Dating back to the 13th century, the tree of life in the Palermo Cathedral is a great allegory of the virtues that everyone should exercise to reach the light of Christ. Positioned in the portal, it is composed of a geometric set of spirals into which twelve main tondos are inserted, in turn subdivided inside and populated by symbolic, allegorical and fantastic creatures.
The narrative begins in the West with the woman, the soul of the world. There are three roosters with red crests on either side of it, watching over it, and hidden among the branches, in groups of three, there are fish and moles, a red-armoured crab and a snake. From left to right, the narrative culminates in the large ten-ray rose window with a man’s face in the central tondo. The sun and the rose are the conclusion of the journey. Now the pilgrim, purified, can enter the church, since they have left the darkness behind them. They crossed the threshold of the ianua coeli, the gate of heaven, to enter the mater ecclesia, having travelled from west to east. The Tree of Life, with its symbols, illustrates an important doctrinal teaching, that of purification and the path to salvation. Set in stone, thanks to the work of artists and stonemasons, it is set according to the rules of the illuminated manuscripts. It is reminiscent of medieval bestiaries in that it is populated by animals from the natural world such as greyhounds, roosters, a crane with a retracted leg, fish, moles, a snake, a crab, a bat, an octopus and others from the fantastic world such as winged dragons. The background is made of bluish-black coloured impasto, while the representations are made of white stucco.