The church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is named after George of Antioch, Admiral of the Fleet of Roger II (Second) of Sicily. A Syrian naval officer of the Byzantine Church, he built it next to his palace around the middle of the twelfth century, dedicating it to the Virgin Mary to thank her for her protection during his long military career at sea.
The church was built on a cross-in-square plan, typical of late-period Byzantine churches, aligned so that the apse faced east and the façade west, because prayer had always to be directed towards the east. It also comprised a narthex (an entrance or lobby area) that was originally connected to an open colonnaded courtyard, where scribes and notaries carried out their work for the Byzantine community. This colonnade was subsequently attached to the bell-tower.
Entering the church from the bell-tower, you immediately find yourself in the inner atrium, the vaulted ceiling of which is supported by the eight columns of the old portico. Two slim columns are embellished with Arabic inscriptions from the Quran. The vault of the hall of this atrium was frescoed with scenes depicting The Glory of the Benedictine Order by Olivio Sozzi (Catania 1690 – Ispica 1765) in 1744. The cycle consists of ten scenes, divided into two series of five, painted in mixtilinear ovals, the trompe l'oeil frames of which create an illusion of greater space and depth.
The background of blue skies, contrasting with the dark grey habits of the monks, creates a fine colouristic effect. The traveller and merchant Ibn Jubayr said of Palermo in 1185, that the “Church of the Ammiraglio is one of the most magnificent monuments of the Christians that there are no words to describe it and so silence surrounds it, because it is the most beautiful monument in the world”. He was very impressed by the gold and colours of the mosaics.
The cycle of mosaics, which entirely cover the vaults and the arches of the Greek cross of the original Byzantine church, is one of the most important in the world. It naturally culminates in the dome, in the centre of which is the full-length enthroned figure of Christ Pantocrator, making a blessing gesture with his right hand and holding the Gospel in his left. The Earth is depicted as a stool beneath his feet.
The Greek inscription in the frame surrounding the figure commences with the words “I am the light of the world...”. The four archangels are depicted flying around Christ. In the drum we can see the eight prophets, holding scrolls with their prophesies, and the four Evangelists housed in niches.
Il culmine è naturalmente la cupola che ha al centro il Pantocratore a figura intera, seduto sul trono, benedicente-annunciante con la destra, mentre regge il Vangelo con la sinistra , appoggiando i piedi sulla Terra sotto forma di sgabello.Nella cornice in greco il brano evangelico che inizia con “Io sono la luce del mondo…”. Volano intorno al Cristo i quattro arcangeli. Nel tamburo, gli otto profeti, che tengono in mano i cartigli delle profezie, e nelle nicchie sono i quattro evangelisti.