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Church of St. Mary (Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio) founded in 12th century by George of Antioch is a beautiful example of Byzantine architecture with Arabic flavors….

       The church of Santa Maria was founded in 1143 by George of Antioch - the famous Admiral of Norman king of Sicily – Roger 2nd.

His deep Greek roots heavily weighted on Byzantine architecture and style of the church in otherwise Norman Sicily with strong Arabic flavors. By the time of his death the church was already finished so his and his wife’s earthly remains found the resting place in the narthex.

         In the first half of the 15th century by the order of Alphonso of Aragon the church was handed to the convent of Benedictine nuns founded by the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana. The nuns became famous for their contribution to the “culinary art” by the introduction of an almond-flower based “Pasta Reale” (today also known as Frutti di Martorana).

With time, the church gained more “descriptive” name “linked” by inhabitants of Palermo to its founder and to nuns – hence it is known as Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio la Martorana……

Church Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio la Martorana

   ... and its incredibly richly decorated interior

        The church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is located right behind another outstanding religious monument – the Church of San Cataldo. Both of them are facing the Piazza Bellini flanked on the opposite side by the imposing church of St. Catherine and equally magnificent Palazzo Senatorio (City Hall)

Throughout the centuries the Church of Santa Maria (known also as dell”Ammiraglio and La Martorana) was expanded with addition of a new baroque-style façade on the side facing Piazza Bellini. As the result of this extension, the beautiful bell-tower that once stood flash to the old façade, now stands at church’s centerline. 

While the richly decorated tower with four arched levels lightened by fine columns and mullioned windows adds the charm and a Norman-Oriental elegance to the overall structure, the heavy baroque facade is rather a disturbing architectural element. 

Tower shows very strong elements of Arabic architecture and art

   ... and close view of the mullioned window

      Interior dominated by Byzantine-style mosaics is even more spectacular. It represents the same school of craftsmanship as seen in the Palatine Chapel as well as in Monreale’s and Cefalu’s Cathedrals. Probably the only difference is a “vibrancy” of the art due to much smaller scale of the church.  

The central dome’s mosaics are the oldest part of church’s Byzantine artwork. It displays Christ Pantocrator (Almighty Ruler) surrounded by four most “high-flying” archangels: St. Michael, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael and St. Uriel, eight biblical prophets and four Evangelists. This is typical Greek-Orthodox (Byzantine) architectural and artistic arrangement because the large central dome symbolizes Heavens from where the Almighty Ruler appears to His flock.   

Mosaics (Church's dome)

Ceiling's Frescoes

Baroque-style Altar

Church Martorana - Interior with the mixture of styles is an open book of history of art


Other noteworthy mosaics are showing the scenes of “Nativity” and the “Death of the Virgin Mary”

     The central apse however is not the original one which certainly included the icon of St. Mary as the church is dedicated to the Mother of God. Sadly, in the 17th century in an attempt to farther expand the church, the central apse was replaced by the larger one in “overwhelmingly-rich” Baroque style. As the result, the high altar and the central painting presenting the “Assumption of the Virgin” are visibly contrasting with the finesse of Byzantine art……  

     Religious mosaics also reached to earthly beings displaying Roger 2nd crowned as a King of Sicily by Jesus Christ and George of Antioch at the feet of St. Mary. They add much-needed at those times “dimensions” of divinity to both political figures (actually also not that rare claim in our times). The symbolism of the scene with King Roger is quite striking, because normally kings were crowned by Popes! It reflects “tensions” between Norman Kings and the Holy See in Rome as well as Byzantium and some sort of wish for “independence”…. 

        Thankfully, despite few structural modifications with exception of central apse, church’s interior preserved its overall Byzantine style. Although mosaics in the narthex are of lower quality than the original ones in the central cupola dating to the 12th century, they are all vibrant, dominated by golden background and sacred colors of Orthodox Christian – “divine” red, blue and green. Some of them are probably the work of G. Borremans dating from the turn of 17th and 18th centuries.

The cultural and architectural influence of the Fatimid Caliphate (North-African “flavor of Islam) can be seen in numerous Arabic inscriptions as well as surviving the time – beautifully carved wooden doors. 

Close view of the upper part of the Tower revels the architectural beauty

Floor's mosaics

Sacral object

Richly ornamented wooden doors

Jungle of columns

Ceiling's frescoes

Church la Martorana - there is no one inch left without ornamentation

Central fresco - Assumption of the Virgin

Chiesa Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio la Martorana - side entrance door

In 1937 the church was “transferred” to the Eparchy of “Piana degli Albanesi” since then serving the Sicilian community of Orthodox Albanians.

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