Palermo: Cappella Palatina

Interior of the Cappella Palatina.

There was a big crowd at the Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel of the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo. The chapel is not that large, so custodians only let in a limited number of visitors at the same time. When you are waiting in the queue outside, you can take a look at the mosaics that were made in the nineteenth century to decorate the exterior of the chapel. To be honest, these rather dull images completely pale compared to the splendour and opulence of the Cappella Palatina itself. The chapel is a fascinating amalgamation of East and West. It was built in the shape of a classical Roman basilica, with a nave and side aisles. While it has Cosmatesque decorations that are also often found in the Eternal City, these are complemented by Byzantine mosaics with Greek and Latin texts and, lastly, an Islamic-style wooden ceiling. In 2015 the Cappella Palatina was added to the UNESCO list of world heritage, a decision that is fully justified.

History

The history of the chapel starts in 1117 with the construction of the crypt, which is currently known as Santa Maria delle Grazie. Then in 1129 the construction of the Cappella Palatina itself was launched. The man responsible for this private palace chapel was Roger II, son of Roger I, the conqueror and first Great Count of Sicily (1072-1101). When Roger I passed away in 1101, he was initially succeeded by his eight-year-old son Simon. However, Simon then died in 1105, and his brother Roger II became the new Great Count. The second Roger was also still very young at the time – he was nine years old to be precise –, and as a consequence his mother Adelaide del Vasto acted as a regent for him. She remarried in 1113, and the groom was Baldwin of Boulogne, King of Jerusalem. Unfortunately Baldwin was still married to an Armenian woman, which made the marriage illegal. In 1117 Baldwin decided to repudiate Adelaide and send her back to Sicily. Her son Roger could now no longer claim the throne of Jerusalem.

Interior of the chapel. Note the special ceiling.

In spite of this setback, Roger was able to expand his territories in other ways. In 1127-1128 he annexed Apulia, the part of Southern Italy of which his cousin William had been Duke until his death in 1127. Pope Honorius II (1124-1130) was fearful of a strong state south of the papal territories and was initially a staunch opponent of Roger, but in 1128 he was forced to recognise the Norman-Sicilian count as Duke of Apulia. So by the time Roger II started the construction of the Cappella Palatina he was Great Count and Duke, but his ambitions were not yet satisfied. When the chapel was consecrated on 28 April 1140 (Palm Sunday), he had been recognised as King of Sicily.[1] This recognition had been preceded by a long struggle. The struggle had started in Rome when after the death of the aforementioned Pope Honorius II two new popes were elected (see Rome: Santa Maria in Trastevere). Pope Innocentius II had the support of most of the European powers, but not of the city of Rome. By contrast, his adversary Anacletus II was popular in Rome, but outside the city his list of allies was thin. Luckily for Anacletus there was one man willing to answer his call: Roger II of Sicily. The price the Great Count asked for his aid was a royal crown.

Anacletus II was prepared to pay that price, and so it came about that on 25 December 1130 Roger II was crowned King of Sicily in the cathedral of Palermo. Obviously Innocentius and his allies were not impressed. What followed was a hard fight in Southern Italy, where Roger was haunted by his brother-in-law Rainulf of Alife, the husband of his sister Matilda. Another fierce opponent was the German emperor Lotharius II. Roger suffered two severe defeats on the battlefield, but always managed to bounce back and retake the territories that he had lost. After the death of Anacletus in 1138 it briefly looked like Innocentius would be triumphant, but unfortunately the Pope became overconfident. He invaded Roger’s territories in Southern Italy and was ambushed at Galluccio. Here Roger’s army not only won an important victory, it also managed to take the Pope prisoner. On 25 July 1139 Innocentius was forced to sign the treaty of Mignano and acknowledge Roger II as King of Sicily and ruler of all of Italy south of the river Garigliano. The crown that Roger had worn since the end of 1130 was now finally secure. And the Cappella Palatina had now definitively become the chapel of the royal family. In 1143, the year that Pope Innocentius II died, the chapel was completed.

Abraham and the three strangers at Mamre.

Drunkenness of Noah.

Many important historical events have taken place inside the Cappella Palatina. In 1177 princess Joan, daughter of Henry II of England and sister of Richard the Lionheart, was crowned Queen of Sicily here. She had just been married to King William II “the Good” (1166-1189), a grandson of Roger II. In 1809 Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, was married in the chapel to Maria Amalia of Naples and Sicily; in 1830 he became King of France. The Cappella Palatina was spared when in January of 1848, a year that saw a wave of revolutions in Europe, there was a popular uprising in Palermo. A mob stormed the royal palace and ransacked the place, but fortunately skipped the chapel. There was a new uprising in September of 1866, and this time the chapel was saved by a personal intervention of the mayor of Palermo. Regretfully the Cappella Palatina was damaged by an earthquake in September of 2002. Restoration works lasted until July of 2008. These were not the only restorations that the building had to endure. Other restorations were carried out in the fifteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as will become clear in just a moment.

