On Closer Inspection
The mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily are featured in art history books. Accounts are given of the Biblical subjects depicted in tesserae against a background of shimmering gold. Even travel guidebooks include an image of the gentle blue-robed Christ Pantocrator that adorns the central apse. One book quotes Guy de Maupassant who wrote “The Palatine Chapel, the most beautiful in the world, the most precious religious jewel ever conceived by the human mind and carried out by the hand of an artist, is enclosed in the ancient fortress built by the Normans.” Books explain how this chapel was built on the command of Roger II, a Norman ruler of Sicily in the early 12th century. Perhaps more intent on glorification of self than of God, Roger II used this chapel to assert his authority over the local clergy. The Palatine Chapel is attached to his Royal Palace with a special opening in the upper portion of the sanctuary where he could look down on the Mass. The royal throne, constructed of inlaid marble and elevated on five steps, is situated in the rear of the nave facing the central apse. A later addition to the chapel, the magnitude and placement of the king’s throne signifies his importance. To assert his importance unmistakably, Roger II even commissioned mosaics that depict his coronation directly by Christ without the intervention of the pope. To me, this self-aggrandizement seems contradictory to Christ’s teachings regarding humility.
Roger II’s genius for molding Arab, Byzantine, and Latin themes into a coherent whole is illustrated by designing a chapel based on a Greek cross with central dome. One arm of the Greek cross expands into a Latin basilica-style nave separated from an aisle on either side by mismatched columns salvaged from pagan sites. Complex multi-dimensional muqarna of Arab origin comprise the ceilings in the nave and aisles. In the sanctuary and apses, stories from Jesus’ life are told in hues of colorful stones and colored glass. Stories from the Old Testament are shown in sequential overlapping mosaics completed by Arab artisans. These spiral around the upper walls of the nave, beginning with the creation story of Genesis on the upper right wall. One only vaguely familiar with Biblical episodes can quickly recognize each story. These mosaics were intended to educate and awe the illiterate populace of that age. Mosaics on the interior walls of the side aisles show many saints. But mosaics recounting the stories of the Old and New Testament are not the only form of decoration. Even the lower walls and floor are embellished with interesting geometric designs of tesserae and marble. Travel guides to Sicily run on for several pages in their description of the Palatine Chapel. By all accounts, it is a “must see” for any traveler in Palermo.
The Palatine Chapel appeared on our travel itinerary and I anticipated the tour of this site with great interest. On the appointed day, our Palermitan tour guide dutifully pointed out the main features to our group on a 30 minute stop in the chapel before hustling us to our next destination.
Thirty minutes was not enough to take in the splendor of this chapel so I resolved to return on my free day in Palermo. When I arrived a couple of days later, the chapel was empty except for two security people who indicated that I may not use my tripod to make photographs. In the dim glow of the golden mosaics, photography would have been difficult so I was content simply to discover all the mosaics mentioned in the guidebooks. I was enjoying the solitude and my success when a group of about 30 noisy high school students shuffled in with a guide and several adult chaperones. The adults corralled the restless students near the front of the chapel as the guide pointed in various directions while speaking in Italian. A few students huddled near to see and hear but many meandered to the perimeter, inattentive, chatting and chuckling, never removing their sunglasses, never raising their eyes to the heavenly mosaics. I was distracted by this group for seven minutes. Seven minutes. That’s how long they were in the chapel. Seven minutes. Put another checkmark on the itinerary. Seven minutes to see the chapel that de Maupassasant called “the most beautiful in the world, the most precious religious jewel…” Then out they shuffled, in little clumps, still discussing who’s wearing what or who’s got a crush on whom or what’s for lunch.
I wondered how they would respond if someone were to ask “Have you ever seen the Palatine Chapel?” How many could answer “Yes! And it’s even more magnificent than the books show.” How many would answer “Yeah, I think I was there once.” How many would stammer “Maybe. We took a trip and saw a lot of churches but they all looked pretty much the same to me.”
Sicily is famous for ceramics. Because of an abundant supply of clay in the region, Caltigirone in south central Sicily became the home of a flourishing ceramics industry that later spread to other parts of Sicily, and particularly to Santo Stefano di Camastra on the north central coast. Ceramics from Caltagirone typically incorporate blue, yellow, and green while Santo Stefano’s pottery is distinguished by the a strong red pigment recently developed in Germany. Our tour stopped in both these towns where the streets are lined with dozens of little shops cluttered with bowls, platters, plates, spoon holders, vases, trinacria, and every other shape that can be formed from clay and painted.
Step into any shop. Move carefully. Rickety shelves are stacked high and deep. Look at the shapes and sizes. Look at the designs painted on each piece. Arches, spirals, tendrils, lines, stripes, webs, acanthus leaves, fruits. Now step next door into another shop equally cluttered with similar pottery. Shop after shop, down one side of the street and up the other. There’s so much. So much. And it all looks pretty much the same.
But check the prices. A 12 inch diameter plate might cost 65,000 lire in one shop and 250,000 two doors away. Why such a range in price? Why? I inspected more closely. On this piece, the patterns are coarser, the brush strokes broad and sloppy, the colors uneven and haphazardly splashed. On another, the symmetry is nearly perfect, the curves more regular, the colors carefully applied, the brush strokes delicate and precise, the acanthus leaves more vivid. Consider the detail, the craftsmanship, the care and the effort. No, they’re not all the same. Each piece is unique, the work of an artisan or an artist. Not the same at all. Some withstand closer inspection. Some deserve closer inspection.
I had wine with every meal. Different wines from different years from different grapes from different vineyards, yet I paid little note. In my inattentiveness, they all tasted pretty much the same to me. Now I realize my mistake. How much have I overlooked in this life, failing to slowly and carefully seek the uniqueness even in those things that seem superficially the same? What richness of experience, what variety, what texture, what view, what taste or smell have I failed to appreciate in my haste to jot another checkmark on a list? Have I truly “been there?” Have I carefully “done that?”
G.R. Davis, Jr.
31 January 2001