A Treasure under the Palace Chapel
The lower Santa Maria delle Grazie Church

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                                                                         


 

 Inside of the Church of St. Mary of Graces

                                              The central navy

 
                                         The major altar

                        The altar of Our Lady of Graces