Saturday, April 9, 2016
Tides of history reflected in cathedral architecture
Construction began in 1184 at the behest of Palermo's archbishop, Walter of the Mill, an Englishman who was tutor to William II. Walter held great power and had unlimited funds at his disposal. The cathedral was erected on the location of a 9th-century mosque; a detail from the mosque's original decor is visible at the southern porch, where a column is inscribed with a passage from the Koran. Since then the cathedral has been much altered, sometimes with great success as in the 15th-century three-arched portico that took 200 years to complete and became a masterpiece of Catalan Gothic architecture, and sometimes with less fortunate results as in the dome, added between 1781 and 1801.
Throughout the cathedral there were lots of tile decorations reminiscent of what you might see in a mosque along with the contrasting gold leaf of the altar area. It was fun for us to watch the arrival of a wedding party.
The chapel's well-lit interior is simply extraordinary. Every inch is inlaid with precious stones, giving the space a lustrous quality. Swarming with figures in glittering, dreamy gold, the exquisite, highly sophisticated mosaics were mainly the work of Byzantine Greek artisans brought to Palermo by Roger II in 1140. The bulk of the mosaics recount the tales of the Old Testament, though other scenes recall Palermo's pivotal role in the Crusades.
The painted wooden ceiling featuring muqarnas, a decorative device resembling stalactites that is unique in a Christian church. The walls are decorated with handsome marble inlay that displays Islamic art, and the carved marble in the floor is stunning. Marble was as precious as any gemstone in the 12th century, so the floor's value at the time of its construction is almost immeasurable.
Some of the rooms in the palace we didn't see as they were used as offices for departments such as anti mafia. Other rooms were beautifully decorated with wooden ceilings, hunting scenes and lavish frescoes.