Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio

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Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio
S. Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana

e Shën Kollit së Arbëreshëvet
The Baroque facade, with the Romanesque belltower and Byzantine dome
AffiliationEastern Catholic Churches
ProvinceEparchy of Piana degli Albanesi (Italo-Albanian Catholic Church)
RiteByzantine Rite
Ecclesiastical or organizational statusCo-Cathedral
LocationPalermo, Italy
StyleNorman-Arab-Byzantine, Baroque
Completed(restoration on 19th century)
Official name: Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale
Criteriaii, iv
Designated2015 (39th session)
Reference no.1487
State PartyItaly
RegionEurope and North America

The Church of St. Mary of the Admiral (Italian: Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio), also called Martorana, is the seat of the Parish of San Nicolò dei Greci (Albanian: Klisha e Shën Kollit së Arbëreshëvet), overlooking the Piazza Bellini in Palermo, Sicily, southern Italy.

The church is a Co-cathedral to the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi[1] of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church, a diocese which includes the Italo-Albanian (Arbëreshë) communities in Sicily who officiate the liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite in the Ancient Greek language and Albanian language[2] The Church bears witness to the Eastern religious and artistic culture still present in Italy today, further contributed by the Albanian exiles who took refuge in southern Italy and Sicily from the 15th century under the pressure of Turkish-Ottoman persecutions in Albania and the Balkans. The latter influence has left considerable traces in the painting of icons, in the religious rite, in the language of the parish, in the traditional customs of some Albanian colonies in the province of Palermo. The community is part of the Catholic Church, but follows the ritual and spiritual traditions that largely share it with the Orthodox Church.

The church is characterized by the multiplicity of styles that meet, because, with the succession of centuries, it was enriched by various other tastes in art, architecture and culture. Today, it is, in fact, as a church-historical monument, the result of multiple transformations, also subject to protection.

Since 3 July 2015 it has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site within the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale itinerary.


The divine coronation of Roger II of Sicily
The interior of the Martorana, before restoration (19th-century paintings).

The name Ammiraglio ("admiral") derives from the founder of the church, the Syrian christian admiral and principal minister of King Roger II of Sicily, George of Antioch. The foundation charter of the church (which was initially Eastern Orthodox), in ancient Greek and Arabic, is preserved and dates to 1143; construction may already have begun at this point. The church had certainly been completed by the death of George in 1151, and he and his wife were interred in the narthex. In 1184 the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr visited the church, and later devoted a significant portion of his description of Palermo to its praise, describing it as "the most beautiful monument in the world." After the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 the island's nobility gathered in the church for a meeting that resulted in the Sicilian crown being offered to Peter III of Aragon.[3]

In 1193–94, a convent of Benedictine nuns was founded on adjacent property by Eloisa Martorana. In 1433–34, under the rule of King Alfonso of Aragon, this convent absorbed the church, which has since then been commonly known as La Martorana. The nuns extensively modified the church between the 16th century and the 18th century, making major changes to the structure and the interior decoration.[4]

The nuns of the Martorana were famous for their moulded marzipan, which they made in the form of various fruits. Although the convent no longer exists, frutta di Martorana are still one of Palermo's most famous and distinctive foodstuffs.

In 1937 the church returned to the Byzantine rite with the Albanian community present in Palermo. Today, it is used by the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church for their services and shares cathedral status with the church cathedral of San Demetrio Megalomartire in Piana degli Albanesi.

The church assumed and inherited the title of seat of the parish of the Italo-Albanians residing in San Nicolò dei Greci (for "Greeks" those Albanian populations were exchanged which, from the fifteenth century in Italy and Sicily, kept "Greek rite" or Byzantine, language, customs, identity) in 1945, after the homonymous church adjacent to the Italo-Albanian Seminary of Palermo was destroyed in the Second World War.

The church was recently restored and reopened for community worship in 2013; at that juncture clergy and the community was momentarily welcomed in the church of the Santa Macrina of the Italian-Albanian Basilian [it] nuns in Palermo.

The parish of San Nicolò dei Greci does not have a real parish territory, but is the reference point for 15,000 faithful Arbëreshë (the Albanian community of Sicily historically settled in the province of Palermo) residing in the city and who professes the Byzantine rite.

Since 2015, the airport of the "Arab-Norman Itinerary of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale" as a World Heritage Site is one of the monuments proposed by UNESCO.

The name of the Parish[edit]

Marble plaque in memory of the Albanian hero Scanderbeg (1968)

By tradition it continues to be called "of the Greeks", an improper definition, since the parish belongs ecclesiastically to the Albanians of Sicily (Albanesi di Sicilia in Italian). Greek was defined – by to the not Arbëreshë people, the Latins – the Byzantine rite for the liturgical language used. There is, however, the increasingly used variant today of "Parrocchia San Nicolò or Nicola degli Italo-Albanesi".

It is called by its faithful albanophones "Klisha Arbëreshe Palermë" or simply "Marturanë" and in the non-colloquial version "Famullia / Klisha e Shën Kollit i Arbëreshëvet në Palermë". You can also often read the title "Parrocchia San Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana", this to mean that the parish is now based in the "Martorana" and not in the initial location in Via Seminario Italo-Albanese.

