Every day hundreds
of people - most of them foreign tourists - visit the church now known as the Martorana
in central Palermo,
and the curious among them may even visit the more austere Church of San
Cataldo next door. Few realize what this pairing represents, for the churches,
each dating from the middle of the twelfth century, were built for different
communities whose individuality (from each other) had only recently been
The walls of the Martorana are covered in mosaic icons, its original
floor plan a simple "cross-in-square" (or greek cross) beneath
a single dome. The Martorana was, in fact, built as a Greek Orthodox church
dedicated to Saint Nicholas, its charter of 1143 written in Greek and Arabic.
It was completed in 1151.
Constructed in a fairly similar Norman-Arab style, San Cataldo has a
long nave and very simple romanesque arches. This was a Roman Catholic church
consecrated around 1160.
Elsewhere in Sicily there are churches reflecting eclectic architectural
Abbey, for example, is at once Norman, Arab and
Byzantine, but while it initially had an iconostasis this cathedral
was founded as a Benedictine church. The cathedral of Syracuse,
built around an ancient Greek temple, is a good example of a Paleo-Christian
structure, though greatly modified over the centuries. There are few Sicilian
churches remaining which were built explicitly for the diminishing Orthodox
communities following what has come to be known as the Great Schism.
Fomented for several centuries, the Great Schism of 1054 separated the
Western "Roman" or "Latin" church from Eastern "Greek"
or "Byzantine" Christianity, and it was a historic development
inextricably linked to the Normans' conquest of
southern Italy. What was the Schism and how did it alter the course of Sicilian
history? How are its effects still visible today? While a detailed examination
of the theological differences between what are today the Roman Catholic
and Eastern Orthodox churches is beyond the scope of this concise exposition,
we'll begin with an explanation.
The Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity across the Roman
Empire and the new religion spread rapidly, but in 395, in view of increasing
decay, the Empire split into the West, ruled from Rome, and the East, ruled
from Constantinople (Byzantium, now Istanbul). Preserving its great culture
and traditions, the eastern half (or "Byzantine
Empire") survived until 1453.
Officially, Sicily was part of the Western Empire from 395, but following
the fall of centralized power in Rome (the city was sacked in 410 and Odoacer
formally assumed power in 476), a period of foreign rule by Vandals
and Goths (from 468 until 535) ensued on the island. It was then
annexed to the Byzantine Empire.
When the Roman Empire was whole, Latin was the official tongue but even
in Italy Greek enjoyed prestige as the language of learned people and was
the popular vernacular in the Balkans, Sicily and the eastern Mediterranean.
With the Empire divided, and the western part descending into chaos, language
became divisive. Misunderstandings became more frequent because many in
the West spoke no Greek, while few Greeks bothered to learn Latin. At the
dawn of the Middle Ages, the distance between Rome and Constantinople wasn't
only linguistic; geography itself imposed a definite obstacle, especially
now that a central imperial government no longer controlled the entire Mediterranean.
The patriarchs, beginning with the Patriarch of Constantinople, recognized
the Patriarch of "the West" (Rome) as "the first among equals."
The early church was collegial; canon law and other matters were decided
by ecumenical councils rather than a single patriarch. Even among today's
Orthodox, the Patriarch of Constantinople is not a "Pope."
In most of Western Europe the liturgy was celebrated not in Greek but
in Latin, often in the Gallican Rite. The Christians in regions from the
German-speaking territories westward had very little exposure to the influence
of Constantinople even though the Byzantine Empire fostered and preserved
the greatest learning in Christendom during the "Dark Ages" (476-700).
Nobody would compare the intellectual or artistic environment of the West
to what existed in Constantinople. One need only have cast a glance toward
Venice, Ravenna, Syracuse or Bari (from Rome, London or the village called
Paris) to see the difference.
By the eighth century Rome and Constantinople certainly had their own
differences based on local practices. The Iconoclast controversy (regarding
the nature and veneration of icons) was settled by the Seventh Ecumenical
in 787, but though the Church remained united Rome still insisted on jurisdiction
over Sicily and some Balkan territories. In general, Rome wanted the Latin-speaking
territories but Sicily was mostly Greek-speaking in the ninth century when
the Arab occupation began; for a few years after 660 the Eastern Emperor
Constans actually established his capital at Syracuse.
Beyond questions of territorial jurisdiction (in the middle of the ninth
century Rome contested a Byzantine episcopal appointment in Syracuse even
though Sicily was outside Papal jurisdiction) there were conflicts over
certain theological teachings (in the East, for example, Saint Augustine
was little appreciated) and Rome's use of unleavened bread (in the East
wine and leavened bread were used in the Eucharist). A particular difference
was the infamous Filioque, Rome's use of a phrase in the Creed which
seemed to alter the traditional concept of the Trinity.
