When the Vikings Attacked Sicily
They were ruthless mercenaries. They excelled at military sieges, geo-political maneuvering, and image management. The Vikings strong suit was ship building and raiding. You’ve got to give them credit. It takes guts to build ships with axes and hatchets (no saws until 1000), using overlapping wood planks fastened with iron rivets, powered by sail or oarsmen, then set forth to raid and pillage. First Iceland, Ireland, and England felt the wrath of the pagan “Ostmen,” or men from the east. From these outposts they struck northern France beginning in 820. Raids continued until Charles the Simple of France conceded present day Normandy to them in 911.
The creation of Normandy made the Vikings official rulers of a re-imagined and new land. Rollo, the Viking leader, was never one to pass up an opportunity. Rollo was not content with only Normandy. Transforming the Vikings from lowly outsiders to noble rulers called for public relations and a serious strategy. He made a calculating move and converted to Christianity in 912. It was perfect timing to turn Christian and proved to be a turning point in their creation myth as a divinely ordained new nation. The Vikings began a shift away from their origins as pagan raiders to God fearing noblemen. Christianity normalized their rule and reign as they sought parity with European nobility. They recast their history positioning Rollo, not as a warring Viking, but akin to a leader like the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. Rollo was the leader bringing the new faith to his Vikings.
This strategic northern France location gave them their name as Normans and the ability to launch attacks on Britain. They achieved a decisive victory at the Battle of Hastings in1066 when they defeated the English king and consequently became rulers of England. Strong charismatic leadership characterized the Norman rulers and their lands. Rollo, William the Conqueror who defeated the English king, and their descendants, were mission driven in expanding territory and creating a lasting legacy. The eleventh century was a defining time for the Vikings and Normans.
What was once a group from southwest Norway was now a combination of Celts, Danes, Franks, Romans, and Norwegians living in France and England. The Normans assumed French names over time and distanced themselves from their Norwegian heritage. After conquering England, they settled, took by force, or raided southern Italy, north Africa, Wales, Scotland, Anatolia, and Antioch.
In their wake, the Normans left a legacy of impressive art and architecture, and some of the most striking buildings are in Sicily. The major Norman territories of England, Normandy, and Sicily each had their own rulers and distinct visual culture which served to amplify the political needs of each region. Sicily is home to the impressive Norman structures of Monreale, the Cappella Palatina, La Zisa, La Cuba, La Martorana, and Cefalù Cathdral.
Before the Vikings
Sicily has never been a monoculture pre or post Norman rule. The island has seen influence from eastern lands. Long before the Normans reached Sicily, the island was inhabited with cultural impacts from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Arab peoples. Eastern Sicily was home to Greeks in the eighth century BCE. First as commercial trade outposts of the Greek empire, these settlements eventually became independent of Greece and formed their own rich artistic heritage. Sicilian Greeks formed a powerful trade center in Syracuse and even defeated Athens in 413 BCE. Sicily was celebrated for Greek culture, art, and as a think tank for philosophers. The Valley of the Temples in eastern Sicily is testament to its Greek heritage. Situated in Agrigento, seven temples and archaeological remains dating from the sixth century BCE are powerful examples of pre-Roman civilization. Sikelia, as the Greeks called Sicily, fell to the Roman Empire in 211 BCE.
After the Roman Empire ended the Goths ruled Sicily, followed by the Byzantines (partly modern-day Greece and Turkey). Clashes between Muslims and Christian Byzantine people in the Mediterranean became more frequent. Southern Italy and Sicily were overtaken back and forth by groups with little governing stability. Another source of great tension was the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church and the Roman Church. Sicily was caught in the middle practicing orthodox Byzantine Christian faith while Roman Popes pressured adherence to western Christianity. Meanwhile, the growth of the Muslim faith and spread of their control and power was quick and vast in the 700s-800s, from Mecca to Spain.
In the early 800s Muslims declared jihâd against the Byzantines in Sicily. A mix of Berbers, Arabs, and Andalusians invaded Sicily. It took them fifty years to fully control the vital port of Syracuse, but Palermo fell earlier in 831. About a decade later western Sicily was under Muslim rule. They didn’t waste any time attacking other areas around Naples and Brindisi on the Italian mainland. It wasn’t until 902 that all of Sicily fell to Muslim control.
