Mosaic in the Palatine Chapel

Mosaic in the Palatine Chapel

The Norman monuments in Palermo, built to glorify Norman power and the Christian religion, include cathedrals, churches, chapels, pavilions and palaces. They are unique for the blend of cultures that they represent: Norman, Arab and Byzantine Greek. The Normans brought their own ideas on architecture from northern Europe and from southern Italy, where they were established prior to arriving in Sicily. The alliance with the Arabs, made after the capture of Palermo in 1072, added a strong Muslim influence to their architecture. The mosaic art of Byzantium was brought to Palermo by the Norman kings and brilliantly incorporated into their buildings.

Lion from Room of King Roger

Lion from the Room of King Roger

Outstanding are the Palatine Chapel and the Room of King Roger, both in the Norman Palace; the church of the Martorana – full name St Mary’s of the Admiral – and the cathedrals at Monreale and Cefalù. They have impressed visitors from Norman times up to the present day and are worth a trip to Sicily to see.

The mosaic decoration is the most exciting feature of these monuments. Expertly made by Byzantine craftsmen, the mosaics dominate the interiors of these buildings with a brilliant array of brightly coloured scenes. As many of the mosaics in Eastern Europe were destroyed, the Palermo collection is among the finest to have survived from the twelfth century.

Church of San Cataldo

Church of San Cataldo

A striking aspect of the Norman monuments is the Muslim influence. As the Normans settled in the city they came to appreciate the Islamic architecture, which was well suited to the climate. The Arabs had ruled Palermo for over 200 years and their builders and craftsmen were well established in the city. Their building methods came directly from Tunisia, from where the Arab emirate had originated, which in turn drew upon architectural principles first established in cities like Cairo and Baghdad. Mosques and tombs were among the important buildings on which the crowning glory was the dome. Intricate decoration using geometric patterns on brightly coloured tiles was used inside buildings on floors and the walls. Ceilings and doors were made in wood that carried detailed carvings. These elements, and others common to the Islamic architecture which spread around the Mediterranean and as far afield as India and Afghanistan, became part of Norman Palermo.