Church of S. Maria dell’Ammiraglio or Martorana

Detail

The monumental building is part of the Norman-Arab Palermo route and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale UNESCO World Heritage.

It was completed in 1143 thanks to a generous donation by Admiral George of Antioch. Ibn Jubair, an Arabic traveller who visited it in 1184, called it "the most beautiful work in the world." Today, after careful restoration, it remains one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Palermo and Sicily. In 1436 it was given to the nuns of the nearby convent "della Martorana", from which its second name derives, as a chapel of the convent. In order to contain the growing number of nuns, the building was subjected to expansion work, and it was extended by demolishing the original façade, which was replaced by a baroque one. Upon entering the church it is still possible to detect the original Greek cross system that left such an impression on Ibn Jubair.

The mosaics of the Martorana, like those of Cefalù and the most beautiful ones of the Cappella Palatina, are the work of a group of artists brought from Constantinople to Palermo and who worked here between 1140 and 1155. At the entrance, on the northern side of the nave, there is a dedicated mosaic in which George of Antioch is portrayed at the foot of the Virgin, this latter having remained in perfect condition. On the opposite side we find what is perhaps the Martorana’s most precious treasure: a mosaic depicting Roger II symbolically crowned by Christ.

The church, which belongs to the eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi, was the centre of legendary events that left us with sweet evidence that still remains. In September 1535 Charles V visited Palermo as a stop on his Sicilian tour. There were fragrant orange trees in the garden of the church but their fruits had not yet ripened. To remedy the inconvenience and welcome the royal guest in a lush and well-kept garden, the Benedictine nuns made oranges from almond paste and hung them on the branches, giving the garden the typical appearance of when the harvest is imminent. Thus the Martorana fruit was born, taking its name from the founder of the convent, the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana.

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