Many thousands of lives were lost, commerce disrupted, and yet internal rebellions existed, especially between Berbers and Muslims, and within Muslim groups. Muslims were not raiders. Their purpose was to spread the faith and create dar al-Islam, a region where Muslims were free to practice their faith and not exist as a religious minority. Their intent was to create a self-supporting Muslim entity for faith, trade, and commerce without needing to unnecessarily interact with Christians.
The Abbasids, a Sunni Muslim group originating in Bagdad, gained influence in the ninth century and became the dominate political, religious, and commercial force in Sicily. Most people converted to Islam for the sake of stability, although Christians and Jews were permitted to practice their religions privately, and trade freely. The elite were mostly Muslim, with other cultures living together in mixed neighborhoods.
Abbasid influence is seen and heard today through Italianized names for Muslim cities: Bal’harm for Palermo, Kurliyun for Corleone, and Marsa Ali for Marsala. The island was called Siqiliyya by the Muslims. Palermo was the capital with about three hundred mosques, although there is little evidence of them today. The nearly two hundred years of Muslim governing brought positive agricultural changes to Sicily. However, Muslim governing on the island was not easy going and feuds broke out frequently between Sunni and Shiite groups. Sicilian history and politics were never stable nor egalitarian. It was bloody, messy, and complicated. Some would say that is still true today.
The Normans first established land holdings near Naples after serving as mercenaries for southern Italian nobles and receiving land as a reward. Smaller areas in the boot of Italy were ruled by Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, or Lombards. Normans were expert at ferreting out discord among groups and taking advantage of leveraging groups against each other. They weren’t very particular about which side they were on. Normans went on to control key areas of southern Italy which gave them trade and strategic access to the Mediterranean and Sicily.
The Two Rogers
When Pope Nicholas II recruited the Normans in 1059 to oust Muslim rule in Sicily in the name of Christendom, they rose to the call. Norman brothers Robert and Roger Guiscard were battle ready with experience in tactical sieges and naval battles. Robert remained in southern Italy while Roger began to assault eastern Sicily in 1061 and eventually reached Palermo in 1072. It took thirty years to dominate the entire island. The brothers co-ruled Sicily until Robert’s death in 1086. In spite of the papal demands to rid the island of Muslim religion and customs, Roger took a different route that often outraged the pope but provided stability and governing power. Although far from a gentle leader, Roger had no intention of displacing the talent each cultural group brought to his government. At the beginning of his rule the majority of the population was Muslim, many were Greeks from Byzantium, and about five percent were Jews. Europeans were in the minority.
Roger made a number of executive decisions as a new ruler. He chose a hybrid model of governing, using a Byzantine style for court protocol, Arab style for finance, and Muslims for land record keeping. Official documents were drawn up in three languages of Arabic, Latin, and Greek. Coins were minted with Kufic letters, an early form of Arabic decorative calligraphy. Mosques were allowed to stay, much to the pope’s chagrin. He took his role as protector of the Christian faith seriously and invested in monasteries and created new bishops. Roger died in 1101 and his son Roger II succeeded him, and like his forefathers, was resourceful and cunning. Roger II (r. 1105-1154) carried on his father’s governing legacy in a pluralistic society.
The historical literature, written mostly by Christian Europeans, gives an impression of a relatively conflict free Norman rule. Academic books write of a multicultural reign with little friction, although two very different religions existed on a small island, one with deep ties to the land. But was it peaceful? We have very little direct accounts from the Muslim point of view, and most studies present Roger’s point of view. Muslims were caught in a difficult position, having been ousted as leaders, but living in the island of their ancestors, but now outside the dar al-Islam. There is indication they were urged to convert, paid higher taxes, and regarded as minority citizens. Muslim law prohibited trade and travel between Muslims and non-Muslims, but most economically resisted the rule. There is little attention paid to the circumstances under which Muslims contributed artistically to Christian monuments. There remain many questions, such as why did Arabic artisans work on non-Islamic buildings?
