In Sicilia: Cappella Palatina

Guy de Maupassant said of the Cappella Palatina that it was “the most beautiful that exists in the world, the most stupendous religious jewel cherished by human thought and executed by a master hand.” [Cappella Palatina Brochure] He wrote:

Upon entering our Gothic cathedrals, we experience a severe, almost sad, sensation. Their grandeur is imposing, their majesty astonishes, but does not seduce. Here, we are conquered, moved by that something, almost sensual, that color adds to the beauty of forms. [Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travelers, p.19]

Oscar Wilde also waxed ecstatic:

In the Cappella Palatina, which from pavement to domed ceilings is all gold, one really feels as if one was sitting the in the heart of a great honeycomb looking at angels singing. [Id. p. 18]

The Norman King, Roger II (1095-1154), commissioned the Cappella not long after becoming King of Sicily in 1130. In 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee inscribed the Cappella as one of several “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale, Italy, on the World Heritage List,” offering two criteria for the listing:

Criterion (ii): Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale bears witness to a particular political and cultural condition characterized by the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French). This interchange generated a conscious and unique combination of elements derived from the architectural and artistic techniques of Byzantine, Islamic, and Western traditions. This new style contributed to the developments in the architecture of the Tyrrhenian side of southern Italy and spread widely throughout the medieval Mediterranean region.

Criterion (iv): Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale is an outstanding example of stylistic synthesis that created new spatial, constructive, and decorative concepts through the innovative and coherent re-elaboration of elements from different cultures. [citation]

There is far more to know than I have as yet been (or may ever be) able to learn. Here, at least, are a couple glimpses of the “stylistic synthesis” to which the UNESCO Committee refers:

The mosaics

 [T] pictorial program in the chapel’s sanctuary is essentially Byzantine in character. The chapel’s oldest mosaics, and the ones of highest quality both artistically and in terms of technique, are the ones in the cupola and its drum. . . . While the pictorial program in the sanctuary is essentially Byzantine in character, this is not the case in the nave, whose mosaic decor consists of two pictorial cycles. The Old Testament cycle, which runs along the side walls of the centre aisle in two registers, follows in the tradition of Roman church decoration. It begins on the south wall, next to the crossing, with the story of the Creation, and ends on the north wall with scenes from the life of Jacob. The second cycle extends across both of the side-aisle walls: the stories of apostles Peter and Paul are related in fourteen panels, some of them containing two scenes. [citation]

The muqarnas ceiling

Resplendent with traditional Orthodox iconography and a painted Arabic muqarnas ceiling (made of local Nebrodi Pine, now rare) bearing numerous figures of beasts and people, the Palatine Chapel seems to be a Monreale in miniature, though it antedates that church by decades. . . .

Recently restored, the ceiling has some interesting images, and even Arabic script. Lions and eagles are prominent. One of the more remarkable images shows chess being played – an indication of the intellectual pursuits of the medieval Palermitans. Dancing is also depicted. Islamic practice generally discouraged the artistic representation of humans in portraiture, but these paintings in tempera, part of what is widely considered the largest single Fatimid work of art of its day, seems to reflect the relaxed norms of a tolerant society. . . .

The ceiling is the work of local and Tunisian artists. The mosaics – many representing Biblical scenes – were created by Orthodox monks from Sicily, mainland Italy and Greece (and as far away as Constantinople), the same artists who worked on the Martorana. [citation]

On reading this article, I regret not having spent a lot more time craning my neck to view that ceiling. Finding yet another article, devoted entirely to the wooden ceiling, only deepened my regret:

This painted wooden ceiling, produced during the reign of Ruggero (Roger) II, depicts lively scenes of dancing girls, musicians, gamblers, lions and other animals, all set against a background of plant and geometric decoration. The transition from ceiling to wall is softened by muqarnas (honeycomb decoration). Recent studies have revealed that the craftsmen employed included painters from Egypt, or at least painters influenced by contemporary Fatimid art. [citation]

Another interesting site with information on the Cappella Palatina may be found here. The Qantara Project (Qantara is Arabic for “bridge”), which maintains the linked site, “is part of the Euromed Heritage programme,” which is funded by the European Union. The Qantara Project’s aims are

to contribute to mutual understanding and dialogue among Mediterranean cultures by highlighting their cultural heritage. It promotes intercultural interchange by supporting the preservation and promotion of the shared historic heritage and culture of the European-Mediterranean region, through human, scientific, and technological exchanges.

