  So for those nights, I was invited as a friend to join a group of about thirty faithful and friends gathered in one of the former prison cells used during the Inquisition.  The barracks are recently restored and open to the public, and they form a later part of the fourteenth-century Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri complex. Lo Steri, as the palace is locally called, served as the baronial residence of the Chiaramonte family, which held considerable power in Palermo throughout the fourteenth century. The palace later fell into the hands of the Sant’Ufficio, or Roman Inquisition, which built several multi-storied barracks used between 1605 and 1782 for the containment, torture, and execution of perceived enemies of the Catholic Church. The selection of the excarcere for the celebration of Hanukkah in Palermo invited commemoration and reflection of and upon the trials of those victims, and in a city without a synagogue, this particular Hanukkah introduced members of a fragmented community to each other for the first time.

Figure 1

The experience of wandering from cell to cell in the ex-carcere, this horrific place of judgment, is overwhelming to say the least [see figures 1 + 2]. Saints, riders, and queens are costumed in contemporary garb, and many works are signed by the prisoner-artist. Speaking in concert with these paintings are a massive amount of texts. Poems with common scribal abbreviations, prayers, and illustrative labels in Hebrew, Latin, Italian, and English coat the walls in black, brown, and red paint. The prison walls become palimpsests, sometimes organized and sometimes frantically layered. Words pour over each other, crafted over decades in an effort to protect prisoners under a blanket of watchful saints’ eyes, clasped hands, orations. Many of the prisoners—men, women, Muslims, Jews, Christians, merchants, shoemakers, noblewomen, heretics, dissidents—waited here for execution or, rarely, release. Thanks to the work of Sicilian historians, such as Sofia Maria Messana and Laura Sciascia, restorers, and benefactors we know some information about a few individuals and works, most of which are dated (by the authors themselves) to the 17th century.

Figure 2

Plaques in each cell highlight the lives of several prisoners, such as Andrea Carusso, a shoemaker from Messina, who worked with silk in his shop in Palermo. He fell victim to two separate trials brought to the Office by his neighbors who accused him of witchcraft in the first half of the 17th century. Or Dulciora Agnello, whose position as the wife of an Inquisition procuratore critically reduced her potential punishment in 1623 due to her interest in magic, the occult, alchemy, etc.

I am not a scholar of this particular period in Sicilian history; however, as an art historian, I can say that simply taking the time to look at these works can afford us with great deal of information. A brief survey of the cells’ art reveals that these walls contained a number of pious Christians, who were fluent in the iconography of Christian imagery and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the New Testament. Ideas of hell, heaven, purgatory, judgment are exuberantly expressed and frequently overlap.

Figure 3

At least one prisoner, who identified as G.F.B. Migliaro, was well-versed in the Hours, and on June 7th, 1610 he or she signed a beautiful work, one that takes license with matters of dress, placing the narrative in a contemporary context [see fig. 3]. We see Christ carrying the cross above Jerusalem’s cityscape, heading to Golgotha where He’ll be crucified, a theme that certainly resounded with this particular audience. A mustachioed man in tight breaches and a feathered, high pointed leads Christ by a chain. The whole scene is carefully appointed with text.  Written above this parade in majuscule reads:


 This is adapted from Psalm 20:12: “For they have turned evils upon you; they have devised plans, which they have not been able to accomplish.” Verses, like this one, are integrated with image in each cell; although, this particular group of elements uses text in a way that encourages the reader to reflect profoundly on the relationship between these moments before Christ’s death, the time suffered by prisoners waiting for some form of deliverance, and the source of the text. The crossbar resting on Christ’s shoulders speaks in a self-referential manner:


while the vertical post finishes the verse with miseres written backwards, which comes from the antiphon of matins, the day’s start: O crux venerabilis, quae salutem attulisti miseris, quibus te efferam praeconiis: quoniam vitam nobis caelitum praeparasti. (“O venerable cross, which has brought salvation to wretches, by what praise shall I extoll you: for you have prepared for us the heavenly life.”) The word miseres may have been written backwards to show its inclusion with the cross beam verse. Words written upside down usually represents those spoken directly to God, for example in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation (1434), the Virgin humbly responds to God, “ECCE ANCILLA DÑI;” however, I doubt that is the case here. Instead, it may serve to differentiate that word with a verse of the Nicene Creed, which occupies the rest of the cross:


