Through the centuries, among the local ecclesiastic history and especially in the Aci territory, Valverde has always held great importance. Along with S. Filippo from Carcina’s Basilica (old name of what has now become the town of Aci S. Filippo), it was Aci’s most important church for many years.
Through the 17th century, while Aci’s churches all tried to make a name for themselves, the historian Ottavio Gaetani referred to Aci S. Antonio’s Sacramental Church of S. Maria de Valle Viridi in Civitate Acis Superioris as “CAPUT OMNIUM ACIS ECCLESIARUM” (Mother of all of Aci’s churches), similar to what you can now read in front of Aci S. Filippo’s Basilica of S. Filippo from Agira, “MATER ET CAPUT TOTIUS ACIS” (Mother and origin of all of Aci). It is certain, though, that at least through the whole 16th century the only two Sacramental Churches in the Aci territory were Santa Maria de Valle Viridi for the towns near the hill (Aci Bonaccorsi, Aci S. Antonio, Ficarazzi…) and S. Filippo from Carcina for Acireale, Acicatena and Acitrezza.
Even though Valverde was initially just a district of the old town of Aci S. Antonio and so the main church was the one dedicated to S. Antonio Abate, The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Valverde never lost its role as center of spirituality and destination for many pilgrims. In the Illustrated Dictionary of Sicilian Districts by Francesco Nicotra, in the beginning of the 18th century, Valverde’s sanctuary has the longest description and importance among Aci S. Antonio’s churches, second only to the S. Antonio Abate church.
“MOST HOLY MARY OF VALVERDE” SANCTUARY
Outside view of Our Lady of Valverde’s Sanctuary and Discalced Augustinians’ convent
The origins of Our Lady of Valverde’s Sanctuary span through centuries, so history and legend are fused inextricably. According to tradition and popular hagiography, the Marian Sanctuary was built after some miraculous Apparition of the Mother of God. Two, in particular, are the most notable:
In June 1038, a poor traveler crossing the “Vallis Viridis” plateau was attacked by a bandit named Dionisio. While Dionisio was about to strike his victim, he heard Virgin Mary’s voice telling him to drop his weapon and to stop his banditry. The traveler was safe, and Dionisio devoted his life to praying and regretting his past actions. One day, while he was trying to find a proper way to show his devotion, the Virgin spoke to him again, telling him to build a sanctuary for her in a place that she would show him. Dionisio arranged a large pilgrimage, and once they arrived on the “Vallis Viridis” plateau, a herd of cranes started circling the area; the Virgin had chosen a place. When the work for the construction stopped because of a water shortage, Virgin Mary appeared once again to tell Dionisio to tap on the wall of his cavern. Once he did, clear water started flowing from there (Where Contrada Fontana currently is), allowing the pilgrims to keep building the sanctuary and curing anyone who drank it with faith.
According to the tradition, on the Saturday night before the last Sunday of August 1040, the Virgin appeared in front of Dionisio for the fourth time while he was praying in the sanctuary, guaranteeing him her protection. The next day they found the celestial vision had been imprinted on one of the temple’s pillars, and there they built the “Altare Privilegiatum”.
Inside view of Our Lady of Valverde’s Sanctuary: the Greater Altar on the back, the Altar with the Virgin’s image on the left and the monument for Prince Luigi Riggio on the front.
Our Lady of Valverde’s Sanctuarydoesn’t have an exact canonization date as a Sanctuary because it’s listed among “famous for antiquity” Sanctuaries. Its aspect, both on the inside and on the outside, endured many alterations through the centuries, especially after 1693’s earthquake. The outside, atypical among the territory’s religious architecture, mixes the church’s original structure (The bell tower with lava stone basement and pilasters) with the structure of the convent for Discalced Augustinians, an order inspired by S. Agostino’s spirituality, whose presence was greatly encouraged by the Riggio from Campofiorito, Princes of Aci Superiore. Discalced Augustinians came to Valverde in 1694 (You can still see the memorial stele with a cross at the entrance of the Sanctuary Square) and so the Convent’s construction started around 1700, forming a single architectural complex with the Sanctuary.
It’s worth mentioning, on the outside of the Sanctuary, the main door in a late medieval style (Built after the 1693 earthquake) made with white stone from Syracuse (In the Aci territory the use of white stone along with lava stone is pretty common).
The inside of the Sanctuary has undergone many alterations through the years. It’s a single wide nave with a barrel vault and a small “irregular” side nave: the Greater Altar, in the back of the church, doesn’t have the original semicircular apse because, after the 1693 earthquake, they preferred building a straight wall. In the middle of the church, the Altare Privilegiatum with polychrome marble with the “divinitus picta” or “acheropita” (Not painted by man’s hand) image of Our Lady of Valverde. Almost in front of the rich and beloved Altar of the Virgin, Prince Luigi Riggio and his wife Caterina Gravina’s mausoleum, decorated with marble and cherubs.
“Altare Privilegiatum” for Our Lady of Valverde with the “divinitus picta” or “acheropita” image
A characterizing element inside the Sanctuary, whose stile is mainly and elegant late baroque, is the beautiful wooden embellished door of the Sacristy, made in 1700 and typical of the Aci territory. The side altars are all in polychrome marbles and are surmounted by well-made altarpieces, in particular the painting near the Monument to Prince Luigi Riggio, portraying the Holy Family along with S. Anna and S. Venera (The latter, according to the popular hagiographic tradition, was born in the Aci territory aside from being the Patron of Acireale’s Diocese). This canvas is said to be a work by Alessandro Vasta, son of the famous Aci painter Pietro Paolo Vasta.
Oil on canvas, “Holy Family with S. Anna and S. Venera” (18th century)