Palermo Cathedral
the Portico and the Floor

A tree full of life

In the flat area of the portico façade, between the arched posts and the band above them ordered according to the theory of the saints, where scholars have always indicated the presence of a light carving in the form of whorls, with figures of various kinds originally treated with niello fields, the stone has revealed itself during recent restoration work, telling its own story.
Today, almost as if by magic, a fascinating tree of life appears, arranged according to the rule and the canons of the ancient illuminated codes of the monastic tradition.

Tree of Life
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 upper portal part of the southern elevation, 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 depiction of the Tree of Life 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.

In fact, it is not a question of simple concentric circles, but of a spiral structure , the beginning of which, located on the left side of the viewer, is composed of an interweaving of trees which begins with a feminine figure. A woman , on the left-hand side of the composition, to the west, holds in her hands the first branches of an intertwined animated tree that unfolds its text from left to right; an initiatory path from west to east, illuminated by the midday sun.
The woman wears a dress with long hanging sleeves, whose first iconographic reference is to the ‘ soul of the world ’, depicted in some miniatures of the late Middle Ages in England.The entire tree is populated by an excellent example of medieval bestiary , composed of mythical figures that encapsulate the knowledge and wisdom of the times. Almost as a warning, and at the same time a teaching, of the perennial Magisterium of the Church to those who intend to cross the ‘ ianuacoeli ‘ to enter the ‘ mater ecclesiae ‘.This is a work that finds its full historical setting in the vast Romanesque production, which wanted the fronts of churches to be decorated with multiple symbols that would fulfil the task of perennial memory. A true ‘ littera laicorum ‘ that illustrates, in the eternal text of stone, the fundamental truths of writing and human history.

The towers and the western facade

Roger II of hauteville: a sovereign protected by God

The Chapel of the Kings

Porphyry sarcophagi: royalty and power

Squaring the circle

The Virgin Hodegetria

Palermo: the happiest city

The medieval city amidst monasticism and feudal aristocracy

Cefalù: settlement evidence through time

The Great Restoration

The links between the hauteville family and the monastic orders in Sicily

The architectural modifications ti the cathedral building after the death of Roger II and the transformations of the cloister

A chapel by an unknown designer based on repeated symmetries

Two initially similar towers, varied over time

Gardens and architecture as a backdrop to the city of Palermo

The liturgical spaces of the protesis and the diaconicon

Interior decorations

Thirteenth-century iconography decorates the nave’s wooden ceiling, designed with new solutions

Beyond the harmony of proportions

A new Cathedral

The senses tell Context 1

The chystro: a place between earth and sky

Roger II’s strategic design

A polysemy of high-level artistic forms and content

A remarkable ceiling

The lost chapel

The cemetery of kings

A mixture of styles pervades the floor decorations

The original design

The plasticism of the main portico and Bonanno Pisano’s Monumental Bronze Door

The chapel of san Castrense: an important renaissance work

From the Mosque to the Cathedral

The Gualtiero Cathedral

The decorated facade

The area of the Sanctuary

A compositional design that combines nordic examples with new artistic languages, over the centuries

Tempus fugit: a strategic project implemented in a short period of time

The mosaics of the apses

The construction of Monreale Cathedral: between myth and history

Biblical themes enlivened by the dazzling light of the stained – glass windows overlooking the naves

The Kings’ Cathedrals

The Cathedral over the centuries

The towers facing the facade used as bell towers

The columns of the nave: the meticulous study of the overall order

A controversial interpretation

The side aisles

Artistic elements in Peter’s ship

The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

A cloister of accentuated stylistic variety

A tree full of life

A space between the visible and the invisible

Survey of the royal tombs

The cultural substrate through time

The longest aisle

The chapel of the crucifix: an artistic casket based on a previous model

The mosaics of the presbytery

Transformations over the centuries

The marble portal: an intimate dialogue between complex ornamental aspects and formal structure

The side Portico: a combination of elegance and lightness of form

Ecclesia munita

A palimpsest of history

The king’s mark

The southern portico

The chorus: beating heart of the cathedral

The balance between architecture and light

Worship services

A Northern population

From the main gate to the aisles: an invitation to a journey of faith

The chapel of St. Benedict

The stone bible

Norman religious architecture with islamic influences in Sicily

Mosaic decoration

The Great Presbytery: a unique space for the cathedral

The dialogue between the architectures of the monumental complex

Characteristics of religious architecture in the romanesque period

Layers of different cultures decorate the external apses

The transformations of the hall through the centuries

The beginning of the construction site

The Cefalù cathedral: a construction yard undergoing a change between a surge of faith and control over the territory

The rediscovered chapel

The Bible carved in stone

Under the crosses of the Bema

The paradisiacal “Conca d’oro” that embraces Palermo: a name with countless faces through time