Roger II left a legacy as an art patron and creator of Christian buildings that remains the primary Norman cultural heritage available to us today. Although he never set foot in Normandy, he fashioned himself a Norman King of Sicily, claiming to reinstate a former Sicilian monarchy, which was pure fantasy. What didn’t really happen historically, he felt justified in inventing. He was a gifted statesman rather than continuing as a warrior, who recognized the benefits of the multi-cultural island and generally managed it well.
Coronation Mantle, 1133-34, Palermo Royal Court Workshops, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, ©KHM-Museumsverband, public domain.
His imposing coronation mantle, almost five feet in length and eleven feet wide, was made by Arabic craftspeople in Palermo. The design and exquisite carved red silk attest to the Muslim influence with lions attacking camels, stars, and a palmette in the center. Lions signify power and top of the food chain. Richly decorated with gold thread, pearls, sapphires, rubies, and garnets, the border is inscribed with Kufic letters. The inscription indicates it was made in Palermo in 1133-34 by the royal workshop, "with zeal and perfection, with power and merit…with happy days and nights without ceasing and without change, with honor and care, prosperity and security, with triumph and prowess." Christian kings in the Holy Roman Empire used the mantle for centuries following Roger’s death. They must have overlooked the Arabic elements in favor of displaying the rich ornamentation and rare jewels.
Roger's primary religious architectural legacy was the Cefalù Cathedral (begun 1131) and the Capella Palatina in Palermo’s Palazzo Reale (royal palace). The Palatina is inside the palace and is not visible from the outside. It serves as a chapel for the royal Normans and bishop, decorated with inlaid floors, mosaics, and the giant mosaic Christ, called a Pantocrater (all ruling). At first the overwhelming decorative elements seem without a focal point, but deliberately so. This medieval chapel is all awe and spectacle. It is meant to be polyfocal, in order to create a sense of wonder and let the mind and eye wander to take in all the elements.
Interior of the Cappella Palatina looking west; Muqarna Ceiling, c. 1130–43, Palermo, photo Ariel Fein, CC BY NC SA 2.0.
The ceiling is unique for a Christian church with a painted wood intricate design called muqarnas. Muqarnas is an Islamic honeycomb structure used on vaults, domes, or in this case, the entire ceiling. There are small figures, geometric designs, Kufic inscriptions, and floral patterns. Not one inch is left undecorated. Blue, white, and gold predominant. The finished effect is three dimensional and highly ornamental. The multi colored cells form a repetitive pattern with splashes of color. The Palatina muqarnas ceiling is the largest Islamic pictorial ceiling known to us today.
The Palatina served as a court chapel with a throne area on one end and an altar on the opposite end. Also used as an audience hall to receive dignitaries, the legitimacy of the Norman rule is reinforced through the opulence and Old Testament mosaics emphasizing the patriarchs. There is an ideological dotted line connecting the mosaic patriarchs to Norman rule vis-à-vis the art. Saints depicted in the mosaics have connections to Norman warrior protectors or relics.
Normans were fond of depicting Christ as universal ruler and is found in many of their Christian buildings. It is unusual to see the Pantocrater in mainland Italian churches and would have appeared distinctly Byzantine to Europeans. Normans were strategic in choosing specific imagery to represent their rule. Christ appears from the waist up and larger than other images in the buildings. He is depicted with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing while holding a scripture text in the left hand. In the Palatina he is depicted three times. The large mosaic of Christ Pantocrater at the altar end would face Roger in his throne. Christ holds a text from John (8:12) which reads “I am the light of the world.”
As if there was any doubt the Normans presumed themselves to have a divinely ordained nation, a detail of the Byzantine mosaics inside the Palermo church La Martorana proves otherwise. Roger is crowned not by angels, or a saint, but directly by Christ who places a pearl encrusted gold crown on his head. A mid twelfth century Norman church built in the Byzantine style, it is similar to the Cappella Palatina with its rich mosaics. Roger wears Byzantine dress with the Greek letters above him “Rogerious Rex,” King Roger. What’s striking is the direct association with Christ crowning a King, a role usually reserved for the pope or high church official in Western art.
The Two Williams and Frederick
It wasn’t always harmonious in Sicily. Changes in leadership often led to unrest and the underlying mistrust between Christians and Muslims rose to the surface. When Roger died at age 58, he had two surviving children out of six. William, the only son, assumed rule. Muslims were persecuted and many were driven out of Sicily following Roger’s death. Roger’s only other surviving child Constance married Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Swabia (southwestern Germany) in a strategic alliance. Later Constance and Henry had a son, Frederick, who went on to rule Sicily.