Liturgy and rite[edit]

Women in traditional Albanian costume from Piana degli Albanesi

The liturgical rites, the wedding ceremonies, the baptism and the festivities religious of the parish of San Nicolò dei Greci follow the Byzantine calendar and the Albanian tradition of the communities of the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi.[5][6][7]

The languages liturgical used are the ancient Greek (as per tradition, which was born to unify all the peoples of the Eastern Church under a single language of understanding) or Albanian (the mother tongue of the parish community). It is not uncommon here to hear the priest and the faithful speaking habitually in Albanian, in fact the language is the main element that identifies them in a specific belonging ethnic. Some young woman from Piana degli Albanesi marries still wearing the rich wedding dress of the Albanian tradition and the ceremony of the marriage (martesa).[8]

A special celebration for the Arbëreshë population is the Theophany or Blessing of the waters on 6 January ( Ujët e pagëzuam );[9] the most important festival is Easter (Pashkët), with the oriental rituals of strong spirituality of Holy Week (Java e Madhe) and the singing of Christos anesti – Krishti u ngjall (Christ is risen). On 6 December occurs the feast of Saint Nicholas (Dita e Shën Kollit).[10]


The interior of the church
Christ in the dome mosaic
Arabic Inscription in Martorana Church, Palermo, Italy

The original church was built in the form of a compact cross-in-square ("Greek cross plan"), a common variation on the standard middle Byzantine church type. The three apses in the east adjoin directly on the naos, instead of being separated by an additional bay, as was usual in contemporary Byzantine architecture in the Balkans and Asia Minor.[11] In the first century of its existence the church was expanded in three distinct phases; first through the addition of a narthex to house the tombs of George of Antioch and his wife; next through the addition of a forehall; and finally through the construction of a centrally-aligned campanile at the west. The campanile, which is richly decorated with three orders of arches and lodges with mullioned windows, still serves as the main entrance to the church. Significant later additions to the church include the Baroque façade which today faces onto the piazza. In the late 19th century, historically-minded restorers attempted to return the church to its original state, although many elements of the Baroque modifications remain.[12]

Certain elements of the original church, in particular its exterior decoration, show the influence of Islamic architecture on the culture of Norman Sicily. A frieze bearing a dedicatory inscription runs along the top of the exterior walls; although its text is in Greek, its architectural form references the Islamic architecture of north Africa.[13] The recessed niches on the exterior walls are likewise derive from the Islamic architectural tradition. In the interior, a series of wooden beams at the base of the dome bear a painted inscription in Arabic; the text is derived from the Christian liturgy (the Epinikios Hymn and the Great Doxology). The church also boasted an elaborate pair of carved wooden doors, today installed in the south façade of the western extension, which relate strongly to the artistic traditions of Fatimid north Africa.[14] On account of these "Arabic" elements, the Martorana has been compared with its Palermitan contemporary, the Cappella Palatina, which exhibits a similar hybrid of Byzantine and Islamic forms.[15]


The church is renowned for its spectacular interior, which is dominated by a series of 12th century mosaics executed by Byzantine craftsmen. The mosaics show many iconographic and formal similarities to the roughly contemporary programs in the Cappella Palatina, in Monreale Cathedral and in Cefalù Cathedral, although they were probably executed by a distinct atelier.[16]

The walls display two mosaics taken from the original Norman façade, depicting King Roger II, George of Antioch's lord, receiving the crown of Sicily from Jesus, and, on the northern side of the aisle, George himself, at the feet of the Virgin. The depiction of Roger was highly significant in terms of its iconography. In Western Christian tradition, kings were customarily crowned by the Pope or his representatives; however, Roger is shown in Byzantine dress being crowned by Jesus in the Byzantine fashion. Roger was renowned for presenting himself as an emperor during his reign, being addressed as basileus ("king" in ancient Greek). The mosaic of the crowning of Roger carries a Latin inscription written in ancient Greek characters (Rogerios Rex ΡΟΓΕΡΙΟΣ ΡΗΞ "king Roger").

The nave dome is occupied by the traditional byzantine image of Christ Pantokrator surrounded by the archangels St Michael, St Gabriel, St Raphael and St Uriel. The register below depicts the eight prophets of the Old Testament and, in the pendentives, the four evangelists of the New Testament. The nave vault depicts the Nativity and the Death of the Virgin.

The newer part of the church is decorated with later frescoes of comparatively little artistic significance. The frescoes in the middle part of the walls are from the 18th century, attributed to Guglielmo Borremans.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Concatedral Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, Palermo, Palermo, Italy (Italo-Albanese)". Retrieved 25 January 2017.
  2. ^ The liturgical languages of the parish are ancient Greek (as is the tradition for Eastern churches) and Albanian (the language of the Italo-Albanian faithful, the Arbëreshë people).
  3. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 15–21.
  4. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 21.
  7. ^ III° Domenica di Quaresima Venerazione della Santa Croce, Parrocchia S. Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana
  8. ^ Matrimonio in rito bizantino alla Martorana a Palermo
  9. ^ Tα Άγια Θεοφάνεια, Teofania, Palermo, San Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana, 6 gennaio
  11. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 29–30.
  12. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 42ff.
  13. ^ For the text of the inscription, see Lavagnini, "L'epigramma."
  14. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 35ff.
  15. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 66.
  16. ^ Kitzinger, Mosaics, 261-62.


  • The Green Guide: Sicily (Michelin, 2003)
  • Patrizia Fabbri, Palermo e Monreale (Bonechi, 2005)
  • Irving Hexham and David Bershad, The Christian Travelers' Guide to Italy (Zondervan, 2001)
  • Ernst Kitzinger, with Slobodan Ćurčić, The mosaics of St. Mary's of the Admiral in Palermo (Washington, 1990). ISBN 0-88402-179-3
  • B. Lavagnini, "L'epigramma e il committente," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), 339–50.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°06′53.40″N 13°21′46.59″E / 38.1148333°N 13.3629417°E / 38.1148333; 13.3629417