The Palatine Chapel


The Palatine Chapel is a site that alone makes a visit to Palermo worthwhile. Begun in 1130, the year of Roger II's coronation as the first king of Sicily, it was completed in 13 years and consecrated, as an inscription in the dome attests, in 1143. In this church, described by Maupassant as "the most beautiful religious jewel dreamt of by human thought", the fusion of the vast diversity of Sicily's origins – European, Sicilian, Byzantine and Arab – is realised in visual terms.

The chapel has the form of a western basilica with a nave and two aisles divided by granite columns with rich gilded Corinthian capitals; the decorated floors and the inlays on the steps, balustrades and lower part of the walls are also western in style, although influenced by southern tastes.

We can admire the gigantic pulpit (homily platform), set with gold, malachite and porphyry, and the Easter candelabrum, a veritable marble bestiary, donated by Archbishop Ugo of Palermo on the occasion of the coronation of William, son of Roger II.

The mosaics are the finest products of Byzantine art, without equal in any of the churches of Constantinople. The Christ Pantocrator in the dome, the angels surrounding him and the Evangelists absorbed in their studies, which are the the oldest mosaics, stand out. Finally, the Islamic tradition is represented by the wooden ceiling with muqarnas (stalactites), the most unpredictable covering for a Christian church. It is, in fact, the classic ceiling that we would expect to find in the largest and most elegant mosques, but never in a church. Intricate decorations adorn the stalactites and, uniquely in the history of Islamic art, these decorations include human figures. Arabian artists, in the tolerant atmosphere of Norman Palermo, were persuaded to venture into this type of figure and so, with the help of binoculars, we can now discern realistic scenes of everyday life of dignitaries and busy maidservants.

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