The new King of Sicily was known as William the Bad. Remembered more for his conflicts in the Near East and revolts of noble landowners in Sicily, we do not have a remarkable artistic legacy from his reign (1154-66). William died early at age 40. His son took over and was known as William the Good. It appears Sicily was peaceful during his reign from 1166-89. William II continued Roger II’s efforts to emphasize the unification of Sicilian people. Although William II was culturally Muslim in dress and food, with multiple courtesans, he followed the Christian religion.
The Cathedral of Monreale remains William II’s foremost artistic achievement. Built six miles southwest of Palermo, it was constructed as an abbey in a rural area. The exterior appears plain until you step inside and take in the 81,800 square feet of mosaics (7600 square meters). Much of the mosaics are gold tesserae, made of a thin layer of gold leaf sandwiched between two glass pieces. The mosaics shimmer and catch the light. That is nearly the equivalent of over two acres of interior decoration and about two tons of gold. For comparison, the Sistine Chapel has 12,000 square feet of paintings; an American football field is about 57,000 square feet; a soccer field about 76,900 square feet.
Monreale Cathedral, Apse; exterior with bichromatic inlaid decoration; Interior Old Testament scenes, c. 1172-84, photos Ariel Fein, CC BY NC SA 2.0.
One hundred and thirty mosaic scenes of the Old Testament, Mary, and the Pantocrater cover the upper walls and apse. The nave has a series of scenes from Genesis, the Creation, Noah, and the Kings of Judah. New Testament and passion scenes cover the aisles. The scenes are a who’s who of the Bible and early Christian saints. The plethora of Old Testament leaders, princes, and kings lining the nave suggest William's leadership is par with theirs.
Groundbreaking took place in 1172, and skilled Byzantine, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim workers finished most of it in twelve years. In just two years the exterior was complete and in another decade the interior. The exterior is comparable in nature to French and English Norman architecture but the similarities end there. The rapidity of the execution attests to the vast sums of money William spent as well as his intense desire to create a monument to his Norman rulership. It is difficult to imagine the supply chain management, the number of materials, shipping and transporting of materials to the site, and construction work that took place in such a short time period.
Monreale Cathedral, exterior and apse, c.1172-84, Palermo, Pixabay, open access.
The adjacent cloister is also exceptional. Two hundred twenty-eight twin columns surround the enclosure to form a perfect square. Islamic inspired arches rest on the columns inlaid with orange limestone, black lava, and colored rocks. The capitals each have a biblical scene. No two sets of twin columns and capitals are the same.
Monreale Cathedral, cloister and columns, c.1172-1267, Palermo, open access.
William died without children and Constance and her husband ruled Sicily until their child, Frederick II, was named King. It was the beginning of the end for the Normans, but they ended on a high note. Frederick’s parents died suddenly when he was crowned King at age four. As an adult Frederick continued to govern Sicily and was considered a highly cultured ruler and patron of the arts, particularly in poetry and literature. Even more unusual, he held dual roles as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily.
He travelled constantly, and while he was in northern Europe Muslims continued their efforts to establish and threaten his control. Frederick’s overarching goal was invested in establishing himself as a European leader. To squelch rebellions, he enacted strict laws and deported Muslims who opposed his rule. He is still well regarded today in Sicily with a street and a piazza named after him. Many regard his rebuffing of papal control and authority a positive. A secular university was established in Naples under his tutelage. He was frequently in conflict with popes, who excommunicated him three times, mostly for his persistence in maintaining a secular stance and not acting on the pope’s behalf, especially in crusades. When he died in 1250 the Norman era had seen its best days. There were few Muslims living in Sicily and the majority were European Christians.
In a span of one hundred years, the Vikings conquered Normandy, England, Southern Italy, and Sicily. Normans constructed important monasteries, palaces, and churches within seventy years of establishing rule in each country. Each ruler developed a unique visual language suited to France, England, and Sicily. They were considered culturally impoverished pagans at the beginning of the twelfth century and by the end of the 1100s transformed three countries and gained respect in Europe and the Mediterranean.
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