On the Piazza Bellini in Palermo there is always a church in sight. On the north side stands the Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, a church that combines Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo elements. More interesting and certainly older are the two churches on the south side. Here, on a platform, we find side by side the churches of San Cataldo from 1160 and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, founded in 1143. Both are on the list of UNESCO world heritage. In this post I will focus on the latter church. Among other things I will discuss the life of the admiral to whom we owe the church and explain why the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is also known as La Martorana.
The word “admiral” derives from the Arabic word amir al-bahr, which means “ruler of the sea”. Sicily has been an Arabic emirate for a long time. In the ninth century the island was conquered by the Muslim Aghlabids from North Africa. In the tenth century these were replaced by the Fatimids, who were in their turn replaced in 948 by the Kalbid dynasty. One century later Muslim Sicily fell apart into bickering smaller emirates that constantly fought each. This made the Norman conquest of the island between 1061 and 1091 a lot easier. In the Norman county of Sicily, upgraded to the kingdom of Sicily in 1130, there was certainly room for Muslims. Arabic was one of the official languages of the kingdom and in a city such as Palermo (‘Balarm’) Arabic culture and science flourished. And so the word amir al-bahr was copied into Latin – also an official language and the language of the Roman-Catholic church – as ammiratus. It later ended up in other languages as “admiral”. An ammiratus was not merely a naval commander. He was basically also a high-ranking advisor and minister serving under the King of Sicily. The highest admiral – ammiratus ammiratorum or Emir of Emirs – can be equated to the Prime Minister of the kingdom.
The admiral of our story and of the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is one George of Antioch. George (Γεώργιος) was a Greek Christian who was presumably born in the last decade of the eleventh century in the city of Antioch in Syria (now Antakya in Turkey). According to the Bible, this was the city where the word “Christian” had been coined (Acts 11:26). Antioch had been captured by the Arabs in 637, and as a consequence Islam had been introduced and the Arabic language was widely spoken there. The city was later taken by Byzantines, Turks and crusaders. George was probably born a few years before the city was captured by a crusader army in 1098 and the founding of the Principality of Antioch, which survived until 1268. At a young age George travelled to North Africa with his father to take service with the Tunisian Sultan Tamim from the Zirid dynasty. However, when Tamim died in 1108 and was succeeded by his son Yayha, young George decided to defect to the monarch of Sicily, Great Count Roger II. He disguised himself as a sailor, sneaked aboard a Sicilian ship and sailed to Palermo.
Young Roger II – who at the time was only twelve years old and was still under the regency of his mother Adelaide – welcomed the defector with open arms. George spoke both Greek and Arabic, knew the coast of North Africa like the back of his hand and proved to be a great soldier and diplomat. We hear of him for the first time during an expedition of Roger against the city of Mahdia in Tunisia in 1123. During the expedition George served as the lieutenant of the admiral Christodulus. Several decades previously, in 1087 to be precise, troops from Pisa and Genoa had already taken and sacked Mahdia (see Pisa: San Sisto). The Sicilian expedition of 1123 was, however, a failure, with the few minor successes fully attributable to George. Exactly 25 years later, in 1148, George was back in Tunisia, this time as ammiratus ammiratorum, Emir of Emirs. On this occasion Mahdia did fall into Sicilian hands and King Roger II – he had been crowned King on 25 December 1130 – obtained a foothold in North Africa. In 1153 a Sicilian fleet also captured the city of Bône (Annaba in present-day Algeria), this time under the command of Philip of Mahdia, who had succeeded George after the latter’s death in 1151 or 1152.
