These two Norman churches stand side by side, separated by a little tropical garden. George of Antioch, Roger II’s Greek admiral, founded Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio in 1141 and the church was later bestowed to Eloisa Martorana, who founded a nearby Benedictine convent. The nuns gained the everlasting appreciation of Palermitans when they invented marzipan, and frutta di Martorana—sweets in which marzipan is fashioned into the shape of little fruits—has outlived the order. George of Antioch, for his part, had a love of Byzantine mosaics. The North African craftsman who had come to Palermo to work on the Capella Palatina had just completed their labors, so Roger put them to work covering walls, pillars, and floors with stunning mosaics in deep hues of ivory, green, azure, red, and gold. Christ crowns Roger II, George appears in a Byzantine robe, and Christ appears again in the dome, surrounded by angels. The Arab geographer/traveler Ibn Jubayr visited Palermo in 1166 and called the church “the most beautiful monument in the world.” A baroque redo has rendered the interior as little less transporting than it must have been in 1266 when Sicilian nobles met here and agreed to offer the crown to Peter of Aragon, ending a bloody uprising against French rule known as the Sicilian Vespers.
Maio of Bari, chancellor to William I, began the tiny Chiesa di San Cataldo next door in 1154 but died before it was completed in 1160, so the church was left unfinished. The red domes and the lacy crenellation around the tops of the walls are decidedly Moorish, while the stone interior, with three little cupolas over the nave, evoke the Middle Ages—all the more so since any traces of the church’s use over the years as a hospital and post office have been removed.