Saturday, April 9, 2016

Tides of history reflected in cathedral architecture

Our next stop was the old Palermo Cathedral. Palermo's cathedral has suffered aesthetically from multiple reworkings over the centuries, but remains a prime example of Sicily's unique Arab-Norman architectural style. The interior, while impressive in scale, is essentially a marble shell whose most interesting features are the royal Norman tombs.

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.

Next we walked over to the Palantine Chapel. This priceless chapel, designed by Roger II in 1130, is Palermo's top tourist attraction. On the mid-level of Palazzo dei Normanni's three-tiered loggia, it glitters with stunning gold mosaics, inlaid marble floors and wooden ceiling, a masterpiece of Arabic-style honeycomb carving that reflects Norman Sicily's cultural complexity.

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.


Building of the Royal Palace was begun by the Arabs. With the arrival of the Normans in 1072 reconstruction and extensions were built. In the 16th century the Spanish made further additions. Today the building is used as the Sicilian Parliament. The Hercules Hall is where the members of the Regional Assembly of Sicily gather. It takes its name from the series of paintings dedicated to Hercules. The Sicilian parliament was the first Italian parliament and is one of the oldest in Europe.

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.


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