By 1160 the kingdom of Sicily had lost its North African possessions to the Almohads again. Apart from Mahdia and Bône these had comprised the cities of Sfax and Sousse in Tunisia and Tripoli in Libya. That these territories had been part of the empire of King Roger II and that of his son and heir William I “the Bad” was first and foremost the merit of George. And the Emir of Emirs could boast of more achievements. In 1147 he captured the island of Corfu with his fleet during a war against the Byzantine Empire. He next attacked the Greek mainland, acquiring rich spoils in the process. A raid on the city of Thebes led to the confiscation of large quantities of silk and the capture of groups of silk workers. These were taken to Palermo where, as semi-voluntary employees of the royal tiraz (textile workshop), they made and sold their luxury products in the Sicilian capital. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel Komnenos tried to stem the Norman-Sicilian tide by making alliances with the Venetians and the Holy Roman Emperor. Although Corfu was retaken, it was George who, in 1149, staged a new raid and even reached the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Of course he did not have the men or means to take the city, but multiple rich estates were pillaged and once again there was considerable booty.
George of Antioch has left Palermo two important monuments. The first is the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, a bridge across the river Oreto (although the course of the river has later been diverted). The second monument is the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, of which the construction started in 1143 and which must have been completed before the admiral’s death in 1151 or 1152. The original appearance of the church was quite different from the current one. The Santa Maria was built in the shape of a Greek cross. On the west side it had a narthex (vestibule) and atrium, to which the surviving twelfth-century bell-tower was attached. At the end of the sixteenth century the façade of the church was demolished, and as part of a thorough renovation the narthex and atrium were incorporated into the church itself. This was not the end of the renovation, as in 1683 the twelfth-century apse was demolished, which resulted in the loss of all its mosaics. Between 1683 and 1687 a large new chapel was built in its place, after a design by the architect Paolo Amato (1634-1714). The eminent historian of Norman Sicily John Julius Norwich spoke of an immensely ugly chapel, “the hideousness of which all the efforts of nineteenth-century restorers have been powerless to diminish”. Our historian was, by the way, hardly less scathing about the Baroque interior of the church.
Lord Norwich did not discuss the Baroque façade, which was added to the north side of the church – where previously the atrium stood – in the middle of the eighteenth century. The architect Nicolò Palma (1694-1779) was responsible for this project. In the meantime an earthquake in 1726 had led to the destruction of the dome of the bell-tower, which meant that regretfully another original Arab-Norman element was lost. In 1846 the square in front of the church was lowered by about two metres, which explains why the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and its neighbour the San Cataldo are situated on a platform and have to be reached by staircase. The church owes its present appearance to a large restoration carried out between 1870 and 1873 by Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905). Nowadays the church is used by the Italian-Albanian community, which is in communion with the Catholic church, but follows the Byzantine liturgy. The services are in Greek or Albanian.
The previous paragraphs have not yet offered an explanation why the church is also called La Martorana. At the end of the twelfth century a Benedictine nunnery was founded next to the church by the spouses Goffredo and Eloisa Martorana. The nunnery quickly took on the name of the couple. In the fifteenth century the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio was granted to the nuns, and henceforth it was also known as La Martorana. A famous delicacy in Palermo is the frutta di Martorana, which was said to have been invented by the nuns. Frutta di Martorana is fruit made of marzipan that looks exactly like real fruit. As is so often the case there are various stories explaining the origins of the delicacy. When the trees in the garden of the nunnery were no longer bearing fruit and were therefore looking a bit sad, the nuns were said to have hung marzipan copies from the branches. This supposedly happened during the visit of the archbishop, the Pope or the Emperor. However this all may be, the frutta di Martorana was a success and can still be found in stores everywhere.
I will not discuss the eighteenth-century frescoes in the church in this post: they simply pale compared to the gorgeous Byzantine mosaics that were laid here in the 1140s and 1150s, presumably by craftsmen from Constantinople. In the former narthex, where George of Antioch and his wife found their final resting place, we can admire the portrait of the ammiratus ammiratorum on the left side (third image in this post). George has prostrated himself before the Virgin Mary. He is depicted as an old man with long white hair and a white beard, clearly years older than King Roger II, whose portrait we find on the right (see below). The body of the admiral looks rather peculiar, but this is the result of damage and a restoration gone wrong. We basically only see George’s mantle, from which two arms and a head emerge, so one can understand why the admiral has been compared to a tortoise.
