Coffin of the sarcophagus of the queen Maria of Sicily (†1401).

Chronological framework

Late fourteenth century (?)

Description of the monument

The coffin of the sarcophagus of the tomb known as “il sarcofago di Costanza di Aragona” it’s a marble piece that measures 2m long x 44cm high x 62 cm wide. The front and the right side are sculpted in bas-relief.

The front gives the impression of being a stony tapestry worked with quick and easy strokes. On the outermost part or border, the ornamental drawing is repeated following the undulations of some stems that intersect and enclose a kind of cocoon or peduncle shaped like a palm. Each of these blooms is within the circular spaces formed by the undulating branches. Thus, the compositional elements are repeated every two blooms: An artichoke or fleur-de-lis that grows from a base that intersects with the upper circle that encloses it. Then it is followed by an inverted plant that comes out of the circle created by itself and by the one next to it. The composition starts from the two figures that occupy the central parts – we will also find them on the sculpted side of the coffin- and could be male sphinxes-mermaids, since vertical wings come out of their back and their entire body is covered with scales. The two seem to have the hind limbs turned into a fishtail, but while the one on the right has something like a hand, the one on the left has a clawed bird’s foot. Although they have a masculine physiognomy, it could be those feminine beings that accompany the deceased to the underworld, or rather, to the island of the blessed. We have a progression of a sphinx and twelve plant circles. The one that makes thirteen is already part of the vertical border, which has six elements. So it is balanced in 12x6x12 + 12x6x12.

The inner box is well marked by a strip of 1 or 2 centimeters wide. This rectangle of approximately 1.85 meters is divided by four vertical stripes. Each of these vertical separations has three quatrefoils that seem to enclose small heraldic shields. That could be symbols of the citizen identity of Catania (VITOLO, 2019).  As in the rest of the sarcophagus, not even a millimeter is left empty. It is the horror vacui of Islamic and Byzantine decoration, where western and eastern art merge.

The shield – rectangular ojival- located on the right, within a circle inscribed in a square of approximately 25cm, is that of the kingdom of Aragon or the four bars of the House of Barcelona. On the other side and in absolute symmetry, is the party per saltire shield  coat of arms of the kings of insular Sicily. With these two elements it seems clear that the person who was buried there was the daughter of a Sicilian king and a queen of Catalonia / Aragon. In the central part we find a “naive” bas-relief that rather seems one of the many paintings that can still be seen on the beams of the main hall of the palace of Chiaramonte – Steri of Palerm (CARCHIOLO, 2015) or in the illustrations of some prayer books. The narration is very clear: An Annunciation that is chaired by the person who has commissioned the work. The commissioner.

We will begin the description of this central box of more than one meter long from the left of the image:

The first thing we find is a naive archangel Gabriel with a huge wing, a well-shaped nimbus and a huge scepter or staff topped with some kind of cross. The archangel, who is moving towards the center of the image, is covered with thick clothes. The tunic and cape have many folds, which gives them a lot of movement and naturalness. With his left hand, where the folds of clothing are centralized, he holds this pastoral staff, while with his right hand he points towards the virgin, as if he were speaking to her. Behind him the sky opens in a series of parallel semicircular lines from which the enormous hand of God comes out. The index and middle fingers of the Angel are marking the path that the hand of God has opened saying: “Rejoice you, who are full of grace, the Lord is with you“. This is the first moment of the Annunciation and the mystery of heaven that comes to Earth from the hand of God.

A little further to the right we come to the part of the narration of the events of the commissioner’s life. We find in the middle of the scene a small and timid image, the queen, accompanied by two maidens located between the angel and the midpoint of the image. Behind these two ladies we see a civil building with a large semi-open door at the end of a staircase. The building has three windows, one of them clearly with a semicircular arch, and a roof with tiles and battlements.

A shield can be seen in each window and there is a line of ashlars below. Below this line there is an arrow slit, therefore it is a fortress. It could be an imaginary representation of the imposing Norman castle of Catania, which was on the top of a hill near the sea: The castle Ursino. The daughter of King Frederic IV was born in this fortress and lived a good part of his life in it. The construction is similar to that of the Steri palace in Palermo in the fourteenth century (NOBILE I SCIASCIA, 2015) or to the missing Jury Building in Catania that was located near the cathedral (CARCHIOLO, 2015; VITOLO, 2019). The two maidens are dressed in a long-sleeved shirt covered by the street dress, with a wide half-sleeve. Their hair is partially covered with a headdress tied to the chin. They appear to be leaning on a railing.

