The Italo-Byzantine Cappella Palatina of the Royal Chapel of Palermo, Sicily

The Cappella Palatina (Palatine Chapel) is a stunning piece of Italo-Byzantine architecture situated Palermo, Sicily. It is situated in the former Royal Palace of Palermo, then seat of the kings of Sicily.  The chapel might easily be mistaken for the Cathedral of Monreale, also located in Palermo, because of the similarities to be found in the Pantocrator mosaic in the main apse. However, don't let that fool you; these are two distinct sacred spaces each worthy of their own consideration. 

Generally there is quite a bit of interest in the historical arrangement of these churches, so let's get that out of the way first off by sharing an historical photo of the chapel that better shows the counter-reformation era sanctuary ordering of that time. 

The chapel was commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in the year 1132, taking only eight years to build (though the completion of the mosaics would take longer of course). It goes without saying that the church is heavily Byzantine in design, which should hardly come as a surprise given that Sicily was under Byzantine rule from the time of the Emperor Justinian until just around the turn of the first millennium; following that was a short period of Arabic rule before finally entering the period of Norman rule during which time this church was constructed. The antecedent period of nearly 500 years of Byzantine influence, however, was bound to make itself felt given that it was part of the cultural fabric of the region for so long.

What the chapel is particularly notable for is, of course, its stunning mosaic work; works which were executed in and around the mid-twelfth century initially by Byzantine mosaicists and later, others -- though it is at least worth noting that there are also Arabic/Islamic influences that can be found within as well.  The earliest mosaics are accompanied by Greek inscriptions, while later one's, likely executed by local artists, shifted to Latin.  The mosaic scheme of the chapel also includes elements taken from both the Old and New Testaments.  Perhaps the most notable mosaics, however, are the three great apsidal mosaics depicting Christ Pantocrator, St. Peter and St. Paul.

Christ Pantocrator in the main apse

Beneath the main apsidal mosaic of Christ are found extremely refined depictions of the Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalen, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. James.  The quality of these mosaics is exception, taking on an almost painted character.

The secondary apsidal mosaic of St. Peter, shown him holding a ferula like cross instead of the more typical crossed keys.

Beneath the mosaic of St. Peter is an image of St. Joseph with the Christ Child; visible just to the right is St. Stephen and another depiction of St. Peter, this time holding the keys. 

Located to the other side is an image of St. Paul and, beneath, an image of St. Anne and the Blessed Virgin Mary as a child. 

As prominent as these are, however, these are not the only images of Ss. Peter and Paul to be found in the Palatine Chapel. Here is a further selection taken from a series of mosaics depicting the life of Ss. Peter and Paul (including a delightful mosaic of St. Paul being baptized):

Baptism of St. Paul

Ss. Peter and Paul to either side of Christ enthroned who wears royal clothing.

Ss. Peter and Paul embracing.

St. Peter resurrects Tabitha

Beyond a plethora of images related to the life of Ss. Peter and Paul, numerous other saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments can also be found through the chapel, including a cycle of mosaics called the Genesis cycle which depict stories taken from the Book of Genesis related to Creation, Noah and the Flood, and the life of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On the New Testament side of the coin are found scenes taken from the life of Christ (as well as the aforementioned scenes from the life of Ss. Peter and Paul).  

The main dome, showing Christ the teacher surrounded by eight archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salathiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel and Jeremiel. Beneath these are found John the Baptist, Solomon, Zechariah and David and further the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Daniel  Moses, Elijah and Elisha who holds scrolls with the texts that prophesy the coming of Christ. Paired with these are images of the Four Evangelists.

One will note that the schema of the mosaics sees the Old Testament scenes situated highest above and beneath them are then found scenes from the New Testament as well as depictions of the saints.

Visible here are scenes depicting Noah's Ark and the Flood.

Rebekah waters Abraham's camels.

The sacrifice of Abraham

The beauty of the mosaic work of the Cappella Palatina is not, however, restricted to its figural imagery; it can also be found in the beautiful geometric designs that can be found throughout the chapel. Here is a small sampling:

While it doesn't get a lot of attention, the church also contains a beautiful ambo and monumental paschal candlestick, seen here in a historical photo and painting:

The Cappella Palatina of Palermo is an absolutely stunning example of Italo-Byzantine architecture that is, along with Monreale, a "must visit" should you find yourself in the vicinity. 

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