Thanks to the
reopening of the monumental portal into the Royal Palace, which looks
out on Piazza del Parlamento, and to the restoration of the direct
connection between it and the Duke of Montalto rooms through a long
corridor, now there is easier access to an underground place unknown
to most people.
It is a little Church from the medieval epoch, preceded by a narthex,
exactly in line with the Palace Chapel in Palermo.
The church - which of the better known complex above must have
constituted the first religious nucleus - contains in itself,
manifesting it through the evident signs of the transformations made
over the centuries, the historical memory of those that, alternating
with one another on the island, deeply influenced not only the uses
and customs of it but, as in the case of the figurative arts and the
architecture, also the modus operandi.
The palace buildings, whose inauguration is due, as is well known, to
the arrival in the city of the Norman sovereign Roger II, went up in
the place in which in the Islamic epoch there was the military quarter
called Mo’aschar. It is likely that already in the time of Guiscard,
the cousin of Great Count Roger and the first to enter the city, the
little church - originally dedicated to Santa Maria in Gerusalemme -
was used for the religious functions of the invaders, useful above all
for setting going that work of Christianization of which the Norman
sovereigns made themselves the bearers.
Today, however, also because of the manifold architectural
stratifications, it is difficult to perfectly reconstruct both the
genesis and the later developments of this sacred place, which is so
fascinating if nothing else because it has always been an integral
part of one of the most important religious monuments in the world.
You enter it from outside the Royal Palace, as already mentioned, via
a long corridor called the “long sleeve”, but the little church is
internally connected by two very steep flights of steps to the nave
and aisles of the Palace Chapel.
Here there is a perfect fusion (and it is even more so in the upper
church) of different languages, the Latin one and the Greek one above
all, thanks also to the craftsmen that the Norman sovereigns employed
simultaneously, in the name of that harmonious multiculturality and
multiraciality that was the boast of their culture.
The Byzantine icon
of the Virgin Odigitria is what remains of the painterly decoration
that once adorned all the walls of the church; the painted crosses in
red and graffitied on the walls ashlars are the only testimony,
together with the plan that centrally extends, of the persistence of
models still linked to the Greek cult. The wooden lintel of the entry
portal, instead, is from the Norman age, as is the dark sacellum,
which for some months contained the body of King William I, now in
Monreale. From the Baroque period, there dates the altar polychrome
mixed marble, and the altarpiece in the mannerist taste surmounted by
rejoicing children that looms over it, to the sides of which we find
an echo of the Arab manner: two small mullions with smooth shafts and
chalice capitals that are reminiscent of the delicate arabesque
interlacement with four petals.
The magnificence of the sparkling mosaic decoration of the Palace
Chapel has always been attractive, this is well known. At the same
time it is fascinating to discover, a few metres below its floor
richly adorned by polychrome marbles showing typical Arab facture, a
smaller and older little church with a silent and forgotten atmosphere
that, like the biggest one that enwraps and protects it, recounts
almost a thousand years of history and life lived out under the most
famous golden light in the West.
Text: Chiara Alaimo