These little bits of carefully selected phrases operate as mnemonic devices, capitalizing on certain powerful words that trigger the recitation of whole prayer, which would have continued: descendit et incarnatus et homo factus, passus est, et resurrexit tertia die, et ascendit in coelos, et venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos. (“Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered, and on the third day he rose again, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”)

The artist flattens and widens Christ’s garment into a stylized canvas, looking like the lovely St. Matthew from the Dunn?. The outlining of his robes betray in a very subtle line the weight of the cross, and the texture of the fabric is carefully rendered. At the cinch of Christ’s waistline, however, the dress becomes another medium, spreading wide,  to accommodate more text. A mural Book of Hours continues emerging here with the hymn of Terce, the prayers said at 9am, and the beginning of the antiphon:













Crucifige clamitant hora tertiarum:

Illusus induitur veste purpurarum:

Caput eius pungitur corona spinarum.

Crucem portat humeris ad locum poenarum.


At the third hour of the day they crucify Him cry,

In a purple robe clad Him more to mock thereby,

Piteously His head was pricked with the crown of thorn,

To the place of pain His cross was on His shoulders born.]


The antiphon shares space on the penultimate line: Funestae mortis damnatur supplicium, dum Christus in cruce nostra destruxit vincula criminum. (The punishment of bloody death is condemned, whilst Christ upon the cross hath destroyed the bonds of our offenses.

In the next cell, one wall is divided into roughly four columns, which are flooded with lines of text ruled by eye and carefully aligned to the left [see fig. 4].

Figure 4

The overwhelming subject of imagery and text— in the form of signatures, rhyming verses, and prayers—is, of course, judgment and salvation. Another creed, the Apostles’ Creed, is translated and corrected in English in the third column:

I doe belive in God the father all mighty maker of

heven and earth [and in] gesu christe his onely

son ovr lode which [was] concev(e)d by the holy

gost and boren of the virgin mary soffered vnder

ponci(o)us pilato was crucifie died and was buried asended into hel and

the thurde daye he [rose] againe f(r)om the did and assended into heuen and

th[e]are he siteth [on the right] hande of god the father all mighti from thence

he shall com to [judge the quick and the dead, etc etc].

Figure 5

To the right of this, penned in a larger, looser hand, a prison proclaims [see fig. 5]:

and so hi ende his

daies in fere of god

and in the belife

of our lorde issue

christe which is

in heuen abo-

ue which died in

crose for our


and then marked with an ochre line below this are a smattering of damaged words:



[con]demned to

[d]eath becase hi was

[…]nlish man and will

ANO 1632

[…]man by the

[…]of god

Between these two cells, we can also surmise that one prisoner had spent time in both of them. Two representations of the Harrowing of Hell share a crescent-shaped mouth of hell, open to reveal a host of naked OT figures, each clearly labeled. In the room with the English creed just discussed, the Harrowing includes: on the top row, ADAM, EVE, ABEL, ABRA[H]AM, ISAAC, IACOB, SIMION, ISAIA; and on the bottom row, MOYSEN, ARON, RE DAVID, SALAMON RE, IOSEPH, DANIEL, IONA, JOB [see fig. 6].

Figure 6

These two rows are recreated in much the same order with a few additions in the room with the mural Book of Hours [see fig. 7].

Figure 7

An abundance of similarities exist between the manner in which these figures are rendered, such as the depiction of Moses with his two horns and the articulation of Abraham’s outline, beard, and pointed moustache.  In both cases, Christ floats to the rescue, his flayed body outfit in a waving, diaphanous cape and crown of thorns.

In the cells on both the ground and second floor, the iconographic language use to depict many of the saints—most placed on pedestals—is widely recognizable. The prisoners also dreamt of beautiful spaced, including blossoming terraces and grand balustrades, treed landscapes, and sculpted environs [see figures 8 + 9].

Figure 8

Figure 9

At least two maps of Sicily have been uncovered, both with the urban plan of Palermo, sliced into characteristic quadrants. Introductory art history classes encourage students to think of perspective as the creation of a window into space by means of a manipulated flat plane. The manipulation of space and reality happens in these cells as prisoner-artists imaginatively broke through walls to reveal gardens and harbors, Paradise and Hell, while awaiting their verdicts.

Guided tours are available on site.



These images are reproduced here for non-commercial, scholarly use only as authorized under Fair Use and with the permission of Dottoressa Antonella Tarantino and the continued support of Lo Steri in Palermo, Sicily. Do not re-use these images under any circumstances without the permission of the Palazzo Chiaramonte-Steri.