In the central area, between the maidens and the bottom is the queen, who appears to be kneeling. The queen wears a large wall crown. Her head is covered in a twisted headdress with a long veil over it. Beneath the veil is a cape and the sleeves of the dress are very wide. In her right hand she carries a rosary to accompany the praises that the faithful addressed to the Virgin Mary repeating a succession of prayers.

The Virgin is represented inside a chapel and with a book on her left hand. She is dressed in a complex set of cape, veil, skirt and a headdress that covers her entire head. She is really troubled by the light beam being thrown at her by the pigeon. The Holy Spirit flaps its wings before the left capital and from this point the undulating rays that are directed to the forehead of Mary are perfectly distinguishable. Her right hand is raised as if trying to hide her surprise. The Virgin seems to be saying: ” Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word“. But at the same time she is looking with mercy on the little queen who is asking for her help. The chapel that frames the Virgin Mary is made up of two turned columns with a large base and a bell-shaped capital with palm leaves. It would be a simple Romanesque capital with vegetal decoration. The two capitals support a triple semicircular arch.

Finally we are in front of the most impressive building on the entire front. It occupies much more than a quarter of the right part of the image. Obviously it is a religious building of great importance with a clean and clear Romanesque style portico. One of the door wings is half open, as if inviting to enter inside. This important portal measures almost twice that of the castle. It is the key to the sarcophagus, the semi-open door of so many funerary elements. On the main facade there is a perfectly marked quadrilobed rosette. The gable roof seems to be made of tiles and crowned with serrated battlements and a cornice to hold them. These are the roofs that we find in many civil buildings in Palermo and Syracuse. Under the roof fastening reinforcements can be seen. The lateral façade has three twin windows framed by discharging arches. Below these windows runs the lower wall, which seems to be made of different ashlars. The main building has an attached tower. It is a bell tower with three quite similar levels. On the lower floor there are some arrow slits, on the central floor some semi-circular windows, and further up we would find the twin windows with a column and its central capital. The tower ends with the same battlements that crowned the nave of the basilica (VITOLO, 2019).

On the right side of the sarcophagus, the perfect circles of the decorative border on the front become zig zags that create triangular spaces. Often, on this side you can see the lily forms almost perfectly. The two characters in the central part of the frieze are absolutely different. The ones at the top look like two men with short hair and relatively young, while those at the bottom would be two old bearded, hooded men. We must think that at the end of the 14th century the cathedral of Catania, rebuilt several times, was part of the important Benedictine Abbey of Saint Agata. Here we could have the representation of those  who would pray for the dead queen: the monks of the abbey.

The square that should have the symbols of the four evangelists was never finished sculpting. That is why we only see the eagle of Saint John and the angel of Saint Matthew beyond the circle that surrounds the Agnus Dei. The Lamb of God, following the Byzantine and Romanesque tradition, looks back and its head is surrounded by an aura. With his right leg he holds a banner with a cross.

Historiographical debate

All who have studied this sarcophagus, from Bottari to Carchiolo, agree that it is an Annunciation that takes place within an urban scene. For Partenò Castello it would be the Mariana square in Palermo with the Steri palace on the left, where the Chiaramonte coats of arms can be seen. So it could be one of the pieces confiscated from this family after 1392 (PARTENÒ, 1991). Guido Libertini places it in the two main buildings of Catania, the Ursino castle and the cathedral (LIBERTINI, 1952). Bottari, who seeks to link the image of the buildings with the graphic documents of the fourteenth century, concludes that it would be the square of Saint Agate, currently the Duomo’s square, with the building of the Juries from which the queen leaves for the cathedral (BOTTARI, 1954). Tomasello goes even further, saying that Queen Constança would be offering this great civil building to the Virgin (TOMASELLO, 1979). Vitolo sees that the representation of the Jury Building in a main place, between the angel and the Virgin, indicates that the commissioner of the tomb was the government or the giurazia of the city of Catania (VITOLO, 2019). But, according to what Professor Carchiolo has published, I think that this scene may refer to the foundation of a new ecclesiastical building dedicated to the mystery of the Annunciation. In 1396, Maria and Martí promised to build a new sanctuary dedicated for the Carmelite order where a church dedicated to Saint Lucia already existed (CARCHIOLO, 2015). The new worship center was built where there is currently the Santuario Maria SS. Annunziata al Carmine in the Carlo Alberto square, in Catania (FODALE, 2008).

