I 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 breaking the language into pieces, so each person cannot understand the next.
There is a deafening noise in my poem as the building is being constructed. The universal language becomes like a single voice:
A choir building itself up
with a loud 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 love 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 cosmic order who serve as the caretakers of God’s throne.
Like most writers, I’m a bit of a magpie, so these Seraphims 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 relatively small, and then it clicked.
It wasn’t at Cefalù but at Palermo.
I’d seen those strange creatures designed in the mosaics at the Duomo at Monreale.
About three years ago, I took my son on a day trip to Palermo. 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 walked around in the reflected golden afternoon sunshine, which showed off the magical colours, details and textures of the mosaics. We were able to identify scenes from Noah’s arch, the nativity, and stories from both the old and new Testaments 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 is the all-seeing, all-knowing creator of the universe. Thanks to an optical illusion, the idea 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 and Saint Damian, which is his Uncle’s name. I found prominent Sicilian Saints like St Agata, St Lucy and others like Mary Magdalene.
The Church is dripping with endless artworks. Two large sarcophaguses 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 ornate columns that decorate the large courtyard.
No wonder I’d forgotten about my Seraphim amongst all of the other art we saw that day. A contemporary religious sculpture was 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 of the Church. I remember glancing up and seeing some wonderfully elaborate angel wings. Still, I couldn’t stop to have a better look as the 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 the small Christ designed in the centre, 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 specific movement as if the feathers were glistening and alive.
I was in awe simply by how these fantastical creatures had been depicted so vividly as if they could swoop down at any moment. It is always astounding how human imagination can be expressed tangibly in art.
The Duomo at Monreale, together with the one at Cefalù 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. Sicily has some of the most well maintained and splendid examples of this style of mosaics.
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.