When Richard the Lionheart and the Crusaders stopped in Sicily en route to Jerusalem, they found a startlingly cosmopolitan society. Christian women wore the latest Arab fashions, right down to their hennaed hands. Arabs, Jews, and Byzantine Greeks dominated the local population as well as the court. One wonders what the Crusaders made of William II, the Sicilian king who not only declined to fight the “infidels” but actually employed them as his personal bodyguards.
Ironically, both Richard and William descended from the Vikings who settled in France. The Normans, as they became known, would go on to conquer England and southern Italy in the 11th century. Capturing the Islamic emirate of Sicily, however, required a more accommodating approach. Under Norman rule, the island became a place where religious and cultural differences were respected rather than vilified – a remarkable feat, given the dominant prejudices in Medieval Europe.
In the Norman cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale, visitors can still see the physical embodiment of a philosophy of inclusion. Both buildings add Islamic and Byzantine features to a Latin church, resulting in a stunningly beautiful – and utterly unique – fusion. Never before and never again would all three traditions mingle freely, as they did in Norman Sicily.
The Norman Years: Sicily’s Brief, Brilliant Independence
In the 11th century, brawny Normans found plenty of mercenary work in Southern Italy. Before long, they started taking territory for themselves, growing into a nuisance and then a threat. The pope wanted to subdue the Arabs and the Byzantines in Sicily, who presented the greatest danger to the Latin church. He invited the Normans to invade the island on the condition that they cede control of all mosques and churches to Rome.
Roger de Hauteville, 12th son of a minor backwater landholder, led the Norman invasion and, ultimately, rule of Sicily. Unlike the pope, he was under no illusions about the feasibility of mass religious conversion. Instead, Roger continued the practice of tolerance established by the Arab rulers. What started as pragmatism, however, grew into a profound respect for other cultures. After all, the Byzantine and especially the Islamic world had been flourishing for centuries while Europe struggled through the Dark Ages.
Roger II took his father’s project even further, making tolerance a legal obligation. He also won recognition of Sicily as an independent kingdom, unifying the multiple cultures with a uniquely Sicilian identity. The Norman period remains the only time in Sicily’s history when the island was autonomous.
In Palermo, Roger II had already created an architectural masterpiece with his Palatine Chapel. For the first time, the three major cultures of the Mediterranean came together in a single building. In Cefalù, he transferred this revolutionary combination to a major institution: the cathedral.
The cathedral physically embodies Roger II’s culture of diversity. A Norman-French Romanesque exterior establishes the Latin Christian element. Inside, Byzantine mosaics represent the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Sicily’s Greek population. And running throughout, Islamic floral and geometric patterns complete the mix with Arabic features. In other words, Roger II was not just recognizing but actually celebrating that a monotheistic divinity can be worshipped in different ways- hardly what the Pope had in mind when he invited the Normans to Sicily.
Out of many details inside the cathedral, two stand out. First: the Byzantine Christ Pantocrator (“All-Powerful”) mosaic, arguably the best in the world. Not only is it huge, it also has an expressiveness to rival great paintings. Second, there are two thrones: one for the bishop and one for the king. This echoes the mosaic in Palermo’s La Martorana church depicting Roger II being crowned by Jesus himself – no middleman pope needed.
The End of the Normans
Sadly, the Norman era didn’t last long in Sicily. Roger II was succeeded by William the (not so) Bad, and William the (not) Good. The latter coasted on the economic and cultural successes of his forbears and then committed what one historian calls “an act of almost criminal folly.” For the pettiest of reasons, he gave his aunt – Sicily’s presumptive heir – to the Holy Roman Emperor as a bride. Then he died without having any children. And that was the end of Sicily’s existence as an independent kingdom.
William II did leave one positive legacy: the cathedral at Monreale. The structure resembles the Cefalù cathedral, but on a bigger scale. The interior is over 140 feet (43 meters) high, with nearly two acres (7,000 square meters) of tile. Although the Christ Pantocrator here isn’t as expressive as the one in Cefalù, the overall effect of the mosaics is staggering. Some call it the finest set of mosaics anywhere.
We visited on a partly-cloudy day, allowing us to witness the play of light on the mosaics. With minimal illumination, they almost seemed to glow on their own. When the sun came out, every single tiny tile reflected the radiance independently; their sparkles created a rhythm which my human brain could sense but not comprehend. It’s hardly surprising that the pope immediately declared Monreale the greatest work of architecture since antiquity.
Many visitors are even more taken by the cloisters than by the main cathedral. Multiple strains of both Christian and Islamic architecture come together in a series of paired columns enclosing a square garden.
The capitals of the columns qualify as sculptures, depicting Biblical scenes, mythology, and strange folkloric hybrid creatures. Repetitive patterns give a sense of cohesiveness, while individual variations let each element tell its own story.
Getting to Monreale and Cefalù
We took the public bus to Monreale from Palermo’s Piazza Indipendenza. A taxi might have been faster, but I appreciated the extra time to take in the outer districts of Palermo and the hillside villas. AMAT City Bus #389 runs about every 75 minutes. Purchase tickets at most any tabacchi and validate once you board the bus.
Cefalù is an easy train ride from Palermo. The journey takes 50 minutes, and trains run frequently. The station in Cefalù is close to the beach, within easy walking distance of the cathedral.
Historical fiction: Sharon Kay Penman’s novel Lionheart, which opens in Sicily, first inspired me to visit the island. (Find out more about Penman’s books in our post on historical fiction series.) Maria R. Boridhn’s The Falcon of Palermo shows how Frederick II briefly revived the Norman tradition.
Non-fiction: Both John Julius Norwich’s Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History and Jamie Mackay’s The Invention of Sicily have chapters on Norman Sicily. Or go all-out with Norwich’s classic two-volume history, The Normans in Sicily and The Kingdom in the Sun.
For more on the Normans in southern Italy, see our post on Salerno.