The Normans in Sicily – pale skins under the Sicilian sun.

Having Viking blood in your veins can be a disadvantage when travelling in hot countries. Over a thousand years ago, judging by some of the names on my family tree, Vikings married some of my Hebridean relations and left me with a gingery pigmentation and pale skin. I was pondering this sitting outside the great Norman cathedral in Cefalù built in 1131 by another Viking descendant, King Roger II of Sicily one of those conquering Normans, like England’s William the Conqueror, who were really Vikings. It must have been tough, I thought sipping my espresso coffee under the shade of a palm tree, it must have been tough to have had to do all that conquering and castle building when it is very hot and you have gingery pigmentation.

King Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154)

 Well Roger II, or Ruggero II as we should call him, not just did all that but he was responsible for the magnificent Cefalù cathedral where he established a new form of Norman architecture known today as Norman-Arabic because he rather cleverly used the skills of the pre-Norman Arab elite still living in Sicily. I suspect Roger probably managed to just sit under a tree, like me, and let the experts get on with the job.

I wasn’t expecting all this Norman stuff when I came to Sicily on holiday a couple of weeks ago. One sensational Norman cathedral was surprizing enough but just a short journey away were two more…..

…Palermo Cathedral, great on the outside but boringly restored on the inside and…….

….and, sensationally, Monreale Cathedral just a few miles away on top of a mountain.

For eyes, even behind sunglasses, attuned to good old English Norman cathedrals like Canterbury or Durham, all this mixture of styles seemed, well, quite bizarre at first. It is hardly sober, I thought, it has, in fact, quite a camp flourish about it that was later picked up by those designers of epic movies in Hollywood. I am liking it more and more. Of course it isn’t just Norman or even just Norman-Arabic, it is also Byzantine because those conquering Greeks never quite left Sicily either.

You only have to go inside Monreale Cathedral to see what Norman-Arabic-Byzantine artists could do if they decided to get on together -the mosaic ceilings here are one of the wonders of the world.

The work was cutting edge for its day and pretty topical too as there is, numbered amongst the saints, one Thomas a Becket who had only just been canonized the year before the cathedral was built…he is the one on the right in the middle row.

…and here is the splendidly vivid Jacob wrestling with an angel….one of my favourites.

The cathedral cloisters don’t disappoint either bringing, as they do, the spirit of the Alhambra to the more sober attributes of Northern Norman design. I think the sun must have influenced them as you never get this light in Durham.

Monreale cathedral was built, a few miles outside of Palermo, the capital city, because King William II, Guglielmo II, Ruggero’s grandson, was annoyed that the Bishop of Palermo had built his own cathedral without telling the king. The said bishop was one Walter, a pale skinned Englishman struggling I guess in the midday sun but we ought to call him Gualtiero, and, I am afraid, Monreale wins the aesthetic battle because Palermo cathedral, for my taste, has maybe just too many ideas going on together….it has been tampered with more too and the interior is mostly a dull neo-classical intrusion from the 19th. Century.

There is though an Arabic elegance to those arches and their pillars and it was no real surprize to find a small inscription from the Karan on one of them. A Muslim visiting card on the main entrance of this grand Catholic building. Good for them!

I had travelled some distance from where I was staying in Cefalù but when I returned, I felt an almost possessive attraction to my “home” cathedral, good old Ruggero’s pioneering effort with its grand simplicity and powerfully moving mosaic Christ, the original inspiration I wondered for the grander mosaics at Monreale.

Outside too, in the cathedral’s cloisters, there was a masterpiece of Norman-Arabic design…

…the marriage of the monumental and the delicate.

The carving on the pillars is elaborate, sophisticated….

….and, well, it must be my dirty mind…..

….Noah’s arc is fun too.

I have grown to like Ruggero II, my fellow Viking, so I gave him an approving wink when I walked past his house on my way home. The Osteria Magna, his residence, is not open to the public but at least you can see one magnificent Norman window. I can imagine him going for a little lie down up there when the  temperature just gets that bit too much for us pale skinned Northern types.

Look in tomorrow for some more Sicilian tales.

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