Dome of the Cappella Palatina

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Cappella Palatina in the Palazzo Reale: the most beautiful chapel in the world

True beauty comes from within. Nowhere is this truer than in the Palazzo Reale (Norman Palace) in Palermo. Built by Norman King Roger II in the medieval city centre, the palace guards a sparkling treasure inside: the palace chapel "Cappella Palatina". In this article you will learn why it is considered the most beautiful court chapel in the world. 

This is what you can expect in this article:

  1. A Roman fortress as a base

  2. Expansion by the Normans

  3. The palace chapel "Cappella Palatina

  4. The Renaissance wing

  5. A clear recommendation: the most beautiful chapel in the world

  6. Map, opening hours & prices

Ciao, I am Eugenio.

I'm a host at BnB Dolcevita and I hope you like my article about the Cappella Palatina. It is part of our Palermo travel guide.  More about us!

Host Eugenio

A Roman fortress as a base

If you walk along Corso Vitorio Emanuele, leaving the cathedral on your right, a few metres uphill on your left is the Norman Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni or Palazzo Reale). 

Palermo Norman Palace Front

The Palazzo Reale with the park of Villa Bonanno in the foreground and the Norman tower "Torre Pisana" in the middle. 

Photo: © stepmar – stock.adobe.com

The roots of the historic building go back to antiquity. During excavation work, wall remains of a Roman fortress were discovered under the palace. Today, you can visit part of these excavations in the exterior area of the palace.

The oldest components of today's palace date back to the 9th century, when Sicily was under Arab-Muslim rule. The Emir of Palermo had a castle built on the old fortress foundations, which served primarily as a military fortress. In Arabic it was called "Qasr". 

Expansion by the Normans

In the 11th century, the Normans conquered Palermo and took power in the city. Roger II chose the Arab castle complex as his ruler's residence and immediately commissioned extensive building work. 

A large part of the architectural elements that have been preserved today date from this period. These include the "Stanza di Ruggero", King Roger's private room. 

Its walls are panelled with marble, the ceiling lavishly decorated with gold mosaics. In the middle of the hall is another treasure, a table made of petrified Sequoia wood.

King Roger's Room in the Palazzo Reale

King Roger's Room in the Palazzo Reale

Photo: © Robin Marx  - BnB Dolcevita 

Also preserved is the "Sala dei Venti", the Hall of the Winds. Originally, it was an open atrium that formed the anteroom to Roger's private room. Only later was the room fitted with a wooden ceiling supported by several columns and pointed arches.

The 'Sala dei Venti' in the Royal Palace

The 'Sala dei Venti' in the Royal Palace

Photo: © Robin Marx  - BnB Dolcevita 

The characteristic blind arcades on the outside of the palace also date back to the Norman period.

The Norman part with the typical blind arcades on the façade

The Norman part with the typical blind arcades on the façade

Photo: © lapas77 / Shutterstock.com

The Palace Chapel "Cappella Palatina

The main attraction of the Norman Palace, however, is undoubtedly the court chapel, the so-called Cappella Palatina. If you don't know it, you wouldn't guess from the outside that there is such a sparkling treasure in the middle of the palace. So don't let the plain façade or the high entrance fee deter you from visiting the palace from the inside. 

The chapel was built between 1132 and 1140 by order of Roger II and is today, still 900 years after its construction, one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world. 

Facts about the Cappella Palatina:

  • Length: 38 metres 

  • Width: 12 metres 

  • Dome 18 metres high 

  • Ceiling in carved wood

  • 424 mosaics composed into a sequence of 314 images

  • Mosaics of gold, silver and glass on an area of 1800 square metres

  • Unesco World Heritage Site since 2015.
     

View of the Capella Palatina from the entrance

View of the Capella Palatina from the entrance

Photo: © Robin Marx  - BnB Dolcevita 

Main altar of the Capella Palatina

The dome with Christ as Pantocrator above the high altar in the Cappella Palatina

Photo: Pistillo99Cappella Palatina (low-angle), marked as public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

Before we look at the interior in detail, for which the chapel is world-famous, let's go back two years to the year 1130. Roger II has just made Palermo his headquarters and moves into the old Arab fortress as his seat of government. For him, as for any Christian ruler, it is now a duty to give his crown a sacred setting and so he has a first chapel built.  

However, this is not yet the present Cappella Palatina, no. Rather, one of the details of the current chapel is that it was built directly above the first one. Today, the less well-known first chapel serves as an underground crypt, but it is inaccessible to visitors. In any case, in 1130 it was the first chapel of the palace and the place where Roger II was crowned king.

Entrance to the crypt below ground in the Capella Palatina

The entrance to the first chapel, now used as an underground crypt

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Symbol of tolerance between peoples

To thank God for his earthly crown, the newly crowned Norman ruler decides that another new chapel should be built and become the grandest structure ever built in honour of God. 

