All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in February 2023.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in February 2023.
You may wish to see an introductory page to this section or to Palermo first.
S. Maria dell'Ammiraglio better known as La Martorana (left) and S. Cataldo (right) seen from the entrance to S. Caterina della Ruota
In the middle of Palermo is another church of King Roger's reign, founded in 1143 by George Antiochenos his high admiral. S. Maria dell'Ammiraglio was renamed La Martorana in 1433 when
granted to a nunnery founded by Eloisa Martorana in an adjoining building. Originally the church stood four-square, with a central dome on four columns, supported
on each side by a short barrel vault reaching the outer
wall, the four square bays in the corners being covered
with cross-vaults at a lower level. It conforms therefore to what has been called the "four-column plan" of
domed churches, of which S. Theodore the Tiro, the Pantocrator, and S. Saviour Pantepoptes at Constantinople are examples.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915. The author (1835-1924) of this essay was one of the leading architects of his time. He extensively wrote about Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
West of the church stands the Campanile, of two dates, the two lower storeys probably coeval with the church, the upper part being of the following century. It is now joined to the church by the later nave, but was divided from it originally by an atrium open to the sky, much in the same way as that at Parenzo in Istria, though here without the intervention of a baptistery. In the lowest storey are arches on all four sides. The first storey above has large pointed two-light windows, the outer order made with pulvinated courses and voussoirs like the windows (it opens in another window) of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. They are enclosed by an incised border of ornament, and the whole is set in a square panel with a border of inlaid work, and a bounding moulding. The effect of this is thoroughly oriental, and reminds one of the panelling in majolica tiles that enclose the Mihrab of a mosque (as at the Great Mosque of Kairouan). A broad band of similar inlay runs round the tower below the windows. The patterns are sunk in the solid and filled in with black basaltic stone, of which a good deal has fallen out. The two later storeys above are in the same style, with pulvinated voussoirs and inlaid patterns, and they have octagonal turrets at the corners. The tower no doubt once finished with a dome, which has disappeared. The whole design for one fresh to Sicilian architecture is novel and most instructive. T. G. Jackson
La Martorana: (left) interior (you may wish to see it in a 1911 painting by Alberto Pisa); (right) 1717 fresco depicting "The Circumcision of Christ with St. Benedict" on the site of the former atrium which was replaced by a cantoria for the nuns. It is a work by Guglielmo Borremans (1670-1744), a Flemish painter who spent the last 30 years of his life in Sicily
There are a number of antique columns of marble, granite, etc very beautiful. They were found in different places and though not alike they have contrived to place them so as to produce uniformity and harmony and to have a good effect.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11
This is a building of the domical type, following the Byzantine plan of a square surrounding a central dome, and with three apses at the east end. (..) The original plan of the nave is obliterated by an extension westwards made in 1588 on the site of the atrium. T. G. Jackson
La Martorana: overall view of the mosaics near the dome
The whole of the walls are also in Mosaic and even the ceiling, but as they have had it all gilt, the gold tarnished by time and the smoke of candles, has a gloomy and bad effect. Cockburn
The arches and vaults are covered with extremely fine mosaics of a purely Byzantine type. (..) These mosaics with those of Cefalu, and of the eastern part of the Capella Palatina, are splendid both in colour and design, and are certainly the finest in the island. T. G. Jackson
La Martorana: (left) The Nativity of Christ; (right) The Dormition of Mary (you may wish to see two mosaics by Pietro Cavallini showing scenes from the life of Mary at S. Maria in Trastevere)
In the western barrel-vault
is a Nativity on one side and on the other the death of the Virgin. Christ
receives the soul and delivers it to two angels who float
above ready to take it in their arms. T. G. Jackson
All the inscriptions of the mosaics were written in Greek which was the ceremonial language used by the Christians of Sicily during the Arab rule. Nicodemus, Bishop of Palermo at the time of the Norman conquest was a Greek and followed the teachings of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. At Monreale and Cappella Palatina later mosaics had inscriptions in Latin because the Norman kings promoted the acceptance of the primacy of the Popes and the use of Latin. A 1148 Christian gravestone had dedicatory inscriptions in Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew.
La Martorana: mosaic of the dome
Four more similarly draped angels fly
round the dome, the centre of which has a full-length
figure of Christ seated on a throne, within a circle, round
which is the text from St. John VIII. 1 2. (I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life) which we have
seen at Cefalu. T. G. Jackson
The portrayal of Jesus Christ in Majesty was a recurring subject of mosaics as one can see at S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (VIth century - with four angels), Hagia Sophia (Xth century with a symbolic depiction of the Annunciation) and Abbazia di Grottaferrata (XIth century between the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist). In Rome Jesus Christ in Majesty was often portrayed together with the symbols of the Four Evangelists as at S. Pudenziana (IVth century).