During the fourteenth century, at the hands of the mendicant orders, the role of mediator of the Virgin Mary gained relevance. Queen Mary, who had been baptized with the name of this “mater amantissima“, surely asked for the Virgin’s intercession in her endless problems and, above all, in the face of the possible conception of a son and the death.

The dating, more or less accepted, coincides with the death of Queen Maria (1401) and with a resurgence of an archaic Byzantine style that had taken place in Palermo under the rule of the Chiaramonte.

It is difficult for us to think that this sarcophagus coffin was designed to accommodate the Gothic bed of queen Constança of Aragon and Navarre, daughter of the Cerimoniós.

Until now I have not found any sarcophagus front that has represented the mystery of the Annunciation as the central theme accompanied by the image of the commissioner. But the existence of this bas-relief should not be strange if the church where it had to be placed was dedicated to Saint Mary Annunciata or what was wanted was to remember the most important fact in the life of the person who was to be buried : the conception as incarnation and redemption.

The only Sicilian tombs that could be related to that of Constança of Aragon, died in 1363, are those of Federico di Antiochia (†1356) in the Cathedral of Palermo, and that of Blasco II Barresi (†1476) in Santa Maria della Stella of Militello.

Epigraphic sources

Copy of the tombstone of the grave of Queen Maria of Sicily in the church of San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata a Lentini:

“Hospes siste gradum Tumulum uenerare Mariam

Hic habet hanc genius Fridericus tertius Orbi.

Martini iunctam talamo, qui sceptra Sicani

Impery, et Siculas iamdudum rexit habenas.

Ambo Leontinam decorarunt dotibus Vrbem,

Alter enim Illustris firmauit iura Senatus

Altera dar cineres monumentum atque Vrbis honore

Euiuis decessit Leontinis et in hoc Diui FRANCISCI Cenobio

Sepulta .8.Kal:Iuny ab Orbe reparato 1402:”

Inscription above the coat of arms of the kingdom of Sicily (Photographic document:Soprintendenza di Catania Archivio Fotografico; cartella A.6.5. – AF SBCA CT; 1952). Right wall of the main apse of the cathedral of Catania:






Text: Pilar Viladomiu.

Abbreviated bibliography

BOTTARI 1954, 201–203; CARCHIOLO 2015, 94, 96, 97; FODALE 2008, 354, 390; LIBERTINI 1952, 251; LLUC, LC 1, 26–28; LC 1, 42; NOBILE i SCIASCIA 2015; PARTENÒ 1991, 5; REALE 1983, 53–57; TOMASELLO 1979, 126; VITOLO 2018, 227-231; 2019, 539-559.


BOTTARI Steffano, 1954, «La tomba di Costanza d’Aragona nella Cattedrale di Catania» La cultura figurative in Sicilia. Cap. VII; CARCHIOLO Roberta, 2015, «Il sarcofago di Costanza Perez di Aragona e Navarra» Il Restauro degli affreschi di Giovan Battista Corradini nel Presbiterio della Cattedrale di Catania. Una testimoniança pre-terremoto 1693; FODALE Salvatore, 2008, Alunni della perdizione. Chiesa e potere in Sicilia durante il Grande Scisma (1372-1416); LIBERTINI Guido, 1952, «Le tombe di re di Sicilia tornate alla luce nella cathedral di Catania», Archivio Storico de la Sicilia Orientale vol. 58; LLUC, LC 1, 26 – 28; LC 1, 42; NOBILE Marco R. e SCIASCIA Laura, 2015, Lo Steri di Palermo tra XIV e XVI secolo. PARTENÒ CASTELLO Francesco, 1952, «Il ritrovamento del sarcofago della regina Costanza nella Cattedrale di Catania», Archivio Storico de la Sicilia Orientale vol. 48; SCIASCIA Laura, 2011 «Les reines d’Aragó i Sicília» La política de les dones; VITOLO Paola, 2018, «Per I monumenti funerari dei sovrani aragonesi di Sicilia a Catania, Palermo e Messina: testimonianze documentarie, frammenti ritrovati, ipotesi di ricostruzione», Un’isola nel contesto mediterraneo: politica, cultura e arte nella Sicilia e nell’Italia meridionale in Età medieval e moderna; 2019, «Iconografia urbana, coscienza civica e simboli del potere nella Sicilia aragonese. I sepolcro della regina Maria di Sicilia (1363-1401) nella Cattedrale di Catania», Mélanges de l’École française de Rome – Moyen Âge, 131-2.