Insights into signature aspects of the world’s most spectacular places
The Martorana’s Dome Mosaics
By David Raezer
Due to its compelling colors, human-sized proportions, and central location in the downtown district, the Martorana will likely be the church that you return to a number of times during your stay in Palermo. It is our favorite stop on our tour of Palermo’s Norman churches.
The focal point of the Martorana’s decoration is the dome, consistent with Byzantine tradition and the church’s original central plan layout. The dome’s decorative scheme is a simplified, more intimate version of that of the nearby Palatine Chapel.
Just as with the Palatine Chapel’s dome Pantocrator, Christ suggests his gentler, more forgiving nature with his controlled arm raise and closed book (see Fig. 2). This compares versus an emphasis on his role as supreme god and apocalyptic judge in apse depictions.
Although the original central apse has been destroyed, it likely held an image of the Virgin Mary, consistent with earlier Byzantine prototypes. This is supported by the fact that the Martorana was dedicated to her and the side apses hold images of her parents (Joachim and Anne). Although mosaicists deviated from this traditional model in other churches, they likely adhered to it in the Martorana (and likely the original Palatine Chapel) given its pure central plan layout, wherein the dome over the crossing was still the position of greatest importance.
Located in Piazza Bellini, the church is one of Palermo’s true gems.
If you see an event going on in the church, try to poke your head inevents are one of the few times the lights will be turned on to illuminate the church’s glorious mosaic art.
Officially, the church is open from 8am-1pm and 3:30pm-7:00pm from Monday through Saturday, and from 8:30am-9:45am and 11:45am-1pm on Sunday. However, the church is sometimes closed without warning, so try to visit early in your stay, as you may have to try a few times.
Having finally won the island of Sicily from entrenched Islamic forces after thirty years of battle, the Normans set upon creating a multicultural kingdom to inspire the world. While the Norman civilization has since faded from history, its brilliant churches, glittering with mosaic decoration, serve as enduring reminders of its greatness.
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