Sicily, Palermo, Cappella Palatina

Era 12AD
Location Piazza Indipendenza, 90129 Palermo PA, Italy

It's inside the Norman Palace. You go in and (surrounded by crowds) it's like entering a small, gold box. It's quite claustrophobic and mind-bendingly bright and glitzy with gold and bright lights. And there are mosaics everywhere, so it is really hard to make sense of it and to keep focused on one part without being distracted by details elsewhere. I'll do the history in the Notes box, and try and take you through the mosaics here.

The mosaics cover the entire upper part of building above the socle and the capitals in the nave. Angles and corners are rounded to link walls and no secondary architectural features, such as the half columns attached to some walls, are allowed to get in the way of this constant flowing surface. The programme is continuous and largely uninterrupted.

Let’s start in the apse at the east. Christ Pantokrator, blessing and holding an open book, is in the centre, the dominant figure. Below him is a single row of figures, with the Virgin, a horrible, remade mosaic, in the centre, and, to the viewers’ left, Mary Magdalene and Peter; to the viewers’ right, John the Baptist and St. James, an interesting combination of figures.

The vault of the presbytery contains the Empty Throne and two archangels, both hinting at heaven and of things to come in the shape of the Last Judgement. Below are single figures of Popes Gregory and Sylvester.

The arches of the central square have the Annunciation on the Triumphal arch with prophets below, opposed by the Presentation. Evangelists are in the squinches and runs of saints and prophets in same area. Above, the dome itself has another blessing Christ Pantokrator with angels and archangels below (looking almost as if they are performing some sort of country-dance figure).

The south apse has Paul in a Pantokrator-like pose and three saints below him; the Nativity, Pentecost in the vault, saints and prophets are on the walls; and the Gospel cycle continues on the south wall of the south transept with Joseph’s Dream, the Flight into Egypt, Christ’s Baptism and Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus and the Entry into Jerusalem.

The north transept has lost its some of its decoration, though the Ascension in the vault and figures of saints survive. The inner arched wall of the nave has an Old Testament cycle running from the Creation to Jacob and the angel, and lots of saints (there are at least 100 saints depicted in the chapel); the outer walls of the aisles show scenes from the lives of Peter and Paul.

The west wall has the royal throne against it and above that, a panel showing the Pantokrator, Peter, Paul and archangels.

The nave has a spectacular vaulted roof of cedar wood executed in the Islamic muqarnas technique (a technique creating a honeycomb-like appearance) fashionable in the Islamic world; it was gilded and painted with dancers, musicians and drinkers, looking like courtiers and it surmounts the Old Testament cycle on the wall below, the worldly atop the spiritual.


The Norman royal palace was based around the emir’s palace in Palermo, but greatly expanded it. There must have been some sort of chapel there in the early twelfth century before King Roger II commissioned his. Roger’s chapel appears to have been built between 1132 and perhaps 1140, though a mosaic inscription around the cupola gives 1143 as the date of consecration. The mosaics were presumably part of the plan from the start, so these dates must also relate to their making. The architecture of the chapel is an interesting hybrid. The building is essentially a standard basilica with a nave and two aisles and an apse at the end of each of these three elements, but with a domed choir or sanctuary and two transepts. This combination of a centralised and a longitudinal plan reflects Western architecture but also Byzantine and Muslim influences. In many ways, it was a synthesis of architectural forms from the island itself. Only the east end is vaulted, in a form that has been described as splendidly Saracenic. The high drum of the dome and the angular squinches are architectural features which recur in Sicily. In addition to the mosaics, the building was lavishly decorated with marbles, sculptures and paintings in a variety of different styles.

It should be pretty clear that the mosaics have undergone a great deal of repair and restoration. It’s not at all obvious how much of the nave is original and the aisles appear to have been repeatedly restored. Consequently there has been a lot of debate about how the mosaics work as a sequence, if indeed they do so or were meant to do so. ‘Restoration’ serves as a convenient explanation for those areas that do not fit any master plan.

