Palermo – Norman-Byzantine architecture

As mentioned in the previous post, the Norman architecture of Palermo is considered by UNESCO as being of ‘outstanding universal value’. The collection of buildings represents a unique amalgamation of Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures that gave birth to an architectural and artistic style which became widespread throughout the Mediterranean.

The Byzantine influence is the most spectacular, in particular the shimmering mosaics made by sandwiching gold leaf in glass tesserae (square mosaic tiles). These opus tessellatum mosaics are also features of the cathedrals of Cefalú and Monreale, which get their own posts later.

See also my post on Basilica San Marco in Venice for another major example of Byzantine architecture in Italy.

This post is about the two spectacular examples in Palermo itself, the Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) in the Norman Palace, and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio aka Chiesa della Martorana, both built by the Norman king Roger II.

Of the two, the Cappella Palatina is the busiest with large groups of tourists trying to squeeze inside a fairly small space. I went during the Covid pandemic in November 2021 so thankfully there weren’t as many visitors as there could be, but you should probably expect queues at most times.

You’ll find them both on my map.

The Cappella Palatina has three naves separated by columns with composite capitals.

The granite and cipollino marble columns support pointed arches, five on each side.

The cycles of mosaic panels around the columns tell tales from the Old and New Testament…

… such as Noah and the Great Flood, the Garden of Eden, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Angels, prophets, evangelists, saints and heraldic lions fill the remaining surfaces.

Islamic, specifically Fatimid, influences are also apparent, most noticably in the pointed arches and the wooden ceiling with its carved and moulded muqarnas.

And also in the cosmatesque (inlaid geometric decorative stonework) mosaics on the floors and walls. Cosmati mosaics differ from opus tessellatum mosaics in that they are made from different shapes and sizes of stone, as opposed to small, regular tesserae. The large roundels were often carefully cut cross sections of columns, upcycled from the ruins of ancient Roman buildings.

Islamic motifs also sit happily side by side with Christian imagery in some of the window grills.

Another impressive object is the intricately carved Norman candelabra.

The construction of the Cappella Palatina took eight years, from 1132 until 1141. Some think that the same Greek craftsmen were set to work on Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in 1143 as soon as they’d finished on the chapel, although this is disputed. Both were however built under the patronage of King Roger II.

The Byzantine mosaics inside Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio are some of the oldest and best-preserved mosaic artwork of the Norman period and they are truly spectacular.

Their central focus is the mosaic depicting Christ enthroned in the cupola.

Descending the walls successively are archangels, patriarchs and evangelists.

Finally, at the bottom, are the remaining apostles.

And immediately below the cupola is a Cosmatesque floor.

Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is named after its founder, George of Antioch, the great Syrian admiral (from whom that word comes) in the service of Roger II.

George was a Byzantine (Orthodox) Christian. In a mosaic near the door he can be seen lying prostrate before the Virgin Mary.

The building has undergone many changes in its history. The Romanesque bell tower is a 13th-century addition, and the Baroque façade was added in the 17th. Sadly the apse was tragically destroyed at the time of the Baroque makeover and replaced with the type of garish altar dressing that can be found in many other Italian churches (see my coming Baroque post on polychrome churches).

A third phase of decoration can be seen in the entrance area although these 18th century frescoes are of comparatively little artistic significance.

Opposite Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is the Benedictine convent Monastero di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (of marzipan fame, see later post), founded by the aristocrat Eloisa Martorana. In 1433 the church became attached to the convent, and since then has also been known colloquially as La Martorana. Today it is home to a minority religious group, the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, which follows the Byzantine rite. This means that masses in the Martorana are held in ancient Greek, the same as when the church was founded 800 years ago.

Rennaisance architecture next!

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