Tower of Babel.

Jacob’s Ladder.

Mosaics

The chapel is deservedly famous for its beautiful mosaics. Unfortunately the tesserae that are used to create mosaics have the tendency to come off after a while. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the mosaics in the Cappella Palatina have been restored on several occasions, which has not always produced satisfactory results. Clearly the mosaics in the chapel have been laid in several phases. The oldest mosaics are those of the crossing, the inside of the dome and the three apses. These date from the reign of King Roger II and it is assumed that they were laid by craftsmen from Constantinople. The texts accompanying the mosaics are in Greek. On the inside of the dome we for instance see Christ Pantokrator, surrounded by eight archangels. On either side of Christ are the Greek letters IC XC, which is of course short for Iesous Christos (Ἰησοῦς Χριστός). The beautifully dressed archangels are wearing Byzantine robes. They are holding standards (labarum) in their right hand and globes with crosses (globus cruciger) in their left. During King Roger’s reign most Christians on Sicily were still followers of the Greek-Orthodox Church. Roman Catholics were still a minority, but their numbers were growing fast because of immigration from the mainland.

Dome of the Cappella Palatina.

Christ Pantokrator.

The archangels Michael and Gabriel.

In the central apse we once again stumble upon Christ Pantokrator, with above him the empty throne (hetoimasia) that symbolizes his second coming. On the throne sits the dove of the Holy Spirit and the throne is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Gabriel and the dove return in the scene of the Annunciation that has been depicted above the throne. Obviously the Virgin Mary is part of that scene, and we see her again on the wall of the apse, flanked by Saints Peter and Mary Magdalene on the left and John the Baptist and James the Great on the right. Unfortunately it is crystal clear that many of these mosaics were heavily restored in the eighteenth century. This is even more evident in the left and right apse. The conches of the two apses have images of Saints Peter and Paul, but these are truly hideous. When the famous British writer John Julius Norwich spoke of “eighteenth-century monstrosities”[2], he must have been referring to these creations. The mosaics on the apse walls are, by the way, not much better.

Christ Pantokrator with the Annunciation and Hetoimasia.

Fortunately at the back of the chapel we also have the mosaics with stories from the New Testament. These also date from the time of King Roger and have Greek captions. We for instance see the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, accompanied by the text Ή ΒΑHΦΩΡΟC, the “palm branch-bearer”. The event is described in John 12:12-13:

“The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (NIV)

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem ( Ή ΒΑHΦΩΡΟC).

Above the scene of the Entry the Baptism of Christ (ΒΑΠΤHΣΙΣ) and the Transfiguration (ΜΕΤΑΜΟΡΦΟΣΙΣ) have been depicted, and above these two scenes we see the Dream of Joseph and the Flight to Egypt. Of course a mosaic featuring the Nativity (Ή ΧΥ ΓΕΝΝΗΣΙΣ) is present as well. There can be little doubt that these mosaics too were more or less restored, but it seems like this was done a lot more competently than in the apses.

Nativity (Ή ΧΥ ΓΕΝΝΙΣΙΣ).

The mosaics in the nave and aisles are of a later date. They were laid around 1160, so during the reign of King William I “the Bad” (1154-1166), the son of Roger II. It is not inconceivable that the work was not yet competed when William I passed away in 1166 and had to be continued under his son and heir, the aforementioned William II “the Good”. The mosaics in the nave depict all kinds of stories from the Old Testament, more specifically the Book of Genesis. We immediately recognise the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau and many others. The texts accompanying these mosaics are all in Latin. Although the style is not radically different from that of the older mosaics, these mosaics are in fact presumably works by local Sicilian craftsmen. It becomes evident that some mosaics were heavily restored if we study some of the faces. I sincerely doubt whether the restorers even attempted to work in the same style as their medieval predecessors.

Expulsion from Paradise.

Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Esau.

The mosaics in the aisles tell stories from the lives of the two most important apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. Once again the captions are in Latin. From the life of Saint Peter we for instance see how the apostle heals a cripple and is liberated from prison by an angel. When it comes to Saint Paul, we see, among other things, how he is blinded on the road to Damascus, his subsequent baptism by Saint Ananias and his escape from the city in a basket. The two apostles also act together. They embrace each other in Rome and cause the sorcerer Simon Magus to fall to his death from the sky (see Rome: Santa Francesca Romana). The Bible, by the way, teaches us that the two men were rivals rather than friends and held different opinions on food taboos and circumcision.

Saint Peter liberated from prison by an angel.

Saint Paul in Damascus.

Saint Paul baptised by Saint Ananias.

Saints Peter and Paul embrace.

