Every Sunday, a big chunk of Via Maqueda and Via della Libertà (one becomes the other) is closed to car traffic and becomes an area pedonale, open to pedestrian and cyclists. Between Teatro Massimo and Politeama artisans, bakers, cheese makers sell their products in a fair atmosphere. There are not many of them, maybe because it is the end of the warm season, but everything is of good quality and handmade. None of the “Made in China” stuff street vendors, like ants over the city, peddle constantly.
We go down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele to Maqueda and stop again to admire the Fontana Pretoria. The light is different in the morning, there’s more shade, and we can see more of it without being blinded by the white of the marble and the walls of the buildings around the piazza. Since I know we’re close, I ask two police where the Chiesa Martorana is situated. They direct us around the corner.
We end up on a large piazza we didn’t know, the Piazza Bellini, surrounded by three churches: Santa Caterina, San Cataldo (with its round, red domes like Giovanni degli Eremiti) and Santa Maria dell’Amiraglio or San Nicolo dei Geci, also named Martorana. The latter church is part of the Eparchia di Piana degli Albanesi, an Albanian Diocese of Sicily. The liturgy is still conducted under Byzantine rites and is considered part of the Catholic Orthodox faith.
The name Amiraglio, Admiral, comes from the founder of the Church, George of Antioch, who was Roger II’s principal minister and admiral. The charter of the church, in Greek and Arabic, is dated 1143, and George and his wife were buried in the church in 1151. In 1193, a Catholic convent founded by Eloise Martorana annexed the church and is known since then as Martorana. Note that the same nuns were the ones famous for the marzipan confections made in shapes of fruits, which are still part of the culinary tradition of Palermo today.
The facade of the church is fairly unprepossessing, especially beside San Cataldo and its red domes, and from the piazza the building appears closed. It’s only after we climbed the stairs that we realize the entry is on the side under the campanile.
It was originally built in the shape of a Greek or Latin cross, the Byzantine architecture of the times. It was modified many times (the campanile is an addition) both from the exterior and the interior, mixing the baroque style to the Byzantine.
The central part of the church, the original, has the same mosaics as the Palatine Chapel that are likely from the same artisans. The dome of the nave as a Christ Pantocrator, although much smaller than Monreale or Cefalu, and he is surrounded by the archangels, St Michael, St Gabriel, St Raphael, and St Uriel. We also find the Virgin Mary in many guises, including in a scene of her death.
La Martorana was radically changed during the Baroque period, when the Byzantine rite fell into disuse in Sicily. At that time, the apse was modified from a rounded one at the end to a rectangular one and filled with marble sculptures of angels and saints and an extravagant altar. The back of the nave was also changed and Baroque frescoes depicting the lives of saints fill the ceilings and the walls of the arches.
The floor is also a mix of styles, from the early mosaic to figurative patterns in marble and porphyry. The mix of styles, colors, patterns is a shock to the eye and the mind. You can’t help but look up, mouth agape with awe, your soul astonished at so much beauty and effort toward the glory of God.