A spiritual beauty that goes beyond religious beliefs
© Becky Linhardt 2012
The Norman Chapel AKA the Cappela Palatina at the Palazzo dei Normanni is listed as a MUST SEE in most tour books about Sicily. Visually it is a little jewel box. The space is small, a chapel, and thus more intimate. It also has a blending of Sicilian cultures and religious beliefs that makes it quite unique.
As explained by our guide, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the centuries long Sicilian connection to Greek and the eastern Byzantine Empire lead the Christians there to follow the Greek Orthodox rites. When the North African Muslims invaded, many of those Christians headed for the wilder hill country. For about two centuries, the Christians avoided major conflicts with the Muslim rulers. Eventually the diverse North African tribal culture splintered and weakened. Norman mercenaries/knights returning from the Crusades found the land to their liking and conquered it establishing a Norman stronghold on the highest point in Palermo. Even today the site has political importance as the seat of the Sicilian Parliament.
In the austere fortified Norman palace a magnificent medieval court developed. Since this was 1130 when every castle needed a church, the Normans had a beautiful chapel built employing the talented Arab builders and craftsman who still lived in the area. To meet the needs of the Orthodox Christians who returned from their exile in the hills, they established two separate focuses for worship – one at either end.
Roman style columns, glittering and colorful Byzantine mosaic pictures that told stories from the Bible, inlaid marble floors and walls patterned with Arab geometric decorations all contribute to a sense of awe and celebrate the diverse cultural heritage of Sicily.
As the centuries passed the Spanish and the French royalty laid claim to Sicily at various times and their rulers wanted more fashionable surroundings. Re-development projects updated the inside of the keep to more Renaissance styling but preserving the beautiful Norman Chapel that is now accessible from the middle level of the impressive three-tiered marble loggia that wraps around the inner courtyard.
The Norman Chapel is not readily visible until you reach the middle level on the chapel side and notice newer mosaics along the inner wall of the loggia. A smallish entrance brings visitors in from the side. Going from the brightness of the courtyard loggia to the darkness of this now interior chapel it takes a few moments for the eyes to adjust and then the pattern on pattern complexity boggles the mind.