Church of Martorana

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, or Chiesa della Martorana, is one of the most fascinating sights on the ‘Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale‘ itinerary. It is an extraordinary building, which tells the story of nine centuries of Sicilian art and culture. The history of this church is also closely linked to the famous almond paste sweets, called ‘frutta di martorana’, which are now sold throughout Sicily for All Saints’ Day on 1st November.

Chiesa della Martorana and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio: Origin of the names

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, also known as Chiesa della Martorana, is certainly the most Byzantine building in Palermo. It was built before 1143 for Giorgio di Antiochia. He was a Syrian Orthodox Christian and one of King Roger’s Grand Admirals. Another Arab-Norman building in Palermo is also linked to Giorgio di Antiochia: the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (Admiral’s Bridge). The name Chiesa della Martorana comes, however, from a female Basilian monastery, which stood right next to the church, called the Monastero della Martorana. In 1937, Greek-Byzantine services began once again to be celebrated in the church. Since then, its official name has been San Nicolò dei Greci.

History of Chiesa della Martorana

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio was used for worship by the Arabic-speaking and Byzantine Christian community. For this reason, the layout of the original part of the church is in the form of a Greek cross. In 1434, the nuns acquired the building and connected it to the monastery by building a portico. In 1588, a number of changes were made to adapt the church to the new Latin service. The façade was demolished and three naves were created incorporating the area of the narthex and an atrium. Further alterations would take place during the 17th century, with the addition of chapels, marble decorations and frescoes and the creation of a new Baroque portal. Finally, in 1870, ownership of the church and monastery passed to the state. As in the case of the Church of San Cataldo, a very extensive restoration brought the church back to its original appearance but destroyed some of the decorations added in the 17th century and Baroque period.

Architecture and artwork of the ‘Admiral’s Church’

The entrance to Chiesa della Martorana today is through the former bell tower. Once you cross the threshold, it is impossible not to be amazed by the beauty of the interior. The entrance to the oldest part of the church is preceded by two splendid mosaics. On the left, we find Giorgio d’Antiochia, kneeling at the feet of the Virgin, while on the right, we see Roger being crowned by Christ Pantocrator. The frescoes date back to 1744 and are the work of painters, Olivio Sozzi and Guglielmo Borremans. The other mosaics, which are in the oldest part of the church and depict the life of the Virgin, were made between 1143 and 1148 by Arab craftsmen who were brought in specially from the East. The Admiral’s Church also contains a lapis lazuli tabernacle, a baptismal font from the Norman period and a 12th-century wooden door with carvings made by Arab craftsmen.

Monastero della Martorana and marzipan sweets

The Monastero della Martorana, from which comes the other name for the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, was so called because it was built by the noblewoman Eloisa Martorana. The Basilian nuns of the monastery were famous for making very special sweets. They were made with marzipan and looked like fruit. It seems that the sisters came up with the idea for these creations during a visit by the pope. Not being able to serve fresh fruit, they decided to make fake fruits and stick them on the trees to be picked and eaten. Today, ‘frutta martorana’ is prepared in all parts of Sicily and is a typical sweet for All Saints’ Day.

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