I’ve visited dozens of wonderful churches in my life, some vaste and grand like St. Peter’s in Rome, or Westminister Abbey in London, others smaller and with a more intimate feel. As a rule, I’m partially to smaller chapels and churches, and there are two at the top of my list of favorites. The most beautiful church I’ve ever been in, and because of the nature of it also the most beautiful painting of the Renaissance, is the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time actually made me gasp in awe — a travel first for me! But another smaller church that caught my eye and amazed me with its beauty is the Palatine Chapel within the old Royal Palace, Palazzo dei Normanni, in Palermo, Sicily, which I recently visited.
Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans) provides a superb example of the Arab-Norman architectural style that is unique to Palermo, and it was recently recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Sicily, a land that was repeatedly conquered by the regional powers of the millennia, architecture often followed the whims of its then current rulers. The palace was originally built for the Arab emirs in the 9th century on the site of a Roman fortress, but was subsequently abandoned. The palace was later fully completed and restored by the conquering Normans, who added their own twists to the building the Arabs had started.
Capella Palatina itself was crafted and finished by Norman King Roger II during the short period from 1130 to 1140 AD, and it is simply gorgeous! As you can see from the accompanying images, it’s extensively decorated with finely detailed Norman-Byzantine mosaics the clarity of which is so precise many mosaics look more like paintings. These mosaics were the work of Byzantine Greek craftsmen brought to Palermo by the King especially for this project. Most of the mosaics retell Old Testament stories but, of course New Testament scenes are also included. Mosaics cover almost every square inch of the walls and portions of the ceiling, and spill to the exterior of the Chapel.
The architectural detailing is fascinating as well, with elegantly worked and inlaid semiprecious stones and marble in the floors and lower walls of the church provided additional ornamentation and decoration. At the time of construction, these were very expensive and rare materials, even more so than today. A unique feature of the chapel is its ceiling (see image below), of an elaborate wooden Arab myuqarnas style, with stalactites. I don’t believe there is another Christian church with this style of roof, but I could be wrong.
After the Normans left Sicily, the palace was abandoned and fell into serious decay until it was “discovered” by Spanish viceroys. In 1555, they began to restore it and it became a royal residence once again. Today, the Palazzo dei Normanni is the seat of Sicily’s regional government.
Together the palace and its chapel are the most popular tourist attractions in Palermo, and the paid admission for both sites is about €8.50. Waits in the summer can be long and the chapel will definitely be crowded then. When we visited in the winter no more than 20 visitors were in the church and we could take as long as we wanted to study and absorb all the details, which we did. I lost track of time but it wouldn’t surprise me if we spent an hour and a half studying all the mosaics and details of this small church.
A special thanks to the folks who work at the Capella Palatina. Photography is not normally allowed within it, but when I explained I wanted to use some photos in a blog, permission to take them was generously granted (no flash, of course).