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One of the great art treasures of Europe can be seen in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, Sicily. The effect of the dazzling Byzantine style mosaics is overwhelming and is a powerful demonstration of the sophistication of medieval Christian iconography. The Palatine Chapel was built as the private chapel of a King not only to demonstrate his power and Christian piousness but more importantly, to elevate him to the status of a great Christian ruler and a cultured benefactor of the arts. This King had good reason for this public relations exercise because he was not from European noble aristocracy but was the Norman Knight Roger de Hauteville or Roger II of Sicily and Duke of Apulia and Calabria.
History has not dealt the Normans a good hand. They are synonymous with bloody conquest and the so called unruly, uncultured Dark Ages of Medieval Europe. They are best known through the exploits of William the Conquer who conquered England and ruled with an uncompromising iron fist. The Normans demonstrated though that pagan raiding tribes, when given the chance, can become the corner stones of Christianity and patrons of high art and culture within a few generations.
The Norman were originally a Viking Norseman raiding tribe that decimated the coastal towns of northern Europe from the 790s. By 880 the pagan Vikings raiders had moved inland and had taken Aachen, stabling their horses in the Charlemain's great Palatine Chapel. It can be seen then that Roger II the devout Christian king and patron of the arts was a very different man from his ancestors.
In 911 Viking warlord Rollo [Robert] stood at the gates of Paris with a army of 30,000 Vikings. Rollo stood because it is said that he was too big for any horse to carry so he walked everywhere. His attack failed so he lay siege to Châtre. This failed and the Vikings retreated to their ships. At this point, presumably worn out by the endless annual raids of the Vikings, Frankish king Charles The Simple made Rollo an astonishing offer. In exchange for a commitment to convert to christianity and a promise to stop raiding Frankish territory, Charles offered Rollo the city of Rouen and its surrounding land. And so Normandy and the Normans, a derivation of Norse or North men, came into existence.
A 150 years later the Normans had conquered England, Southern Italy, Sicily and were the backbone of the Crusades, creating Norman cities in the Middle East and even threatening the great city of Constantinople. This meteoric rise is remembered for its bloodshed and the ferocity of its feudal rulers and barons, who quarreled amongst themselves regularly sacking each others lands.
The Norman's role as great benefactors has been forgotten or ignored by Historians that see the medieval Dark Ages as a period of low culture. It is forgotten that Under William The Conqueror some of the greatest buildings in England & France were built. The Great Monasteries of England were founded, Mont St. Michele was built and great castles like The Tower of London protected William's kingdom.
Roger II father was Roger I who had taken Sicily during a campaign that took 30 years. Roger I learnt the hard way that subjugating conquered towns by sacking them was counter productive. He also learnt that tolerance to the large Muslim Arab population in return for allegiance was the only way to unite Sicily under one ruler. Roger I created a united settled Sicily that prospered as one of the most important trading kingdoms of the Mediterranean. Roger I refusal to join the first crusade, 80% of his Sicilian subjects were Muslim, brought the disapproval of the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Byzantine Empire of Constantinople, who had lost southern Italy to Norman conquest, distrusted Roger also. It was against this background that Roger II came to power and the art of the Palatine Chapel is a testament to the fine line that he had to walk between East and West.
What makes the Palatine chapel one of Europe's great art treasures is its mosaic decorations. Every part of the interior of the chapel is covered with mosaics. The background color of the mosaics is gold which reflects the candles in such a way as to create a magic and mystical atmosphere that is almost overwhelming. Because the chapel is quite an intimate space the intricate flowing figures and patterns of the mosaic design crowd in on the senses. Each scene is surrounded by its own decorative border as can be seen in orthodox icon mosaics.
The oldest mosaics are probably in the transept and date from about 1140. These magnificently crafted mosaics depict the Acts of the Apostles. These mosaics almost certainly made by the finest Byzantine craftsmen probably from Constantinople. The style of the design is heavily influenced by orthodox iconography and the inscriptions are in Greek.
The other mosaics depict scenes for the old testament and scenes from the lives of apostles and probably date from the 1160's. They are not as fine as the transept mosaics and were probably made by local craftsmen as a lot of the inscriptions are in Latin rather than Greek.
The Palatine chapel is a political statement from the 11th and 12th century. It is designed to be appealing to Roman Christians, Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Its mosaics depict biblical scenes as well as scenes from the apostles lives. The multifaceted ceiling. made from now rare Nebrodi pine, is an arabic design influenced by Iraqi Abbasid art. Secular scenes show people playing chess and dancing and are one of the first use of secular scenes in Christian churches. Lions & eagles are depicted and these paintings in tempera seems to reflect the relaxed norms of a tolerant society. The scenes would have been frowned upon by the Muslims of the time yet they would have been painted by Fatamid Islamic Muslim artists. Does this indicated defiance on the artists part or are the Normans sending out a secular message of tolerance to the Islamic Caliphate?
Other scenes in the Palatine Chapel could represent tolerance or show the Normans independence. The lack of dogma in the pictures of the Palatine chapel point to the lack of dominance by the Roman or Orthodox church in Norman religious life. The Schism of the Christian Church into Roman and Orthodox almost seems to have been irrelevant to them. In the dome of the central apse above the main altar Christ looks down, arms spread wide in a gesture of benevolence, the fingers of his right hand making the shape of the Orthodox blessing. Christ's thumb touches his second finger and his other fingers make the shape of the Orthodox Cyrillic letter for Christ - KX<. This can be either interpreted as Norman tolerance towards the Orthodox churches or as a message to Rome that the Noman allegiance to the Roman church should not be taken for granted.
There is little ambiguity though with the raised Carolingian Throne area of the Chapel which shows the Normans allegiance to the Carolingian kings and therefore to the Holy Roman Emperor. Above the throne the messages are less clear. Christ sits on a throne high above the kings throne showing the dominance of the church but between the throne and Christ are arabic decorative panels depicting exotic birds and intertwining plants and flower. There are 2 bearded lions and small animals faces are inserted into the design. It almost seems to act as a secular barrier between the king on Earth and the king in heaven.
King Roger died in 1132 before the chapel was completed. One hundred and Fifty years later in 1282 the Norman rule in Sicily ended when the House of Aragon took over. As a final testament of the change of power, the Aragon coat of arms is now in the middle of the throne mosaics.
The Chapel throws light on a period of history that is usually looked on as a the Dark Ages which lacked any culture or art, a time when ruthless barons waged constant religious crusades. The stories and ambiguities of the Palatine Chapel mosaics seem to point to less certain divisions in Europe between the various religions and cultures. The northern European Normans seem to have embraced eastern culture and art and encouraged cross over Christian art in their great cathedrals of Sicily.
The Palatine chapel, The Norman Palace, Piazza Indipendenza, Albergheria, Palermo, 90129
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