he church of ‘Martorana’ is doubtless one of the most important religious buildings of Palermo. Martorana is above all a crucial symbol for the people of Palermo, in fact, a lot of couples want to celebrate their wedding in this wonderful monument. It is in the very heart of the city, in piazza Bellini and is also near the church of San Cataldo, Quattro Canti and Palazzo delle Aquile (where there is the Comune di Palermo). You can go inside this wonderful church through its steeple.
Martorana is a typical example of Byzantine art in Palermo. It was built in the first half of the 12th century and wanted by George of Antioch, admiral of the Norman king Roger II. George came from Sira, spoke Greek and his Christianity was that of Constantinople Patriarch: he was the actual expression of Byzantine world that became part of the Norman culture.
Thanks to a document still kept in the Palatine Chapel of Palermo we know that the church was founded in 1143. In this medieval paper George of Antioch writes that he dedicated this church to God’s mother, Mary. In fact, the original name of Martorana is ‘Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio’. ‘Martorana’, on the other hand, was the name of the owners of a convent founded in 1394 near the church.
Ibn Giubayr was an Arab man who lived in 12th century and was delightfully amazed by the beauty of Martorana, so he described it as follows: “One of the most remarkable work of the infidels is the church called of the Antiochian […] We saw this building that cannot be described and is doubtless the most beautiful monument of the world. Its inner walls are all decorated. They have matchless coloured marble panels covered in golden mosaic framed with green foliage mosaic. In the top there is a series of windows with golden panes that dazzle and charm you in such a way that God must keep us away” (translation by C. Schiapparelli).
At the beginning, the building was controlled by Greek rite orthodox priests. Then arrived the Benedictine community, but in the end the church became the biggest religious Greek-Albanian community of Sicily; in fact Martorana belongs to the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi, a Catholic diocese that follows the Greek-Byzantine rite.
The church still has a lot original features, but through the centuries underwent a series of modifications because of the various changes of religious rite. At the beginning Martorana had a Greek cross plan that followed the Byzantine model. But when the church was controlled by priests loyal to the Pope of Rome, they changed the inside of the structure. In order to follow the Latin rite at the end of the 17th century the central apse of Martorana was modified and replaced by a rectangular one. In 18th century then, Nicolò Palma designed a new Baroque facade for the church, that is the one we now admire.
At the end of the 19th century the last adjustments were made by Giuseppe Patricolo who wanted to restore the original medieval magnificence of the church. And he partially did it. In fact, nowadays when you go in Martorana you see an unusual sight for a ‘Latin’ church: walls are covered of beautiful mosaics that reflect the light and create wonderful effects. The visitor is amazed and forgets the outer world because Martorana is continuous and rich as concentrated universe.
Among the wonderful mosaics the most remarkable are the original ones: they depict Roger II (during his coronation) and the founder of the church, George of Antioch at the foot of the Virgin Mary. Once you arrive under the dome you can see the amazing image of the Christ Pantocrator (sitting, blessing Christ) that is typical of the Byzantine art that tended to represent God’s son as an imposing, majestic figure that embraces everything. Jesus is surrounded by four adoring angels. Under Jesus’ foot there is the earth. At the base of the dome you can still read an Arab inscription (a prayer) carved when the church was founded: once again an element that is very different from the rest of the building that proves the cultural synergy born in Norman Arab Palermo when it was at the same time Latin, Greek and Muslim. Moreovere, on the triumphal arch there are wonderful images of Annunciation (the Nativity, the Dormition and the Presentation at the Temple). In the barrel vaults you can see the Saints.
However Martorana is more than beautiful architecture; in fact, in Palermo you can also eat a dessert called ‘fruit of Martorana’: ingredients are almond flour and sugar and is called fruit because is traditionally shaped like small fruits. But you can find it also in other shapes, such as sheep or angel. If you wonder why this typical dessert of the Sicilian tradition is named after the church, it is because at the beginning the sweets were made by the nuns of the convent of the Martorana. Therefore, everybody in Palermo started to call them with the name of the place where they were prepared and sold.