La Martorana: detail of the Annunciation
The depiction of the scenes of the life of Mary were based also on texts other than the Four Gospels. The Protoevangelium of James says: Now there was a council of the priests, and they said: Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord. And the priest said: Call unto me pure virgins of the tribe of David. And the officers departed and sought and found seven virgins. And the priests called to mind the child Mary, that she was of the tribe of David and was undefiled before God: and the officers went and fetched her. And they brought them into the temple of the Lord, and the priest said: Cast me lots, which of you shall weave the gold and the undefiled (the white) and the fine linen and the silk and the hyacinthine, and the scarlet and the true purple. And the lot of the true purple and the scarlet fell unto Mary, and she took them and went unto her house. (..) Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it (..) and took the purple and sat down upon her seat and drew out the thread. And behold an angel of the Lord stood before her saying: Fear not, Mary ... M. R. James' Translation.
The image of the spindle "piercing" the red yarn is a symbol of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The dove is most likely a later addition; in origin the ray of light touched the shoulder of Mary. The scene is very lively and realistic.
Beginning with the XIVth century Mary was portrayed in the Annunciation with a book in her hands. This became the traditional iconography of the event for the Roman Catholic Church and it was followed in the relief of the XVth century southern portal of the Cathedral.
La Martorana: St. Joachim (left) and St. Anne (right)
The small cross-vaults in the
angles of the original square plan have gold stars on
a blue ground, and on the soffits of the arches are
patterns in colour on gold. (..) In the two side apses are S. Joachim and S. Anna with
their names in Greek. T. G. Jackson
The depiction of a starry night as background for a cycle of mosaics is a feature first seen at Mausoleo di Galla Placidia at Ravenna (early Vth century).
La Martorana: (left) St. Raphael the Archangel; (centre) St. Bartholomew the Apostle; (right) mosaic of a window; a saint in a round mosaic is shown in the image used as background for this page
The initial iconography of the Apostles and of the early saints depicted them as Senators of Rome (e.g. at S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna - Vth century). Eventually the distinctive features of a Senator's attire were forgotten, but still saints were portrayed wearing very similar ancient Roman clothes. Names were written at their sides in order to differentiate them. This was done in Rome too (e.g. at S. Paolo fuori le mura), but eventually names were dropped because each saint was portrayed with a symbol of his martyrdom (you may wish to see a page on the iconography of saints in Italy). In the case of St. Bartholomew this resulted in a rather gruesome image because, according to tradition, he was skinned alive.
La Martorana: main altar
central apse was destroyed in 1685 by the excrescence
of a rococo choir. T. G. Jackson
The altar likewise deserves notice and they have a large table near it of verde antique, the finest of the kind I ever saw. Cockburn
The new apse was designed by Paolo Amato, an architect who is best known for the lavish decoration of SS. Salvatore. Its decoration is known as marmi mischi (mixed marbles) and is characterized by marble inlays in which white reliefs or decorations are placed on a blue/black background.
Palazzo dei Normanni: Cappella Palatina: (left) entrance; (centre) portico outside the chapel; (right) 1800 mosaic portraying King Ferdinand I of Bourbon and the Genius of Palermo
The Chiesa del Palazzo is entirely encrusted over with antient mosaic and the vaulted roof too is all of the same.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
The first Loggia of the Palace where the Cappella Palatina stands once according to appearances a mosque, was converted into a Christian Temple by Ruggero. It displays Arab-Norman architecture; its principal Door of entrance is splendid.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
Brydone saw the chapel before it was extensively restored in 1800. The mosaics outside the chapel were made at that time.