The great art historian, Otto Demus, who published a major survey of the mosaics of Norman Sicily, suggested that only the dome was in place in 1143. He argued that Roger II’s mosaic blueprint, for the east end of the building at least, the cupola, central square, apses and parts of transept, was for an Apocalyptic cycle in the dome, the Virgin in the apse, Peter and Paul in the side aisles, and the Christological cycle plus Church Fathers in transepts. But Demus argued that Roger’s son, William I made amendments to the plan after Roger’s death. This is where it gets complicated.

William I apparently inserted a ‘royal box’, a royal viewing space on the north wall in the transept (look for it). This then meant that the mosaic programme needed tweaking to fit the new sight lines needed for the box: the Virgin had to be made visible, and the wall opposite adjusted, causing details from the Christological cycle to be lost. William II (Roger’s grandson) then changed things further by putting a throne at the west end and having the mosaic above it made. This also would have shifted the axis of the building. If the king was enthroned at the west end of the church, surely no-one could stand in front of him, with their backs to him, facing the altar? But then, could people turn their backs on the altar and Christ to salute the king?

Demus also believed that some of the mosaics of the Cappella Palatina (the Christ Pantokrator in the apse, the mosaics of the South Transept and the Church Fathers for example) were so similar to those at Cefalù that the same workmen must have been involved, but that they must have been made later (the mosaics at Cefalù are dated c1148). But because the lower part of the south wall looked significantly different, as did the Baptism, Transfiguration, Raising of Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem, these must therefore all have been made by different artists and at a different date, or so he argued.

These are very complicated contentions, based on close-up and detailed readings of the visual material and an interpretation of stylistic differences that takes changes in style as indicating changes in both artists (or workshops) and time period. Both of these are problematic assumptions, since we have no idea of the scale of the workforce at the Cappella nor the time that it took. The implication of Demus’s arguments is either of a campaign of decoration that took a good thirty years or more to complete or of a series of changes and alterations to the overall design of the building involving an almost unceasing adjustment and readjustment of the mosaics, and almost constant scaffold and mess over a very long time.

I think too much weight has been laid on the perceived stylistic differences between the transept and the nave. These are always said to be the result of a series of campaigns, but I think they could equally have been one campaign and several teams of artists. Indeed, another great art historian, Beat Brenk, has argued that because the scenes in the presbytery and aisles were laid overlapping the corners (again, look!), they must have been sequential, made in a short space of time and to a design. He saw a master plan existing for a complete decoration of the presbytery, nave and clerestory from the start of the work, pointing out that the uninterrupted ornamental band separating the two registers of Old Testament scenes runs from the nave to the west wall; that consequently there must have been scaffold in the nave and presbytery at same time and so the scenes and the ornament were installed together. Further, the central nave mosaics must have been done c1143 because then the mosaicists could have used the same scaffold already in place for the roof. This makes sense. Thirty years to complete the work in such a small chapel (the building is perhaps 35m long from apse to narthex and about 16m wide) seems a little far-fetched, as does the idea that it was the palace chapel that was kept in such a constant state of flux, a chapel that we believe to have been central to the royal palace. As the royal chapel, surely it was imperative to get it finished and suitable for use as quickly as possible?

This is not to say that William I and William II could not have altered the layout and indeed the mosaics, but it remains questionable as to how much alteration took place when and over how long a time.

The chapel needs to be understood as the religious centre of the palace, a place where the Catholic Mass was celebrated, and potentially a place for other royal rituals and events. In this regal context, the alignment of the images in the sanctuary, which run along a viewing line of north to south rather than east to west, do seem to match up with the remains of a balcony on the north wall which communicated with the royal apartments – thus an arrangement for the king’s benefit (and this may have been part of the original design or a later adaptation). The throne on the west wall of the nave, locating the king immediately below Christ flanked by Peter and Paul, perhaps in reference to Rome and St Peter’s, is another point in which the royal presence dominates. This throne might well have presented a problem with the altar when the chapel was in use, and so it might be that the throne was related to changes in the building and its use, perhaps as some sort of reception hall. Indeed, it may well have been the case that the chapel had a dual function as both a religious space and a space for kingly use, and that its focus might have shifted depending on the role. Did the king perhaps celebrate the liturgy within the sanctuary, perhaps from his balcony, and then descend to earth to meet and greet his court in the nave?

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