Qantara Qantara

Palatine Chapel of Palermo

  • Name : Palatine Chapel of Palermo
  • Place : Sicily, Palermo
  • Construction date/period :

    Late 1130s until 1150-1160

  • Construction materials : Stone
  • Architectural pattern : Mosaic, essentially in glass tesserae, paintings and architectural sculpture.
  • Recipient/Mandatory : Commissioned by Roger II (1130-1154)

In 827, the Aghlabids set out to conquer Sicily, which until then had been a territory of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Arab-Berber troops transferred the political capital of Syracuse to Palermo (formerly Latin Panormus), from the south-east to the north-west of the island, and implemented a policy of Arabisation and Islamisation. In the tenth century, Sicily was attached to the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. The island remained under Muslim domination until the Normans arrived. They obtained sovereignty of Sicily from the Papacy, determined to rechristianise the territories that Byzantium could no longer win back.

The Norman Conquest took place between 1060 and 1090. Finally, in 1130, Roger II (1130-1154) was made king by the antipope Anaclet II (1130-1138) and gathered the Norman territories into one kingdom. He naturally chose Palermo as his capital. There, he had a palace built, and within the palace, a sumptuous building of worship, the Palatine Chapel. Its architecture and decoration make it an exceptional example of the mingling of the Christian arts of the East and West with Islamic art.

Building commenced around 1140 and continued uninterruptedly under the reign of Roger II. In 1143, the date that appears on its base, the mosaics of the dome were completed. However decoration on the rest of the building continued until the 1150s. Under the reign of Guillaume (1154-1166), the son of Roger II, a further decorating programme was carried out. The mosaics in the nave and the aisles date from this period.

The chapel's architecture includes borrowings from both Latin and Greek churches. The sanctuary, similar to Byzantine churches, comprises a choir surmounted by a dome on corner squinches. The choir extends to a compartment with an apse on the east end and two other smaller apses on the north and south. The western part of the building comprises a nave and aisles with five bays. The structure of this part corresponds to that of contemporary southern Italian churches with a basilica plan.

The iconography of the sanctuary follows the conventions of Byzantine churches. Thus in the centre of the dome there is an image of Christ Pantakrator, Christ Almighty. The Greek inscriptions and the style used indicate that the mosaics, like all the others in the sanctuary, were the work of Byzantine artists. However, the presence of a second Pantokrator in the apse conch, instead of the Virgin, as well as the depiction of scenes from the life of Christ along the sanctuary wall, show that the Byzantine design was adapted to the functions of the building and to the wishes of the king who commissioned the edifice. This image of Christ seems to have been replaced by another, perhaps of the Virgin Mary, probably during the second stage of construction. Although the inscriptions of the mosaics in the nave and the aisles are in Latin, the style remains very similar to that of Byzantium. The nave shows a cycle from the Old Testament, and scenes from the lives of Peter and Paul, a typically Western subject, feature in the aisles.

Unlike the entirely vaulted sanctuary area, the western part of the chapel has wooden ceilings. The style of the paintings with which they are decorated, the muqarnas that adorn those of the nave, and the kufic inscriptions clearly indicate that artists from the Islamic world produced them.

Thus the Palatine Chapel truly represents Norman Sicily: it is multicultural. It is a masterpiece that shows how artistic influences mingle, and testifies to the obvious determination of Roger II and his heirs to shape a new culture for the newly created kingdom using the entire range of artistic styles of the Mediterranean.

BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATED TO THE MONUMENT

Kitzinger, E. I mosaici del periodo normanno in Sicilia, 1. La Cappella Palatina di Palermo. I mosaici di presbítero. Palermo: Accademia Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti, 1992.

Kitzinger, E. I mosaici del periodo normanno in Sicilia, 2. La Cappella Palatina di Palermo. I mosaici delle navate. Palermo: Accademia Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti, 1993.

Tronzo, W. The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.



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