The project has brought together the Departments of antiquities and heritage in nine partner countries—France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. The Qantara, Mediterranean Heritage, and Eastern and Western Crossings project has led to the establishment of a database that can be consulted on the Internet, which presents a transversal vision of the Mediterranean’s cultural heritage. The database is not limited to the heritage of partner countries, but includes the entire artistic heritage of the countries on the Mediterranean coast, and is constantly updated to ensure this. [citation]

Which is all to say that my photographs don’t begin to do the Cappella Palatina justice, but I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.

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Listening List

 Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), Stabat Mater, P.77 (1736)

Tragically short-lived Giovanni Pergolesi completed his version of the medieval text Stabat mater during the last few weeks of his life. Though many works were imputed to him by unscrupulous publishers and rival composers after his death presumably from tuberculosis, the much-loved Stabat mater was an authentic work. (In the early 1940s edition of his canon fewer than 30 proved to be authentic.)

The Stabat mater has enjoyed great popularity since its appearance, though some early commentators were put off by the galant style (which led ultimately to the Classical vocabulary of Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries). The objections articulated by such commentators as Padre Martini who in 1774 — well into the Classical era — faulted the composer for abandoning the churchly rigor of traditional religious music, anticipating similar objections to Verdi’s Requiem as far too operatic.

The complete program notes from which the above excerpt was taken may be found as a PDF “PROGRAM NOTES by Steven Lowe – Seattle Symphony.”



Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

8 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Cappella Palatina

  1. George Mattingly

    Wonderful post, Sue. Great photos, great writing (and music), a lunchtime trip to Sicily — just what I needed!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      George: I know what you mean about those “lunchtime” trips. I’ve really been enjoying revisiting our trip this way, and it’s fun to try and select appropriate music, as well.

  2. David N

    I’d find it impossible to choose between the Capella Palatina, the Duomo at Monreale and the Martorana – all have forests and palaces of mosaics on various scales. Presume you didn’t get into the palatial rooms as well as the capella either? The royal apartments were closed owing to a state visit when we went, so we never got to see the splendid leopards and palm trees.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Yes, the palatial rooms were closed, and we missed out on the Martorana, too. Gives new meaning to the phrase “spoiled for choice,” doesn’t it?

      1. David N

        I don;t know about Rome, but clearly ‘una vita non basta’ applies to Palermo. I could never have imagined how well until I first visited so much later than all the other major Italian cities. And I think we agree that it’s a Sicilian city – Sicily being such a place apart.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I’m confident you’re right about Palermo, though, as we’ve visited only the barest bit of Italy, we haven’t the basis to judge ourselves. For us, “una vita non basta” applies to a vast array of places we’ve never been (including, just to give you an idea, Venice and Rome). (That pesky ocean and the cost of crossing it gets in the way.)

  3. newleafsite

    Sue, I appreciate your reference, in the comment above, to “trying” to select appropriate music to accompany your posts and photos. However you may have chosen Stabat Mater, the sound seems to fill the high rooms pictured and feels perfectly matched! While listening to the singing and reading the words, I am delighted by your new profile image, which falls into the same frame with, thereby illustrating, the words of regret over not having spent more time craning your neck to view the ceiling! Well done, thoroughly enjoyed this! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Always nice to “see” you here. I’m glad you thought the Stabat Mater was a good fit, and I like the way you describe it. Good spotting on the new profile photo, too. That was taken in another art museum in Palermo with a quite unusual exhibit. More on that in an upcoming post, so stay tuned!

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