But it is not only the visual appearance that later and still today makes the Cappella Palatina a special building and the most beautiful court chapel in the world. It is Roger II's message, visually manifested in every corner of the chapel, that gives it a special place in history. To better understand the significance of the building, let's briefly go back in time. 

This is marked by religious wars, conquests and massacres. The rule of the new king is also controversial. He is a young man, a stranger in Palermo, a Norman and has relatively few men in his entourage. His new subjects in Palermo, on the other hand, are Arabs, Greeks, Jews, Albanians, Alexandrians or even Persians. 

The young ruler knows that he will not be able to control this explosive mixture of peoples in Sicily by force in the long term and decides on a policy that is unusual for the time. He proclaims an age of tolerance. His vision is that every people, every religion should have its place in his kingdom and Palermo should become an enlightened place of religious freedom. 

He immediately had his decree of tolerance written in three languages and immortalised on the walls of his chapel as a signal to the followers of the different religions: in Arabic, Latin and Greek. 

At a time when a large part of the population cannot read, illustrations are an important and impressive means of reaching the population and communicating the vision of tolerance. The palace chapel as a visual medium has been a showcase of Roger II's philosophy from the very beginning and fulfils this communicative function to perfection.

The lush gold ground mosaics 

The Cappella Palatina is best known for its lavish gold-ground mosaics depicting a series of scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

According to art historians, the skill and aesthetics that distinguish the mosaics of the chapel have not been achieved anywhere else.

 

Gold and silver have been worked into the glass in fine sheets, giving it its radiant shine. And other precious materials such as marble or serpentine shimmer where no gold or silver has been used.

Scenes from the Old Testament on the side walls

Scenes from the Old Testament on the side walls

Photo: Andrea Schaffer from Sydney, Australia, Cappella Palatina (38654373955), Details from RM, CC BY 2.0

In the dome of the chapel, Christ is depicted as the "Pantokrator" - i.e. the ruler of the world - surrounded by eight angels.

Image of the dome with Christ as Pantocrator and eight angels around him

Image of the dome with Christ as Pantocrator and eight angels around him

Photo: Yulka-luciaCapella Palatina, SicilyCC BY-SA 4.0

On the side walls, episodes from the Old Testament are presented in chronological order, beginning with the biblical story of creation. In addition, important stations from the lives of Christ and Paul are staged.

mosaic of Christ with Peter and Paul in the central nave below the wooden ceiling

The mosaic of Christ with Peter and Paul in the central nave below the wooden ceiling Photo: Andrea Schaffer from Sydney, Australia, Cappella Palatina (27774733999)CC BY 2.0

While the walls of the nave are reserved for the Christian faith, the ceiling, on the other hand, is to be dedicated to the diversity of cultures that Roger II wanted to exist together under his rule. For this purpose, Roger II had craftsmen from Morocco and Libya come to create the all-wood ceiling of the chapel. 

The ceiling is an unprecedented triumph of the art of woodcutting. The frames, intricately carved by the North African carpenters, contain honeycomb and stalactite-shaped structures. These are then painted by Egyptian artists and depict secular motifs such as freedom, dance, joy, music or play.

View of the honeycomb-shaped wooden ceiling in the Capella Palatina

The painted wooden ceiling with decorative elements in the form of honeycomb

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

And an effigy of the ruler is also immortalised in the chapel. Look out for the image of Roger II, whose posture is depicted in a way that appeals to each of his peoples. Thus he is recognisable as a Christian ruler with a crown, his beard, his long hair and the wine that symbolises the blood of Christ. But he also sits in an oriental way with his legs crossed on the ground. 

Roger II of Sicily, depicted in Christian and Arabic style

Roger II of Sicily, depicted in Christian and Arabic style Photo: Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo, Arabischer Maler der Palastkapelle in Palermo 002, marked as public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

Porphyry marble as a sign of concentration of power

The precious marble floor of the chapel with its intricate patterns is also impressive. Purple is considered the colour of the powerful in antiquity. The purest and at the same time most precious marble is porphyry, which comes from Egypt. Roger II had it installed in large slabs in the walls and floor of the chapel, illustrating the significance of the site as a place of centred power.

Pohyr marble floor mosaics in the Capella Palatina 

Pohyr marble floor mosaics in the Capella Palatina 

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

When you stand in front of the main altar, look at the marble slabs in front of it. Here, Roger II's place during the Mass has been provided on the largest porphyry slab. It is deliberately placed under the image of Christ in the dome. 

Remarkable details in the Cappella Palatina 

The pictures of the chapel conceal many details that are only revealed to the eye of the initiated, but are remarkable Three of them we present to you in the following. 