Cappella Palatina (see it in a 1911 painting by Alberto Pisa): (left) columns; (right) marble inlays
Its interior Walls are richly clothed with Saracenic Mosaics interspersed with Arabic Inscriptions, Porphyry and other rare marbles. The Pavement likewise is composed of pietre dure and the twelve Columns which support the Nave are fine Egyptian marble. Starke
The side walls, up to the small pointed windows are covered with marble, divided by bands of mosaic into large panels, inlaid with discs or slabs of porphyry on a white ground. Below the windows this dado finishes with a frieze of mosaic and marble of a very oriental character. (..) The capitals seem to be of late Roman work, some misfitting the column, being too small. (..) The mosaic inlays in dados, and such furniture as the ambo, or choir screens in Sicily are largely made with porphyry and serpentino (or verde antico) and not like the Cosmatesque work entirely of glass. T. G. Jackson
Cappella Palatina: overall view
The Palace Chapel called Chiesa del Palazzo is reckoned one of the curiosities of Palermo, is old, ugly and extremely dark so much so that I do not think it possible to have service in it at any time of day without candle light. The roof is vaulted and, like the walls, is all Mosaic work, and very antient. This is however much spoiled by gilding and even painting, or rather, I should say, daubing part of the walls with colours. Cockburn
The chapel, the famous Capella Palatina, was begun by King Roger II in 1132 and finished in 1143. The plan is basilican with a nave and side aisles five bays long, divided by antique columns of marble, alternately smooth and fluted, that next the ambo spirally. (..) The construction of wall and arch is no doubt of brick, as may be seen in the arches of the vestibule where the material is exposed, but no stone or brick is shown within the chapel, the whole being lined with marble or mosaic. (..) The chapel is very dark, and except on a bright day, and early in the morning it is difficult to see the detail. T. G. Jackson
Cappella Palatina: mosaic of the apse depicting the Annunciation and Christ Pantocrator
At the west end is a grand mosaic, covering the whole
wall above a lofty dais prepared for the royal throne with
side screens of marble. (..) The apse has round the facing arch of the
pointed vault an inscription in Latin. T. G. Jackson
The inscription in the book held by Jesus Christ is the same as at Monreale, La Martorana and Cefal¨. The long inscription in Latin surrounding Jesus makes reference to Sts. Michael and Gabriel, the Archangels and then goes on to mention the symbols of the passion with a final exhortation "Cry sinner when you see them and worship them!". It is not a quotation from a holy book which is a rather unusual thing.
Cappella Palatina: mosaic of the dome
Round the base of the dome are eight little windows of clear glass which rather prevent the mosaic
from being well seen. A half-length figure of Christ occupies the centre of the dome, and on the circle round the dome, are angels with white draperies
and prismatic coloured wings, and with their names in Greek letters. T. G. Jackson
It is interesting to note that the angels in the dome have military luxury robes, which most likely were worn by Byzantine commanders. That is explained by the inscription Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool (Isaiah 66:1); in this context the eight angels were portrayed as soldiers of God.
Cappella Palatina: mosaics with inscriptions in Greek: (left) Triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the eastern wall; (right) Nativity in the eastern small apse
While the decoration of the apse and of the dome was centred upon Jesus Christ, the other mosaics with inscriptions in Greek had a more illustrative purpose. The focus was on events of the lives of Mary and Jesus, but some panels depicted events of the Old Testament, mainly from the Book of Genesis, similar to what occurred at Monreale.
Cappella Palatina: mosaics with inscriptions in Latin: (left) Liberation of St. Peter; (right) St. Peter and St. Paul debate with Simon Magus in front of Emperor Nero
The mosaics of the nave are rather later, and were
finished by William I in 1160 after the death of his
father. The inscriptions in this part are in Latin, and
it is probable that while the mosaics of the eastern part
were done by Byzantine Greeks, those of the nave are
by Sicilians, their pupils. T. G. Jackson
These later mosaics give great relevance to St. Peter to whom the chapel was dedicated, another indication of the alliance between the Normans and the Popes to reduce the Byzantine influence in Italy.
Cappella Palatina: wooden ceiling with "muqarnas" (see a "muqarnas" decoration at Yazd in Persia)
The nave roof is of wood gorgeously decorated, with pendants of a kind of stalactite formation. T. G. Jackson The Norman kings, not only commissioned Arab architects and decorators with the construction of Zisa and Cuba, their out-of-town leisure palaces, but wanted them to work at their very Christian chapel by designing and decorating its roof. Being a wooden roof it was repaired and repainted many times throughout the centuries, but some sections of it still show very minute paintings and Arabic sentences around the octagonal stars. The sentences wished glory, health, virtue, victory and the likes to the king.
Cappella Palatina: (left) candelabrum; (right) minor aisles ceiling
At the eastern part of the south
nave aisle is a fine ambo, inlaid with Cosmatesque mosaic and close by is the famous marble candelabrum, enriched
with semi-Romanesque sculpture. (..) The aisles have a lean-to roof of wood. T. G. Jackson
The Norman kings availed themselves not only of Arab architects and decorators, but they had also many Arab advisers and their army was strengthened by Arab archers. The hostility towards the Muslims who lived in Sicily grew after the death of King William II in 1189. It was in part an effect of the 1187 conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin. A series of Crusades were called by the Popes and they caused an enmity between Christians and Muslims which lasts to the current day. Many Muslims left the island and the remaining ones were relocated to Lucera, a town in Apulia in ca 1220. In 1300 they had to choose between forced conversion or death.
Other pages on Palermo:
- Gates and City Layout
- Norman-Arab Monuments
- Medieval Palaces
- Churches of the Main Religious Orders
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
- Public Buildings and Fountains
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale
1911 Sicily in the paintings by Alberto Pisa