Visit Palatine Chapel
The Palatine Chapel in Palermo is a Byzantine style chapel built by the Normans in the 12th century, and famous for its beautiful mosaic decoration and artwork.
Explore the Palatine Chapel in Palermo
Italy This Way comment: I cannot emphasise enough how extraordinary the Palatine Chapel is, certainly it counts among the most beautiful churches in the world. If you visit Sicily you must visit the Palatine Chapel!
The name "chapel" might suggest a building of very modest dimensions: that is not the case here, and the Palatine chapel is almost at least as large as a typical church in a medium sized town.
Having conquered Sicily in 1072, the Normans had taken control of the Arab Palace in Palermo and converted it to meet their needs. The Norman Kings wanted the best chapel possible for themselves, and King Roger II commissioned the Palatine Chapel inside the Royal palace in 1132.
The chapel was built on top of an existing chapel (which still exists as the crypt of the current chapel) and took around eight years to complete with the chapel being consecrated in 1140 at which time it was dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The interior decoration took rather longer, and some of the mosaics were still being completed in the 1160s.
One unusual feature of the architecture of the chapel is that there are three apses (half-domes): this is common in byzantine architecture, although most other Christian churches only have one apse.
Because of the origins of the chapel, you can see elements of Byzantine architecture, but also Saracen style arches and other elements in Norman and Arabic styles. Similarly, the inscriptions on the walls in the chapel are in Arabic, Greek and Latin.
When you first enter the Palatine chapel it is the overall size that you first notice, with gold and colourful mosaics on every surface. As you spend more time, you realise that every picture around the walls, and there are hudreds of them, tells a story from the Bible - the seven days of creation, Noah and the Arc, the Garden of Eden etc - and all are beautifully drawn and deserve individual attention.
The letters IC XC that you see either side of Christ, both here and in many other churches from this period, represent the first and last letters of the name Jesus Christ when written in Greek. Likewise, the right hand of Christ often has two fingers extended to represent that He is both human and divine, while the three bent fingers represent the trinity and the book in the left hand announces the presence and love of God.
The oldest mosaics, and those of the highest quality, are those of the Saints around the transept created in the 1140s by Byzantine artists and the stories from the gospels along the right side of the apse. We were told that the later mosaics were created by local artists in the 1160s which explained why they were of a lower quality, but to my untrained eyes they were all astonishing and beautiful!
As well as the mosaics covering the walls you will notice the beautiful 'muqarnas' ceiling which resembles stalactites and is the only one to be found in a Christian church, and the marble floors and candelabra are also incredible.
The mosaics at the entrance and the doors to the chapel - made of walnut and covered with reliefs - were added in the 19th century.
Note that tickets need to be bought from the ticket office in a kiosk about 200 metres in front of the Palermo Royal Palace, not in the building itself. There is a great deal to see and understand, and printed information in the chapel very limited, so a visit with a guide is a good idea.
There are seats inside the chapel - Sunday services are held here that a limited number of people can attend (ask when you arrive if it is a Sunday)- but otherwise you are not allowed to sit down on the seats! Photos are allowed in the Palatine Chapel, but not with cameras using flash.
Note: we visited the Palatine chapel on a Sunday in May, and arrived 15 minutes before opening time, and it was quite easy to get in and to spend as long as we wanted looking at the mosaics. I understand that at other times it is often necessary to queue for quite a long time.
Your entrance to the Palatine Chapel also includes entrance to the Royal Palace of Palermo and a visit to the museum and state rooms.
In the centre of Palermo there are at least five other important and impressive churches, all of which you will want to visit as well as exploring the city itself so allow plenty of time! See the Palermo guide for details.
Another church that is reputed for its mosaics and decoration can be visited at Monreale a few kilometres north of Palermo.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.