Normans in Sicily : the Golden Age

I left my previous blog on the Normans in Sicily in 1108, at the point where Roger II became Count of Sicily, aged 9. He was an astonishing character and began to rule for himself when only 16. He expanded his rule through conquest and, in 1130, became King of Sicily. This is how John Julius Norwich describes Roger’s Sicily by the 1140s:

Cover of Kingdom-Sun-1130-1194-Normans-SicilySicily, first of all, has grown steadily richer; and as her prosperity has increased, so too has her political stability. In contrast to the endemic confusion of the Italian peninsula, the island has become a paragon of just and enlightened government, peaceable and law-abiding, an amalgam of races and languages which seems to give strength rather than weakness; and, as its reputation grows, more and more churchmen and administrators, scholars and merchants and unashamed adventurers are drawn across the sea from England, France and Italy to settle in what must have seemed to many of them a veritable Eldorado, a Kingdom in the sun.

Sadly, the Kingdom in the sun lasted only until 1194. But it has left wonders behind.

The Normans’ Greek Admiral of Sicily

The Governor and Admiral of Palermo was traditionally a Greek Christian and the Norman rulers retained the Arabic title “Emir”. (The word “admiral” comes from “emir” via Latin “ammiratus”.) As Emir, George of Antioch served King Roger II with distinction. In 1132, he became “Emir of Emirs”, the high admiral and chief minister of the kingdom.

Mosaic of Virgin and George of Antioch in Martorana, Palermo

Martorana wall mosaic: George of Antioch at the feet of the Virgin

George of Antioch founded the beautiful church of Santa Maria dell’ Ammiraglio in Palermo, consecrated in 1143. Sadly, it has since become known as the Martorana, after the founder of a Benedictine nunnery with which it was later amalgamated. That move altered the church both outside and inside. The exterior is Baroque and the interior is an unfortunate mixture of styles from different centuries (as can be seen on the Wikipedia page).

However, parts of the original church do remain, especially the mosaics on the ceilings and two important mosaics on the walls by the entrance.

Roger II crowned by Christ in Martorana, Palermo

Martorana wall mosaic: Roger II crowned by Christ

The first, shown above, shows George himself at the feet of the Virgin. The second, right, shows Christ crowning Roger II. There was to be no doubt that Roger II derived his royal power on earth from God alone.

Roger wears Byzantine dress and crown; and it is probably a portrait from life. The Greek lettering above the King’s head says Rogerios Rex. So we have Greek, and Latin. And on a nearby pillar there is also Arabic, fitting for Roger’s multicultural kingdom.

palermo martorana nativity ceiling mosaic

Martorana ceiling mosaic of Nativity

Above is part of the original ceiling, showing the mosaic of the nativity. (Ignore the paintings on the left of the image which John Julius Norwich calls the “simpering cherubs and marzipan madonnas” of later additions.) To my mind, the later alterations have spoiled what must, in 1143, have been a beautiful and harmonious little church.

The Royal Chapel: Capella Palatina in Palermo

Palermo, Capella Palatina, nave and south aisle

Nave and south aisle of Capella Palatina, Palermo

Roger II and his father had repaired an old Saracen fortress and turned it into the Royal Palace of Palermo. Starting in 1129, before he became King, Roger II began his own private chapel, on the first floor of the palace. It was consecrated on Palm Sunday of 1140. And it is an exquisite gem of a building.

The Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina) includes all three of the cultures of Sicily at the time. The lower area, mostly white with mosaic decoration, is a western basilica whose columns and stone slabs came from Roman buildings. Golden mosaics from Byzantium decorate the upper walls. And the stalactite ceiling is of wood in the classical Islamic style. The chapel is full of light, from many windows and, in spite of all that decoration, it does not feel oppressive. Oscar Wilde’s description  was:

the Cappella Palatina “which from pavement to domed ceiling is all gold: one really feels as if one was sitting in the heart of a great honey-comb looking at angels singing.”

mosaic dome of capella palatina, Palermo

Dome: Christ Pantocrator surrounded by angels, prophets, evangelists

The central dome (above) is said to have the finest mosaic work in the chapel. The Greek inscription surrounding Christ Pantocrator says: “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool”. A similar mosaic appears in the semi-dome above the altar. The book in Christ’s hand says, in Greek and in Latin, “I am the light of the world…” Underneath the semi-dome (not shown in my image below) is a rather ugly mosaic of the Virgin Mary which was added in the 17th century to fill a blocked-out window.

semi-dome, christ pantocrator, capella palatina, Palermo

Semi-dome above altar: Christ Pantocrator with archangels either side

Stories in golden mosaic

Mosaics adorn all the upper walls of the chapel, either telling stories or showing saints.

