Sicily, Palermo, the Martorana

Also known as The Church of the Admiral; Sta Maria dell'Ammiraglio
Era 12AD
Location Piazza Bellini, 3, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy

The small Martorana (it is 12.5 m x 212.5 m externally), the Church of the Admiral, in Palermo, was founded, built and endowed by the staunchly Christian George of Antioch, King Roger II’s admiral. George was the son of Syro-Greek parents. He and his father both served under the Emir of Al Mahdia (Tunisia) but in 1112, George entered Roger’s service. By 1132, he was the king’s equivalent of the Grand Vizier of the caliphs. George probably died around 1151, three years before Roger.

The church is dedicated to Mary and has a deed of endowment dated to 1143: this asserts that the church was built by George to thank the Virgin for her support. It was a nunnery of Greek nuns and clergy, though it was unusual for a man to found a nunnery. It was also a private, personal foundation, though the church seems to have been accessible to a wider public than just the Admiral and the nuns: in 1184, the Arab traveller, Ibn Jubayr, visited it. It is apparent from the foundation document that the church building was more or less complete by 1143, though parts such as the atrium and portico appear to have been added after 1146. It was designed essentially as a cross in square church, a form popular in Sicily as well as Byzantium and elements of the construction and decoration, notably the pointed arches and vaults, are very Sicilian in appearance. Islamic (Fatimid) elements are also present, for example in the wooden frieze at the springing point of the dome and in some of the external decorative details of the church such as the frieze inscription and its crenellations and the plaster window grills with their geometric ornament.

The mosaics originally must have covered all the wall space above the (largely lost) marble revetments, including the vaults of the inner church. There may well also have been mosaic in the atrium and portico. The focal point is the cupola, for most of the mosaics can be best viewed from the central square. There is a bust Pantokrator in the cupola, holding a closed book. Four archangels crawl awkwardly around him in the outer ring: their pose is perhaps affected by the architectural space they are set in, though they might be understood as performing a standing reverential proskynesis (bowing before God). The hemisphere of the cupola rests on a wooden frieze bearing the text of a Greek hymn in Arabic. The drum of the cupola contains eight full-sized prophets, the squinches have the evangelists, and there are scenes relating to the Virgin throughout the church: the Annunciation and Presentation in the Temple in the transept; the Nativity of Christ and Death of the Virgin on the vault of the western cross-arm. The parents of the Virgin, Joachim and Anna, are in the side apses, implying that the Virgin herself was in the main apse. And an assortment of saints - Fathers, Warriors, Martyrs, Deacons and Apostles – are distributed throughout the church.

Two dedication images, probably originally located in the inner narthex, survive. One shows Roger, identified in Greek as ‘Ρηξ’, a transliteration of the Latin ‘rex’, ‘king’, and dressed almost as a Byzantine emperor, crowned by Christ. This was a highly visible statement of the king’s power and standing that borrowed from Byzantium (though technically, Roger’s dress is closer to that worn by tenth-century emperors than those of the twelfth century, and so was a little old-fashioned). The other panel shows George kneeling before the Virgin; she holds a scroll of ten lines in Greek, a plea addressed by her to Christ on George’s behalf. The mosaic has been terribly restored and poor George in his elaborate cross-hatched robe looks more like a turtle than a man. This commemoration of the donor is a not unusual one. It is the presence of Roger’s image in the context of the Martorana that seems odd. It is possible that the two images were paired and that they show a flow of power and authority, Christ to king; then king’s minister to Virgin to Christ. Roger’s presence may serve to underline George’s standing.

The mosaic programme has been interpreted as an abridged edition of that of the Cappella Palatina and the relationship of these two buildings and their mosaics has been hotly disputed. Clearly two such elaborate chapels in such close proximity, both spatial and temporal, paid for by the king and his minister, are unlikely to have been built and decorated in isolation from each other; it is perfectly possible that they shared workmen, artists and resources. Equally, George, in the use of mosaic, marble, wood, sculpture and inlay, and all the rest of the decoration, was clearly prepared to pull out all the stops to make his church magnificent. But one was the royal chapel and the other a private votive offering to the Virgin, soliciting her intercession (seen in the image of George and the Virgin) and thanking her for her support.


The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, which also included much of southern Italy, was established in 1130 and lasted only until 1194. Previously, between c831 and c1072, after its conquest from the Byzantines, Sicily had been an emirate, an Islamic state, with a ruler based in Palermo. It had been a wealthy state: Palermo, with a population of c150, 000, was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean, and it had been a multi-cultural state: Christian and Jewish communities on the island survived throughout the emirate. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, warring southern Italian rulers, Byzantines and Lombards alike, hired Norman mercenaries to help out in their struggles against each other and against the Moslems. One of the most successful of these was Robert Guiscard. Among his other triumphs in Southern Italy, Robert had taken Sicily from the Arabs after which Pope Nicholas II had created him Duke of Sicily and Robert in turn had handed Sicily to his brother Roger, to rule as Count in 1071. Count Roger (1071-1101) completed the conquest of Sicily by 1091.

It was Roger’s son, Roger II (1105-1130 as count, 1130-1154 as king), who created the Norman kingdom of Sicily and was its first and perhaps most successful king. Roger II was a supporter of the antipope Anacletus, who crowned him on Christmas Day 1130. Roger, with his admiral, George of Antioch, was successful at sea against both the Arabs and Byzantines and succeeded in establishing Sicily as a major force in the Mediterranean, possibly the most important sea-power in the region, though the Venetians might have had a view about that. Roger was succeeded by his son, William I (1154-1166), who maintained the kingdom in the face of internal revolts, and was in turn succeeded by his son, William II (1166-1189), whose reign was commemorated as two decades of peace and prosperity. William left no heirs and the kingdom gradually fell apart and was acquired by the Hohenstaufens and Frederick II in 1194.

Sicily was throughout this period a multiconfessional and multilingual state, occupied by Muslims, Latin and Orthodox Christians, one in which Arabic remained one of the languages of government, though the Norman kings and their churchmen aimed to convert the island to Latin Christianity. What happened in Sicily during this period of the three Norman kings stands in sharp contrast to ‘before’ and ‘after’. This clearly-definable ‘Norman’ period seems to have been when Sicily was at its height in terms of Christian power, prestige and wealth, all on the back of military might. The buildings and works of art associated with the three Norman kings are of an unprecedented scale, magnificence and quality, and served to advertise them as forces to be reckoned with, serious power-players in the region – art as propaganda on a considerable scale.

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