The newest mosaics are those above the throne at the front of the Cappella Palatina. These date from the thirteenth century and were possibly laid during the brief period (1266-1282) that Charles of Anjou was King of Sicily. The king, by the way, visited the island just once and was not loved. The mosaics with the lions and birds look a bit Persian. Above these mosaics Christ sits on his throne, giving his blessing, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul and the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The (abbreviated) names of Christ and the archangels are given in Greek, those of Saints Peter and Paul in Latin.

Mosaics above the throne.

In the chapel we also find many dozens of mosaics of saints, but it would be too much of an effort to discuss all these. I will, however, take a closer look at the several inscriptions in the chapel that are related to restorations. Below a window we for instance find a reference to a restoration ordered by King John II of Aragon, who was also King of Sicily (1458-1479). The inscription mentions the year MCCCCLXIII, which is 1463. The same inscription refers to a restoration in 1753 by a certain King Charles III and his son Ferdinand. This was King Charles III of Spain, who also happened to be Charles V of Sicily (and Charles VII of Naples). His son and successor on Sicily Ferdinand III (known as Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies as of 1816) was not a very bright man. He destroyed part of the twelfth-century mosaics to create a new entrance to the chapel.[3] Ferdinand was also responsible for the mosaics of the exterior of the chapel. In the long text on the cornice below the beautiful wooden ceiling there is again a reference to John II of Aragon, this time in connection with the year 1478 (MCCCCLXXVIII). Lastly, on the throne the year 1719 (MDCCXIX) and one Philip V are mentioned. This is Philip V of Spain, who by the way was no longer King of Sicily in 1719 (he had been forced to cede the kingdom to Savoy in 1713).

Wooden ceiling

The beautiful wooden ceiling is truly unique for a Christian chapel. The style is evidently Islamic, or in any case Arabic, and one would sooner expect these beautifully carved decorations in North Africa or Persia than in Palermo. And yet the presence of these decorations is easy to explain. When Roger I and his older brother Robert Guiscard conquered Palermo in January of 1072, this was in essence an Arabic city of which the majority of the inhabitants were Muslim. After the capture of the city a number of mosques that had once been churches were rededicated to Christian worship, but in other respects Muslims were allowed to practice their religion freely and Arabic became one of the official languages of Norman Sicily. When King Roger II was fighting his wars in Southern Italy in the 1130s many of the soldiers in his army were Arabs or Berbers. They were unwavering in their loyalty to the King.

Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina.

If you study the ceiling from the floor of the chapel, you will be struck by the large star-shaped decorations. These are themselves quite beautiful, but if you take a closer look you will see that they have been painted. Surprisingly, the tempera paintings depict human figures, which is rather exceptional in the Islamic tradition, especially in a religious building (although the images themselves do not seem to have religious connotations). On the edges of the stars there are texts in Arabic, written in the Kufic script. You will need a set of binoculars or a camera with an excellent zoom function to see all the details well.

Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina, with human figures and texts in Arabic.

Other decorations

The Cappella Palatina furthermore has a nice Cosmatesque floor and several other Cosmatesque decorations. Just look at the walls, the throne, the choir enclosure and the pulpit. Next to that pulpit is a Paschal candlestick, a couple of metres tall, which according to my travel guide is the oldest Romanesque artwork on Sicily. It is possible that the candlestick was made in Northern Italy and that it was a gift by archbishop Hugh of Palermo. It was Hugh who crowned Roger’s son William co-monarch in the chapel at Easter in 1151.

Cosmatesque decorations.

Detail of the Romanesque Paschal candlestick.

It seems appropriate to conclude this post with a quote from the aforementioned John Julius Norwich, who visited Sicily for the first time in 1961 and wrote about the Cappella Palatina with passion and great knowledge[4]:

“Finally, as you wander through this astonishing building, remind yourself of one of its most important aspects – its date. The middle of the twelfth century was just a hundred years after the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches, which everywhere else were still at daggers drawn. The Crusades, on the other hand, were at their height: while Roger’s Arab carpenters were putting together that wonderful ceiling, Christian and Muslim were slaughtering each other the length and breadth of the Levant. Only here, in this one island in the centre of the Mediterranean, did its three great civilizations [Latin, Greek, Arab] come together and work together in harmony and concord, as never before or since. Norman Sicily remains a lesson to us all.”[5]

Amen.

Sources

Notes

[1] With Sicily comprising both the island and the Norman territories in Southern Italy, later known as the “Two Sicilies”.

[2] John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 74-75.

[3] John Julius Norwich, Sicily, p. 244.

[4] Norwich died in 2018. In the 1960s he made a documentary for the BBC about Norman Sicily, for which he also wanted to shoot some scenes in the Cappella Palatina. This led to an altercation with the priest of the chapel, “the only really unpleasant Sicilian I have ever met”.

[5] John Julius Norwich, Sicily, p. 82-83.

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