Theological forces in Rome's jurisdiction - particularly the Franks of
what are now France and Germany - pushed for Papal authority over Constantinople,
something unlikely to be approved by the various patriarchates of the East
(Constantinople as well as Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem). This "Latin
view" was unsurprising if, in the secular realm, the Pope considered
himself a king maker who could crown the likes of Charlemagne.
Except for a few lengthy intervals, the patriarchs of the East commemorated
(and prayed for) the Patriarch of the West and vice versa. These diptychs
were thus seen as a sign that communion existed, however tenuously.
Finally, in 1054, Papal emissaries to Constantinople presented an egregious
letter of excommunication to that Greek Patriarch. Apart from the fact that
the Pope issuing the letter had died during the emissaries' trek eastward
(nullifying the validity of any correspondence), the Patriarch of Rome had
no authority to excommunicate or even command his brother in Constantinople.
(Only nine centuries later, in 1965, did the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople
lift the mutual excommunications of the eleventh century.)
Despite the acrimony, bilateral efforts to mend the fabric of a divided
Christianity continued into the next century. By the Second Crusade (in
1147), "Latins" (Western Christians) were becoming highly suspicious
of Constantinople's coexistence with Islam. In the words of historian Steven
Runciman, "it was after the Second Crusade that the ordinary Westerner
began to regard the East Christian as being something less that a fellow
In Constantinople, the "Massacre of the Latins" of 1182 was
ostensibly targeted at Italian mercantile power embodied by the maritime
republics' encroaching activities in that city, but the Italians' Roman
Catholic faith facilitated a certain degree of Greek hostility. By the Fourth
Crusade (1204), with its bloody sack of Constantinople, hopes of a reconciliation
were all but destroyed. The following year a Latin army was defeated at
Adrianople (in Bulgaria) and in the next few decades the Teutonic
Knights attempted to conquer "heretical" Orthodox republics
such as Novgorod in Russia. Enmity had become a defining characteristic
of the relationship between East and West.
In 1054 Sicily was under Arab rule, its control contested by several jealous emirs.
Best estimates are that around forty-five percent of the population was
Christian, an equal percentage Muslim and perhaps ten percent Jewish. While
many towns had mixed populations, distribution of these groups across Sicily
was uneven. The towns in the "Byzantine Northeast"
had more Greek Christians, while the areas to the west of Palermo and Agrigento
were more heavily Muslim-Arab.
The Normans began their conquest of Sicily in
1061, having already conquered most of peninsular Italy south of Rome. At
the beginning of the eleventh century, this peninsular region had been divided
about equally between the Byzantine Empire and a number of "Lombard"
feudal lords descended from the Longobards who had arrived a few centuries
earlier. The Papacy encouraged the Normans' conquest of this part of southern
Italy as part of its attempt to seize control of the churches which had
been loyal to Constantinople.
In Sicily, the popes saw in the Normans an opportunity to oust or convert
the Muslims while latinizing the Greek church. Upon conquering Palermo in
1071, one of the first things the Normans did was to exile the Greek bishop,
Nicodemus, to a small church outside the city, replacing
him with a Latin. Apart from this gesture, the conversion of Sicily's Christians
from Greek to Latin was actually a slow, gradual process. Indeed, one can
hardly speak of any real "conversion" at all. Over time, Greek
bishops were replaced with Latin ones while Greek liturgy was replaced by
Latin liturgy. This incidentally accelerated development of a Latin-based
Their incursions into the Balkans and the Greek islands did little to
endear the Normans to the Byzantines. Bohemond, a son of Robert "Guiscard"
de Hauteville and brother of Roger I, participated in the First Crusade
(1098), one effect of which was installation of Roman clergy in Palestine
and other areas seized from the Muslims, but the Crusades were not an exclusively
Norman affair. Indeed, the Normans rarely supported them. More significant
for Italy's Greek community was the Council of Bari convened by Pope Urban
II in the same year as the First Crusade. This formally established that
the Greek Church in Apulia would be integrated into the Roman one.
In 1143 Nilos Doxopatrios, an Orthodox cleric of Palermo, authored a
theological treatise supporting the Eastern (Orthodox) church over the Roman
(Catholic) influences introduced by the Normans.
In the Orthodox Church there are distinct monastic communities but no large
religious monastic orders. The Normans introduced the first religious order
in Sicily, endowing the Benedictines with
monastic churches such as Saint John of the Hermits (in Palermo) and, of
course, the abbey of Monreale. Later, the military-religious orders were introduced, namely the
Teutonic Knights (at the Magione in Palermo),
the Templars and the Hospitallers or Knights of Malta.