South transept: mosaics of Life of Christ

South transept: mosaics of Life of Christ, ending with entry to Jerusalem

The image of the south transept above (click to enlarge to see detail) shows scenes from the life of Christ, ending with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. (The Cappella Palatina does not show Christ’s death on the cross. The Byzantine tradition shows Christ as all-powerful, Christ Pantocrator.)

Above the arches in the nave, the mosaics show scenes from the Old Testament, including the Creation. In the transept behind the arches are mosaic scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul (to whom the chapel is dedicated).

Genesis mosaics in Nave, Sts Peter and Paul in south aisle

Genesis mosaics above arches, life of Sts Peter and Paul, south transept

Noah and the ark. Capella Palatina mosaic

Emerging from the Ark on Mount Ararat. God at right under rainbow

This is one detail from the Old Testament scenes. Noah and his family and animals are emerging from the ark. On the left, a raven is pecking at a corpse.

altar area, capella palatina

Altar, Cappella Palatina, with serpent floor mosaics, representing evil

But the chapel is not all mosaics and gold. The altar area is quite stark. On the floor, on either side of the altar, are two mosaic serpents, symbolising evil. The priests would certainly trample on them when they approached the altar.

At the western end of the chapel, opposite the altar, is the dais where the king sat. As with the mosaic of Roger’s crowning from the Martorana, the meaning here is clear. The Normans on the throne have their power direct from God.

Palatine Chapel, Royal Palace, Palermo

Royal dais, Cappella Palatine, Palermo

Roger II, an unusual Norman

Unlike his warlike de Hauteville ancestors, Roger II was essentially a man of peace. He was also a man of insatiable intellectual curiosity who spoke Latin, Greek, Arabic and Norman French and was especially interested in the sciences, welcoming scholars to his court. He also commissioned Arab scholars to complete a study of geography. After 15 years, their work resulted in two things: an enormous solid silver planisphere (destroyed in later unrest) and the Book of Roger, the greatest geographical work of the Middle Ages. On its first page, readers find this:

The earth is round like a sphere, and the waters adhere to it and are maintained on it through natural equilibrium which suffers no variation.

That was written in 1154, centuries before Galileo. And Newton! What’s more, the map is recognisable as you’ll see below.

Tabula Rogeriana, modern consolidation from original 70 spreads, shown upside-down as original had south at top

Tabula Rogeriana, modern consolidation from Al-Idrisi’s original 70 double-page spreads, shown upside-down as the original had south at top

The Normans after Roger II : William the Bad

Tomb of King Roger II, Palermo cathedral

Tomb of King Roger II, Palermo cathedral

Roger II died in 1154, shortly after the Book of Roger was completed.

He had reared two of his sons to follow him but, unfortunately for Sicily, both died before Roger. So William, the pleasure-loving son who did inherit, was not ready to become a good or sensible king.

He was called (perhaps unfairly) “William the Bad“.

William’s reign lasted 12 years during which he spent a fortune on his own pleasure. He left the responsibilities of ruling to others, though he was better than his father on the battlefield. In 1166, his twelve-year-old son William II, nicknamed “William the Good”, came to the throne of Sicily.

The Normans after Roger II : William the Good

William II, partly in pursuit of a power struggle with the Archbishop of Palermo, built a new cathedral, Monreale, 5 miles from Palermo. William wished to honour his grandfather, King Roger II, but also wanted to create a new archbishopric, equal to that of Palermo. That was clearly power politics, but with a vast treasury to support the expenditure! The cathedral of Monreale, and its attendant Benedictine abbey, are huge, sumptuous and magnificent, with about 2 acres of mosaics in the cathedral. In terms of scale, the hand of Christ Pantocrator in the semi-dome above the altar is about 6 feet high. The cathedral is more than 100 metres long.

Monreal cathedral, altar and huge semi-dome

The decoration is much on the lines of the Cappella Palatina but, to my mind, it is impressive rather than beautiful. Size is possibly not everything. (Ignore the ceiling, which is a 19th century replacement following a fire.)

Genesis mosaics, Monreale cathedral

Old Testament mosaics, Monreale cathedral (under 19th c. ceiling)

The cloisters of the Monreale abbey (alongside the cathedral) show beautiful columns with unique sculpted capitals. The Saracen influence is strong and the carving is very fine. For me, it is more impressive than the OTT interior of the cathedral (but many authorities would disagree with me about the cathedral).

