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Oratorio dei Bianchi

Palermo is full of oratoria, which were not churches but meeting places of confraternities formed ostensibly to spread the Catholic faith, but which often turned into secret societies with political agenda. One of these confraternities were I Bianchi, or the whites, who put on hooded robes for their meetings. Their Oratorio is in the Kalsa section of Palermo, at the end of Vicolo della Salvezza (Salvation Alley) not far from Piazza Marina and Palazzo Abatellis. It is open in the mornings and admission is free. I followed a class on a school trip during their visit. The main meeting room features a giant restored oil painting of the Crucifiction with Christ looking heavenward as he dies and the three Marys and apostles in grief at his feet. A student of art restoration was doing an internship, working on a prone, gilded wooden statue of a saint. She meticulously checked a historical text and her notes and also took documentary photos of her work
Opposite the painting is the dais where the superior's throne sat. To the left of the crucifix you can see frescoes that include early Masonic symbols, like the eye in the pyramid on the US dollar bill. The next room, where the Whites suited up before their meetings, had a ceiling 20 feet high and was covered from floor to ceiling, including the ceiling, with frescoes of bucolic, pastoral scenes. The Whites had a particular duty: to minister to the condemned before their execution. Also, every Good Friday, they could save one poor soul from the hangman's noose or the consuming fire. (Executions were held in nearby Piazza Marina.) This was an exclusive club that kept membership to 100 men, and anyone who belonged to it could not join any other confraternity. The oratorio was built atop a much older church dedicated to the Virgin Mary who appeared to the Normans around the year 1000 AD just before they conquered Sicily, taking it from the North African Berbers. It was being restored and contained a good dozen of Giacomo Serpotta's white plaster allegorical statues. His work is ubiquitous in Palermo.
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