By the end of the reign of Frederick II (1250),
Orthodoxy, such as it was, can be said to have been preserved only in a
few monasteries in the Nebrodi Mountains. Two centuries
later, around 1470, thousands of Albanian refugees
began to arrive in Sicily fleeing the Ottoman Turks. They reintroduced Orthodoxy.
Within decades, they were integrated into a "uniate" church preserving
Orthodox liturgy but loyal to Rome - one of several Eastern Rites to be
established within Catholicism in an attempt to convince Orthodox to embrace
a "tolerant" or even "Byzantinized" Roman Church. In
Mezzojuso a Greek Rite church founded by Albanians
stands next to the Latin Rite one, and in 1935 the Martorana was given to
the Albanian-Catholic diocese of Piana degli Albanesi.
While the Orthodox Church changed little over the centuries since the
Schism, the Catholic Church underwent what can only be described as substantial
mutations. Its theology became more rigidly legalistic and - under the influence
of theologians such as Thomas Aquinas - rather more semantic and "philosophical."
Artistic and architectural movements such as the Gothic
and the Renaissance reflected, or at least complemented, such theological
Orthodox teachings differ greatly from Catholic ones regarding doctrines
on what Catholics refer to as Original Sin, Free Will and the Immaculate
Conception as well as concepts such as Purgatory. In practice, the Orthodox
(and most Eastern Rite Catholics) administer certain sacraments, such as
the Eucharist (Holy Communion) and Chrismation (Confirmation) in infancy,
and permit married men to become priests - something tolerated in the Catholic
Church until the Second Lateran Council (in 1139). Nevertheless, the Catholic church
recognizes Orthodox orders (sacraments) and apostolic
Specific Orthodox views regarding certain aspects of the sacraments (and
matters such as divorce in relation to marriage) differ somewhat from those
of the Catholic Church, and Orthodox Canon Law (based on the determinations
of Ecumenical Councils) is essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages while
the more complex Catholic Code of Canon Law was fully revised most recently
in 1917 and 1983.
It should be remembered that Rome approached all of these matters from
the same perspective as Constantinople before 1054; the inescapable fact
is that in the West subsequent changes were far greater than in the East,
and most were more significant than the introduction of (for example) stained
glass windows and statues in beautiful Gothic cathedrals. As it is understood
today, Papal Primacy, a doctrine based on a Western interpretation of scripture
(Jesus' reference to Peter in Matthew 16:18), was formalized in Rome only
long after the Schism. Phenomena such as rampant anti-semitism never reached
the level of intolerance in the East that arose in the West, bolstered by
such developments as the Inquisition.
As a generality, the Orthodox do not venerate Catholic saints canonized
after 1054 (Saint Louis, Saint Francis of Assisi
and Saint Thomas Becket, for example) while the
Catholics do not venerate those canonized by the Orthodox after that date.
Some effects of the Schism were nothing short of bizarre. Even after
the onslaught of the Renaissance, Italians could readily see the vestiges
of Byzantine culture in the churches of Venice, Ravenna and Palermo, and
perhaps in the presence of the newly-arrived Albanians. Yet, except for
scholars such as Martin Luther (who recognized the nature of the split and
the importance of the Eastern brethren), in the post-medieval period the
average Catholic in France, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Iberian countries
and the German lands barely had any idea that there had ever been another
"parallel" church in the East, much less that the "east"
included half of Italy into the eleventh century. On a purely social level,
if not a theological one, such ignorance had profound effects, some of which
are still with us.
For a series of events which occurred nearly a millennium ago, the Great
Schism remains a remarkably contentious topic, particularly for Catholic
and Orthodox zealots. Catholics generally prefer to say that it was the
Easterners who left the "Catholic" church based in Rome, while
most Orthodox believe that the Westerners left the "Orthodox"
church and the other four patriarchs. The more objective, accurate perspective,
based on the historical facts rather than the hope of not offending either
camp, is that the Early Church simply divided into two parts.
In the historical realm, Sicilians enjoy a cultural privilege over many Catholics and Orthodox
because Sicily was for several centuries a truly multicultural, cosmopolitan
society. Unlike places on the geographical and cultural periphery of important
ancient and medieval events, Sicily was close to the center, and the Schism
is just a single example of a complex historical legacy. If there exists a "Sicilian View" of
events such as the Schism, it should be based on an impartial reading of history rather than an intentionally polemical one.
One of the most objective (neutral) general histories of the Great Schism
is Steven Runciman's book, The Eastern Schism. Author of The
Sicilian Vespers, he was also an expert on the Crusades. John Julius
Norwich wrote an interesting chapter (numbered 8) about the events of 1054
in The Normans in the South. A pragmatic theological treatment
is John Meyendorff's Orthodoxy and Catholicity.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written
for various publications, including this one.