Abbey cloisters of Monreale cathedral

Abbey cloisters of Monreale cathedral

William the Good doesn’t deserve that epithet, I would say. I would rather call him “William the Terminally Stupid”.

Why? Because, although William had a wife (Joanna, daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine), he had no children. Yet he allowed his heir, Roger II’s posthumous daughter Constance, to marry the Hohenstaufen heir to Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor. Constance was actually a year younger than her nephew, William II. If she married the Emperor’s heir and if William II then died childless, Sicily would fall into the hands of the Holy Roman Empire.

And, sadly, that is what happened.

The end of the Normans and their Kingdom in the Sun

Tomb of Constance, Palermo cathedral

Tomb of Constance whose marriage ended the Kingdom in the Sun

In 1189, William II died, aged just 34, leaving Constance as his legitimate heir. Her husband, later Emperor Henry VI, had to fight for her crown against an illegitimate grandson of Roger II.

The Holy Roman Empire won in the end, funding its war by using the enormous ransom Henry received for the release of Richard the Lionheart.

Tomb of Henry VI, Palermo cathedral

Tomb of Henry VI, Palermo cathedral






The Kingdom in the Sun, with its various religions, languages, cultures and traditions, could not endure. The Holy Roman Empire had long been Sicily’s oldest and most persistent enemy. Now the Holy Roman Emperor was the King of Sicily and determined to subdue its people.

Henry Vi was crowned King of Sicily on Christmas day 1194. By the time he died, only three years later, aged 32, the whole of Sicily feared and detested him for his ruthlessness and cruelty.

We can read about the Normans in Sicily and marvel that enlightenment and toleration could exist so many centuries ago. What we still have is the beauty of the monuments that the Normans created, and the Book of Roger. They are marvels, too.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


PS Since publishing this blog, I’ve found a great illustration of the Book of Roger on Wikipedia. I have now inserted the map above. I’ve also inserted the Oscar Wilde quotation which I forgot to include before.

9 thoughts on “Normans in Sicily : the Golden Age

  1. Elizabeth+Hawksley

    Thank you so much for this reminder of a wonderful holiday I had in Sicily – I, too, was very impressed by King Roger, especially when compared to our Norman William the Conqueror, a destructive brute if ever there was one who set about destroying our Anglo-Saxon artistic heritage.

    I loved the Cappella Palatina, too, which felt like stepping inside a wonderful jewelled casket!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Couldn’t agree more, Elizabeth. I loved the Cappella Palatina and SO agree with your description. Whereas Monreale, which William II (the Good? Huh!) wanted to be a bigger and better version of his grandfather’s church, left me cold. And Henry VI was just like William the Conqueror — another destructive brute.

  2. Sophie

    Fascinating stuff, especially the theory that the world was round. Would that be the Arabic astronomers’ influence, I wonder.

    How marvellous that a harmonious and successful multi-cultural society existed and produced such wonders. Even if it was peopled by the riff raff of the developed world. Adventurers are always so interesting.

    As for horrid old Henry’s take-over – I don’t believe in Robin Hood’s Lionheart king dispensing justice to Norman and Saxon alike, King Richard was a blasted liability. I’d rather have Count Roger, any day of the week.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re probably right about Arabic astronomers, Sophie. Roger II decreed that every traveller who arrived in Sicily should be questioned for his geographical commission. He often spoke to travellers and scholars himself, because he was so keen on acquiring knowledge.

      I’m with you on horrid old Henry. He wasn’t going to tolerate Saracens in his realm. After all, his father Barbarossa had died on the Third Crusade and Henry himself was preparing to go on crusade when he died. He also threatened to invade the Byzantine Empire so he wasn’t a friend of the Greeks on Sicily either. Toleration? Not a chance.

      1. Joanna Post author

        PS I was late publishing this blog and have only now found the illustration from the Book of Roger. It’s a map of the then known world. Unlike other medieval maps, it’s absolutely recognisable to us. I’ve inserted it in the section about King Roger II’s interest in scholarly pursuits. Feel free to marvel.

  3. Mike

    The belief that the world is a sphere may have come via the Arabs, but it more likely was simply common knowledge that had never been forgotten. In the west we know that Pythagoras proposed a spherical Earth in about 500 BC and later Aristotle listed a whole set of arguments why this was correct. In fact, Eratosthenes actually measured the Earth’s circumference in June ca. 240 BC.

    My understanding is that this was pretty much the standard belief across the Roman empire, at least for the educated classes, was accepted by the early Church Fathers, and I doubt that this was forgotten despite the “dark” ages.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Mike. Really interesting. My knowledge of Greek scholarship is not great so I’m happy to take your points, until someone else says differently 😉

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