August 11, 1659. In the convent, it is the ninth hour, one of the seven moments of prayer marking the day of the cloistered nuns. Gathered in the chapel, they are getting ready for their prayers when they realize that one of them is missing.

The benedectine monastery in Palma di Montechiaro (ph. Davide Mauro)

Sister Maria Crocifissa never missed the prayer. She was destined to the monastic life when she was born and had been used to spend her days praying and doing penances, in continuous physical and psychological mortification. The family was well satisfied with that, and her father Giulio Tomasi (yes, an ancestor of the famous writer who actually told the story of this nun in The Leopard), as the moment of the actual consecration approached, even transformed his abode in Palma di Montechiaro into a Benedictine monastery, so his daughter could have a proper residence.

Painting by Sergei Gribkov (1852)
The devil’s letter

The nuns went to look for their sister, fearing that something might have happened to her and, in fact, she was not well. Sister Maria Crocifissa was sitting on the floor of her cell, in an evident state of confusion, smeared with the black ink with which she had covered a sheet with dozens of incomprehensible characters. When asked what had happened, her response was absolutely unexpected.

Some lines of the devil’s letter

Maria Crocifissa said she had received a visit from the devil himself. He had dictated a letter to her in which he asked that sinners were destined to the flames of hell, without remission of sins. The nuns were unable to read this message, though. On the sheet, there was a jumble of Arabic, Cyrillic, Runic characters, and so on and so forth. The only understandable word was a heartfelt “ohimé” (alas).

The trial

Maria Crocifissa was sure that the devil had visited her. She knew him well since he had been tormenting her for a long time, trying to lead her into temptation. The religious authorities, promptly consulted, seized the letter to try, in vain, to get to the bottom of it. The trial, at last, concluded that the nun had told the truth and the prelates left her to her sacrificed life, whose only positive feature was the celestial scent that always emanated from the young nun, as if “all the flowers were united in a fragrant essence”. The devil’s letter and all the acts of the trial were kept in the capitular archive of the cathedral of Agrigento, located in the tower.

The tower of the cathedral
A letter and three sarcophagi

If you visit the cathedral, next summer, you will be able to see a copy of the famous letter, displayed in the tower, and you’ll get all the details of the story told by the Ecclesia viva guides, including the translation that, in the meantime, has been carried out by military software (but you’ll barely understand anything anyway). You will also have the opportunity, and this is the novelty of 2021, to see the sarcophagus of Phaedra, “one of the most excellent, perhaps the most beautiful of all the ancient marble bas-reliefs, which the fury of time has spared”.

The sarcophagus of Phoedra

The definition comes from Baron Joseph Von Riedesel, a German archaeologist who arrived in Agrigento in the spring of 1767 and was so impressed that he wished to settle there (he did not, actually). During his stay, in addition to the Greek vestiges of the Valley, he was also shown the three sarcophagi which, from about 1730, were part of the heritage of the cathedral. J. W. Goethe, who always kept his countryman’s travel report in his pocket, when he arrived in Agrigento, twenty years later, went to the cathedral too. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything more beautiful in bas-reliefs, nor more perfectly preserved,” he wrote.

The Greek sarcophagi had been placed along the side aisles. One was used as a holy water font, the sarcophagus of Hippolytus and Phaedra, together with the sarcophagus of the “Coronary women”, were intended as baptismal fonts. In 1877 the bishop Domenico Turano finally decided that this use was unsuitable. On his initiative, the first Museum of the Cathedral’s Treasures was born. In the Sixties, the patrimony merged into the Diocesan Museum, wanted and built by Msgr Peruzzo on a project by Franco Minissi. In 1966 the sarcophagi were moved to the archaeological museum in the Valley of the Temples, following a disastrous landslide that had jeopardized the stability of a large area of the old center. This spring they are finally back.

A detail of the ceiling of the cathedral

Don’t miss to visit the whole cathedral, with its stuccoes and immense painted ceiling. It is one of the treasures of the historic center, I wrote about this, and more here.

For information on visits: tel. 327 754 9152. The photos of the sarcophagi were provided by the Archdiocese of Agrigento.