Church of the Rock, Taormina
The small church of the Madonna della Rocca or Santa Maria della Rocca is located on the south terrace of the steep Monte Tauro Mountain at an altitude of about 350 meters above sea level. At the top of the mountain are the ruins of a Norman fortress, and historians have reason to believe that the first shrine on this site appeared in the 12th century, during the era of the Norman King of Sicily Roger II. The rock church is mentioned in the records of the Arab geographer Edrisi, who lived in the 12th century.
The present church was built in 1640 by Abbot Francesco Raineri with the blessing of the Bishop of Messina, Geronimo Venero. Fr Francesco Raineri was a priest of Taormina, then was archdeacon of the cathedral and rector of the Seminary in Montreal. He bequeathed to bury himself in Taormina, as he loved this city very much and enjoyed a well-deserved respect among its inhabitants. He died in 1647 and is buried in the church he built.
The architecture of the church of Santa Maria della Rocca is very modest, it is a low building, on the facade there is a wooden door framed by volcanic stone and two symmetrical windows. A small annex houses the sacristy. The interior is a room divided into two halves by pointed arches with paintings. Uniqueness of the interior is given by the ceiling, a significant part of which is a natural rock.
The sanctuary, of course, has its own legend. It tells how a young shepherd from the nearby village of Mola was grazing sheep on the slopes of Monte Tauro when a sudden storm forced him to take shelter with the sheep in a nearby cave. At the moment of another flash of lightning, the shepherd boy saw in the depths of the cave a radiant woman holding a child in her arms. Returning home, the shepherd boy told his parents about the miraculous phenomenon, who, of course, did not believe him. The young man persuaded his parents to go with him to the cave, and there they found a picture of a woman seen by a shepherd in a crack in the rock. It is not surprising, but historians believe that the legend may be based on real reasons. A Byzantine icon hidden during the period of iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries could easily have been found in a secluded cave, and the reflection of lightning on oil paints could well have caused the illusion of radiance that the shepherd boy saw.
Where did that icon go, history is silent, today in the church you can see a picture of the Madonna with a quote from chapter 24 of Ecclesiastes In me omnis gratia (in me all grace). Also on the stone wall of the church there are several scribbles scrawled on the stone, it is believed that this is an image of the Madonna della Rocca, made by some hermit.
Every year, on the third Sunday of September, Taormina celebrates the feast of the Madonna della Rocca. The church is open in winter from 9: 30 to 12: 30, in summer from 9:30 to 12:30 in the morning and from 16:00 to 19:30 in the evening. Admission is free. Every third Sunday of the month, Mass is held in the church at 9:30.
Next to the church is a long-abandoned hermitage, where monks of the Basilian Order lived as hermits. Just above the cliff, there is a small playground that offers wonderful views of Taormina. Here is a large reinforced concrete cross, which is visible from all points of the city and is illuminated at night. It was established in 1930 by the congregation of the Mission of the Redeemer Fathers (Missione di Padri Redentoristi), founded in 1732.