I recently was working on revising a poem I’d written many years ago which reflects on the nature of human nature and language. The poem titled A Babel of words uses the biblical story of the tower of babel from Genesis as a metaphor for the over-reaching ambitious nature of humanity.
I’ve been obsessed with the image of a newly renewed humanity from biblical times, after the great flood of Noah when they seem to have learned very little about humility. Building a tower up to the heavens to reach the almighty. God punishes their arrogance by destroying the construction and also breaking the language to pieces, so each person cannot understand the next.
In my poem as the building is being constructed there is the deafening noise of the universal language which becomes like a single voice:
A choir building itself up
with a deafening rumble of unison
a body of voices whose swarming
made the Serafini (Seraphim) look down
upon the earth
A Babel of words uttering the one desire of all
to build-up to the heavens
to reach the ear of God
The sound grew louder with a resounding
that pricked the ear of Lucifer
and sparked the anger of the almighty
I’m still working on the rest of the poem but I enjoy the image of the Seraphim angels or Serafini who are majestic beings with six wings, human bodies and voices. In the mythology of angels, different types are organised into several orders of angelic choirs. The Seraphim are burning lights of the highest angelic order who serve as the caretakers of God’s throne.
Like most writers, I’m a little bit of a magpie, so these Seraphim’s took me back to Dante’s Divine Comedy in his Paradiso. But there was something familiar about the description of beings with six wings. I’m sure I had seen them somewhere in an artwork.
Quite frankly it was driving me crazy, I even trawled through the internet. But I couldn’t find what I’m sure I had seen.
Finally, I found a brief reference to a mosaic at the Cathedral at Cefalu which was quite small, and then it clicked.
It wasn’t at Cefalu, but at Palermo.
I’d seen those strange creatures at the Duomo at Monreale.
About three years ago, I took my son on a day trip to Palermo and we spent the afternoon exploring the golden mosaics of the Norman Cathedral.
We were in awe of the sheer size and detail of the works of art that covered the entire church interior. We could pick out Noah’s arch, the nativity, scenes from both the old and new testament on either side of the Duomo.
The massive mosaic at the head of the Church is probably the most photographed image from Norman Sicily the gigantic Cristo Pantacratore Christ the all-seeing all-knowing creator of the universe, who thanks to an optical illusion literally seems to be looking at you, no matter where you find yourself in the church. I know it’s really creepy.
Then beside the enormous Christ, there were endless Saints and characters from the bible. My son was happy to find his Saint name as well as the Saint that has his Uncle’s name. I found the big Sicilian Saints like St Agata, St Lucy and others like Mary Magdalene.
The Church is dripping with endless artworks, two large sarcophaguses who house the last two great Sicilian Norman Kings, side chapels filled with many elaborate marble works and statues. The cloisters are filled with a succession of elaborate columns that decorate the large courtyard.
No wonder I’d forgotten about my Seraphim, in amongst all of the other art. There even was a contemporary religious sculpture being displayed in yet another side chapel.
I went through all of my photos from that day and I found them in all of their magnificence. They were on the left side asp of the church, I remember glancing up and seeing some wonderfully elaborate angles wings but I couldn’t stop to have a better look but a caretaker to the side chapel was waving me through telling me to get a move on. So I lined up a photo with my camera making the most of the light from two small windows near small Christ designed in the center surrounded by his angels. I thought I’d be able to take a closer look after when I edit my photos.
Thank goodness I took the photo as it captures the colours, details and golden light reflected within the medieval mosaic. The vividness of the seraphim’s wings were just as I remember them. The sunlight streaming in creates an illusion of a certain movement as if the feathers were glistening and alive.
I was in awe simply by the way these fantastical creatures had been depicted so vividly as if they could swoop down at any moment. It is always so astounding how human imagination can be expressed so tangibly in art.
The Duomo at Monreale together with the one at Cefalu and Palermo and Palermo’s Palantine Chapel grouped together with the Roman villa at Casale near Caltanissetta are all magnificent examples of Medieval and late Roman mosaics and are some of the most well maintained and splendid examples of this style of mosaics in the world.
Put these places on your Sicilian bucket list as they are not to be missed.
I’ll never forget finding these angelic beings at Monreale.
P.S: If you are interested in reading the completed poem it’s published on my new creative writing blog Babel of Words.