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Thursday, 1 September 2011

Martorana: Palermo’s Byzantine Jewel

by OCP on February 20, 2011

Examples of Greek Orthodox culture can still be found in Palermo, Sicily at the Santo Maria dell’Ammriaglio, (Santa Maria of the Admiral), the Martorana, which features the only Byzantine mosaic outside of Constantinople showing the imperial blessing of a monarch by the Pantocrator (Jesus Christ).

The Christian Middle East has produced great leaders who shaped western history. In the wake of the 22 Coptic Christians who died at a January 6 massacre in the Church of Saints Mark and the current Egyptian uprising, it is time to reexamine a time of glorious achievement of a Greek commander. Admiral George of Antioch, in the service of Roger II, King of Sicily, was a Greek Orthodox Christian. He came from a Greek-speaking urban community. The Middle East’s universal language, before the Arab conquest, for centuries was Greek, due to the conquests of Alexander the Great. The influence of the Greek language and culture was incorporated into the cultures of the areas controlled by Alexander the Great.

The concept of Sicily as a center of Hellenism may be inconceivable to some although it is an island of Ancient Greek monuments. The Sicilian people must be commended for protecting their antiquities, in light of the Egyptian Museum attack and destruction of Mesopotamian relics in Baghdad. Her majestic cathedrals, chapels and monasteries of Byzantine art show it was once the seat of a world empire.

After two visits under the supervision of Dr. Gaetano Cipolla of the Arba Sicula Society, I discovered a different Sicily of Byzantine culture and of Greek Orthodoxy. When we were in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, our Arba Sicula guide told us "you are going to have a unique tour of a church that is rarely open to the public by the nuns. Santo Maria dell’Ammriaglio, (Santa Maria of the Admiral), the Martorana, has the only Byzantine mosaic outside of Constantinople showing the imperial blessing of a monarch by the Pantocrator (Jesus Christ).

Little did I know at the time that we were visiting the only church in Sicily specifically built as Greek Orthodox.

The Martorana is in the heart of the historical center. Palermo in the 12th century was the capital of the cosmopolitan state of the Hautevilles, who adopted Byzantine clothes, ceremonies and art. George of Antioch born in the second most important city of the Byzantine Empire: Antioch. George was a devout Greek Orthodox Christian in command of Sicily’s navy and mercantile fleet. Unfortunately for the Byzantine Empire, his power and wealth came from plundering Greece. The church was built in the mid-12th century to thank the Theotokos (Mother of God or Virgin Mary) for her protection during his political and maritime career. The foundation’s charter is in Greek and Arabic. It is kept in the Tabulary of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The church was built next to George of Antioch’s palace from 1143-1146. Before his death, Admiral George founded a small convent of Greek nuns in the wing of his palace near the chapel. A parchment in Greek dated 1143 has George entrusting the Martorana to the Greek clergy with a financial endowment. The 12th century original church had a Greek cross plan inscribed in a square, covered by a dome supported by columns. Today, it is a monument that reflects different styles and historical periods from the 12 to 18th centuries.

As one enters the church, one sees the Byzantine mosaic of George of Antioch kneeling at the feet of the Theotokos, to whom the church is dedicated. Greek inscriptions are present. He is declaring his devotion to the Theotokos, as was customary among Eastern Orthodox Christians. His prostrating, humble position is requesting protection and forgiveness for an adventurous life of piracy and other actions. The Theotokos is holding a scroll in Medieval Greek saying "He who built this house of mine from its very foundations, George, first among the first of all princes, o Son (Jesus Christ), protect him and his people from harm and forgive him for his sins; for you are empowered to do so as the one and only God, o Word."

The mosaic panel on the right shows King Roger II being crowned by Christ. This follows the iconographic model that was the special right of the Byzantine emperor. The 12th century mosaic is called "the Coronation of King Roger II by Jesus Christ." Roger is standing wearing the ornate ceremonial robes of an emperor of Byzantium. He is the only sovereign, apart from the emperors of Constantinople, allowed to be portrayed in a similar scene. The presence of this portrait in the private chapel of the Grand Admiral of the Kingdom suggests that George of Antioch created it. He shaped the ideology of Sicily under the Hauteville family as being an imperial family who aimed to gain the imperial throne in Constantinople. The two Martorana mosaics reflect religious, ethical and political ideas for all to see.

Another mosaic, "St. Nicholas Enthroned", located in the right apse, is a 15th century icon from the Cretan School. This icon survived the WWII bombing of San Nicolo Dei Greci Church. Who were the mosaic creators? Historians believe the master craftsmen were from Constantinople and Mystra, Peloponnese. They practiced their art in Crete, fusing Western and Byzantine styles to create a Post Byzantine renaissance. El Greco is the most famous artist of the Cretan school. St. Nicholas of Myra, whose relics are now in Bari, is the patron saint of the Byzantine community of Italy. Martorana with St. Demetrio are the two Cathedrals of the Byzantine Rite [Catholics] of Palermo.

Martorana was the first Byzantine Orthodox Church of its kind created in Palermo, Sicily. For the first time in Sicily, the figures of Christ, Theotokos, Saints, Prophets and Archangels were portrayed in the icongraphic tradition of the Christian East. George in his unique Byzantine jewel, the Santo Maria dell’Ammriaglio (Martorana) inspired a strong Byzantine iconographic style in Sicily’s Palatine chapel, Duomo of Cefalu, Monreal and other churches. All the mosaics are the finest examples of Byzantine art found in the finest Eastern Orthodox Churches. When the liturgy is performed on Feast days, the spiritual and mysticism of the Byzantine world is experienced by all in the Martorana.

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