The skulls of the martyrs adorn the Otranto Cathedral walls.
The Otranto Cathedral was consecrated in 1088. In August 1480, clergy and survivors of the Ottoman siege of Otranto took refuge in the cathedral – the Ottoman force eventually broke in and killed those inside, turning the church into a stable or a mosque and destroying its 13th century frescoes. After Otranto was retaken in 1481 by a force under Alfonso V of Aragon it was turned back into a church and heavily rebuilt to house the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, who had been executed after the 1480 siege. Behind the chapel’s altar is the ‘stone of martyrdom’, traditionally held to be that used to behead the martyrs. On August 12, 1480, 800 citizens were taken to the hill of Minerva, now called the Hill of the Martyrs, and beheaded because they refused to renounce their Catholic faith. Their remains were taken to the cathedral and the skulls preserved in the altar piece as a prominent reminder of these 800 martyrs.
Pope Francis is preparing to canonise an estimated 800 Italian laymen killed by Ottoman soldiers in the 15th century. The canonisation service will be on May 12 in St Peter’s Square and it will be the first carried out by the Pontiff since he was elected in early March.
The killing of the martyrs by Ottoman troops, who launched a weeks-long siege of Otranto, a small port town at the most eastern tip of southern Italy, took place in 1480.
When Otranto residents refused to surrender to the Ottoman army, the soldiers were ordered to massacre all males over the age of 15. Many were ordered to convert to Islam or die, but Blessed Antonio Primaldo, a tailor, spoke on the prisoners’ behalf. “We believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and for Jesus Christ we are ready to die,” he said, according to Blessed John Paul II, who visited Otranto in 1980 for the 500th anniversary of the martyrs’ deaths.
Primaldo inspired all the other townspeople to take courage, the late Pope said, and to say: “We will all die for Jesus Christ; we willingly die so as to not renounce his holy faith.” There were not “deluded” or “outdated,” Blessed John Paul continued, but “authentic, strong, decisive, consistent men” who loved their city, their families and their faith.
The skulls and other relics of the martyrs currently adorn the walls around the altar of Otranto Cathedral as a memorial to their sacrifice. According to the archdiocese’s website, popular tradition holds that when the soldiers beheaded Primaldo, his body remained standing even as the combatants tried to push him over. Legend has it that the decapitated man stood until the very last prisoner was killed, at which point Primaldo’s body collapsed next to his dead comrades….