The text on the mosaic is in Greek (full texts here), George’s mother tongue and the original language of the New Testament. The Virgin is the MP ΘY (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ) or Mother of God. She is holding a scroll with a long Greek text, while above the admiral there is a second Greek text, of which the first part is still legible: +ΔΟΥΛΟΥ ΔΕΗΣΙΣ ΣΟΥ ΓΕΩΡΓΙΟΥ, or “prayer of your servant George”. The last part of the text is possibly ΤΟΥ ΑΜΗΡΑ, “the Emir” or “the admiral”. In the top right corner we furthermore see Jesus Christ giving his blessing from heaven. His portrait is accompanied by the letters IC XC, which is short for Ἰησοῦς Χριστός.
Of even greater importance is the portrait of King Roger II on the other side of the former narthex (image on the right). It represents the only reliable portrait of the King that has come down to us. Roger has long brown hair and a brown beard. He is wearing the robes of a Byzantine Emperor, including the famous imperial red shoes or τζαγγία. The Norman-Sicilian King receives his crown from none other than Jesus Christ himself, who appears to be hovering and therefore towers above Roger. The crown is also typically Byzantine, with a pendant shaped like a braid. As was already mentioned above, during his long reign Roger fought against the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180). Nevertheless, he entirely based his own kingship on the Byzantine model, save for one important aspect: Roger never used the Greek title of βασιλεύς (basileus), which was the usual title of the Byzantine Emperors. On the mosaic he is ΡΟΓΕΡΙΟΣ ΡΗΞ, “Rogerios Rex” in the Latin alphabet, with rex of course being the Latin word for “king”.
When we enter George of Antioch’s original church and look down, we can still see the original Cosmatesque floor (image above). The floor is splendid, but the Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is a church where visitors first and foremost look up. The gold-coloured mosaics are simply astonishing. On the walls, the vaults and the inside of the dome we see apostles, evangelists, archangels, prophets, doctors of the church and other saints. From the centre of the dome Jesus Christ, seated on his throne, is looking down and giving his blessing (image above). The Messiah is surrounded by the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel, who have been depicted strangely bent and almost seem to be crawling like dogs. Michael and Gabriel have also been depicted on one of the vaults and there they have a much more natural posture. There we moreover see their Byzantine imperial robes and the usual red τζαγγία. With some effort we can read a text along the edge of the dome, written in Arabic, so from right to left. With this text the other language that George of Antioch spoke fluently (besides his native Greek) is represented in the church as well. The text is an old Byzantine Marian hymn.
The most beautiful mosaics are those of the Nativity (Ή ΧΥ ΓΕΝΝΗΣΙΣ) and the Death or Dormition of the Virgin (Ή ΚΟΙΜΗΣΙΣ). The Nativity scene has a number of fine details. We for instance see the star of Bethlehem, the shepherds who are informed by angels about the birth of Christ, the donkey and ox at the crib and a pensive Joseph. In the bottom right corner a bath is prepared for baby Jesus. An interesting detail of the Dormition scene is that the Virgin is surrounded by fifteen men. Apart from the twelve apostles these are probably two church officials (upper left corner, note their pallia) and a monk (upper right corner, note his tonsure). Saints Peter and Paul are instantly recognisable, with the former swinging a thurible. Behind the deceased Virgin her son Jesus is holding the baby Mary in his arms, fully in line with Byzantine religious imagery.
- Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 58-59;
- Chiesa della Martorana – Wikipedia;
- John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
- John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 93-99.
 The name means “Servant of Christ”.
 Philip was a Greek eunuch from North Africa who after his victory at Annaba had been welcomed as a hero in Palermo, but had subsequently been condemned to death. He had been accused of secretly converting to Islam, which made him guilty of the crime of apostasy. The story is highly dubious (see John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 157-160).
 The story is told in The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 130-131.
 The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 94.
 “[S]impering cherubs and marzipan madonnas that mark the real dark ages of European religious art” (The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 96).
 The cross with which the inscription starts can perhaps be read as Χριστο-, which makes the first word “christodoulou” (Χριστοδούλου), “servant of Christ”.