On the floor to the left and right of the main altar, serpentine dragons symbolically watch over time. The two dragon bodies in the shape of a lying eight are supposed to connect the place with eternity, the infinite. The symbol for this was already the eight at that time. 

One detail that does not immediately catch the eye, but points to an astonishing fact, is the depiction of the earth in a mosaic painting. At that time, it was still generally believed that the earth was flat, but Roger had it depicted as round long before this was generally accepted scientifically.

He learned about it from the Arab al-Idrisi, the most learned astronomer of the day. The cartographer, geographer and botanist presented Roger II with manuscripts from ancient Egypt, proving that the Egyptian rulers already assumed two centuries before Christ that the earth was round.

Round World Mosaic in the Capella Palatina

The round representation of the world as a mosai

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Roger II's modernity is evident in all the details of the chapel and continues to inspire art historians to this day. Some mosaics revolutionised the art of their time. Especially the mosaic of Christ's entry into Jerusalem fascinates to this day. The perspective depiction of the entry anticipated the rules of the Italian Renaissance, which would change the image of man in Europe only two centuries later. 

This mosaic in the Capella Palatina shows the scene of Christ's entry into Jerusalem.

This mosaic in the Capella Palatina shows the scene of Christ's entry into Jerusalem.
Photo: Meister der Palastkapelle in Palermo, Meister der Palastkapelle in Palermo 002, marked as public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons

For 12 years, the craftsmen put their art at the service of Roger II and his message. In 1142, 2 years after the consecration, he sees his work completed with the finished mosaics in the altar room.

To celebrate the event, Roger II had it immortalised on a block of marble and out of respect for the other religions according to their calendars. For the Christians, the year 1142 in Latin, for the Jews the year 6650 in Greek and for the Muslims the 536 in Arabic.

Marble block with trilingual inscription in the Palazzo Reale

The trilingual inscription on a marble block in the Palazzo Real

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

The Renaissance Wing

After the decline of Norman rule, the palace fell into disrepair until it was rediscovered and restored by the Spanish viceroys in the 16th century. The Renaissance-style façades and paintings date from this period.

Until the 19th century, renovation and reconstruction work took place again and again. Today, the Norman Palace therefore has very different stylistic elements from different cultures and epochs.

The Spanish viceroys had three of the original four Norman towers demolished, leaving only the so-called "Torre Pisana"

The Torre Pisana from the park of Villa Vonanno

The Torre Pisana from the park of Villa Vonanno 

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

The Torre Pisana is joined on the left by the Renaissance façade on the east side of the present palace with the large entrance portal in the centre. 

Our Tip:

In front of the Renaissance wing is the Villa Bonanno park with the monument to Phillip V from 1661, which is well worth seeing. Take advantage of the grounds for a stroll and the statue with the palace in the background for a photo.   

Stone statue in the park of Villa Bonanno

Stone statue in the park of Villa Bonanno in front of the Renaissance wing of Palazzo Reale. Photo: ©  Robin Marx  - BnB Dolcevita

The former military installations were dismantled at the time of the Spanish viceroys. Instead, a number of other elements in the Renaissance style were built. These include the "Sala de Ercole", the Hercules Hall. Since 1946, it has served as the parliament's meeting hall. Visitors can see it today on guided tours. 

Sala de Ercole in the Palazzo Reale

Photo: © A. Karnholz – stock.adobe.com

Also from the time of the viceroys is the Porta Nuova, a magnificent gate to the west of the palace.

In addition, the inner courtyards with their magnificent porticoes were redesigned from the 16th century onwards.

The inner courtyard in the Palazzo Reale with its porticoes

The inner courtyard in the Palazzo Reale with its porticoes

Photo: © Robin Marx - BnB Dolcevita

Clear recommendation: The most beautiful chapel in the world

The chapel of the Norman Palace in Palermo still amazes the world with its visual beauty and the unrivalled richness of its mosaics and ceiling. 

It is a work with which Roger II built a bridge between peoples and incorporated details that were ahead of their time. Art historians agree that in his enlightened kingdom of Sicily and Naples, the Italian Renaissance was born. 

The French writer Guy de Maupassant described the Cappella Palatina as "the most beautiful chapel in the world". We agree with him and recommend that you definitely visit this place when you are in the Sicilian capital. 

Opening hours & prices

Mon- Sat: 08:15 h to 17:40 h, last admission at 17:00 h

Sun + public holidays: 08:15 h to 13:00 h, last admission at 12:15 

The entrance fee is 8.50 euros (6.50 euros reduced)

Our tip:

From the Norman Palace, bus 389P departs hourly from Piazza Indipendenza to Monreale. Plan your visit so that you also visit Monreale Cathedral with its gold mosaics on this day.

View of Palermo from the roof of the cathedral

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