Constantine, Roman emperor from 306 to 337 AD, adopted Christianity early into his reign and subsequently moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), at the eastern frontier of the Empire. Christianity flourished and gradually supplanted the Greco-Roman gods that had once defined Roman culture. This religious shift prompted the building of Christian basilicas, where in addition to the mosaic floors with typical Roman geometric designs, scenic wall and ceiling mosaics became a prime medium to convey the Christian message.
By the 6th century, with the reign of Justinian I (527 to 565) the Byzantine Empire had flourished into its first golden age. In 537, Justinian completed the construction of what was to become the global center of the Orthodox Church and the epitome of Byzantine architecture: Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. While virtually all of the early Christian mosaics were subsequently lost to political and religious conflicts, the mastery of the craftsmen who had created them endured, as did the demand for their work throughout the Christian states around the Mediterranean. In the 10th and 11th centuries, even states actively hostile to Byzantium, such as the Republic of Venice and the Norman King Roger II of Sicily, imported its craftspeople to create the greatest Byzantine mosaics the world has ever seen.
Sicily’s Norman Legacy
Following the decline of the Western Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Sicily endured a succession of invaders throughout the remainder of the first millennium. The Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Saracen all left their mark on the island. But it was the Norman conquest in the 11th century that transformed Palermo into one of the most brilliant and enlightened courts in Europe. As they established the seat of their power, the Norman rulers wisely integrated the best elements inherited from the Byzantine and Islamic cultures.
The Palatine Chapel
The most spectacular example of this synthesis is La Capella Palatina, built in 1132 by King Roger II within the vast royal palace of Palermo. The chapel is an exuberant blend of artistic styles: an elaborate Norman basilica with a three-aisle nave topped by a Byzantine cupola. Pointed Arabic arches are set on 10 antique columns of Sicilian marbles and the interior is covered in glittering Byzantine mosaics, capped by an elaborately carved Arab wood ceiling. The dazzling, predominantly gold mosaics, enhanced with deep blues, greens and reds, and the figures outlined in black, cover the upper portions of the walls. There are three typically Byzantine representations of the Christ Pantocrator: in the apse of the right nave, in the central apse and in the dome of the cupola, where it is surrounded by a ring of angels attired in the sumptuous robes of Byzantine emperors. Meanwhile, the Old Testament cycle set along the side walls of the center aisle follows the Roman church tradition. Laid out on two levels (or registers) of multiple panels, its pictorial narrative runs chronologically from the Creation to scenes from the lives of the apostles Peter and Paul.
A 10-minute walk from the Palatine Chapel, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (the church of Saint Mary of the Admiral, a.k.a. La Martorama) was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch, the Syrian christian admiral (or ammiraglio) and principal minister of Roger II. Originally intended to serve the Italo-Albanian community, who although part of the Catholic Church followed the rituals and spiritual tradition associated the Byzantine rite of the Orthodox Church. In subsequent centuries, the church became absorbed by an adjoining convent of Benedictine nuns (originally established on the property of Eloisa Martorana, hence its moniker). While the nuns extensively modified the structure and interior decor in the 16th through 18th centuries, a series of significant 12th century Byzantine mosaics remain. On the south side of the aisle, King Roger II – George of Antioch’s lord, is depicted receiving the crown of Sicily from Jesus. This depiction of Roger is politically significant in terms of its iconography. In Western Christian tradition, kings were customarily crowned by the Pope or his representatives. Here, Roger is shown in Byzantine dress, being crowned by Jesus in the Byzantine fashion. Meanwhile, on the northern side, George himself sits at the feet of the Virgin.
The Cefalù Cathedral
Consecrated to the Savior and to Saints Peter and Paul in the coastal city of Cefalù, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Palermo, Il Duomo di Cefalù was started by Roger II in 1131, just a few month after his coronation. Here, the main decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and the bay in front of it. A majestic bust of the Christ Pantocrator fills the dome. Beneath it, the mosaics are divided into three registers, with Mary occupying the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower sets, the apostles are pictured on a smaller scale.
The pictorial cycle in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, depicting sainted deacons, warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.
The Cathedral of Monreale
The sumptuous Duomo di Monreale, consecrated to the Assumption of the Virgin, was erected by King William II (a successor of Roger II from 1166 to 1189). Built in a royal park on the site of an earlier Greek sanctuary some 10 kilometers (6 miles) above Palermo, its interior is impressive for its spaciousness and rich decor. Not only are there mosaics throughout, but also large antique columns with decorative capitals, marble paneling on the lower wall surfaces, and an elaborate ornamental floor in the sanctuary. The mosaics cover all the upper portions of the walls of the sanctuary and the nave, in all a surface area of roughly 7.600 square meters (82.000 square feet). The Monreale Cathedral thus represents one the most extensive mosaic decors in Italy, on par only with Venice’s San Marco (about 8,000 square meters or 86.000 square feet). On the vault of the main apse, the central focus of the multi-figured design is the majestic bust of Christ Pantocrator. The main motif in the lower part of the apse is an enthroned Madonna and Child between archangels and apostles. The apse’s vaults hold large enthroned images of the apostles Peter and Paul, and the walls present scenes from their lives. An extensive cycle on the life of Christ unfolds on three registers across the walls of the crossing and the transepts. The mosaic decoration continues in the nave where forty-two scenes from the Genesis are depicted in two registers and the side aisles depict Christ’s miracles.
Good to Know
- Mosaic techniques — Like other mosaics, Byzantine mosaics were made of small pieces of glass, stone, ceramic, or other material, which are called tesserae. However, during the Byzantine period, craftsmen expanded the materials that could be turned into tesserae to include gold leaf, silver and precious stones.They also perfected the construction of their mosaics. Before the tesserae could be applied, multiple layers of foundation were laid, the last one made of a mix of finely crushed lime and brick powder. On this moist surface, artists drew images and used strings, compasses and calipers to outline geometric shapes before the tesserae were carefully cemented into position to create the final image.
- Getting there — Palermo’s international Falcone-Borserlino Airport offers daily flights to and from most major European cities as well as the Italian mainland. It is located some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the center of the city, with frequent train and bus connections between the city and the airport from 5:00 am to midnight. Monreale is served by Palermo’s urban bus service (AMAT). Bus 389 runs from Piazza Indipendenza, in Palermo to the cathedral in Monreale. Cefalù is easily accessible by train or car from Palermo. Trains to Cefalù run approximately every hour, and the journey is about 50 minutes.
- Visiting — The Palatine Chapel, Piazza del Parlamento, 1, 90134 Palermo PA, is open year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:15 pm and Sunday and holidays from 8:30 to 9:40 am and 11:15 am to 1:00 pm. The Cathedral of Monreale, Piazza Guglielmo II 1, 90046, Monreale PA, is open daily from 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, and from 2:30 to 5:00 pm. The Cefalù Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo, 90015 Cefalù PA, is open daily from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:30 pm to 6:00 pm.