Friday, 29 October 2010

THE BYZANTINE MOSAICS OF NORMAN SICILY

Introduction.


We are all familiar with the Norman conquest of England following the battle of Hastings in 1066, but we are less aware of the almost simultaneous conquest of Sicily and much of southern Italy by free-booting Norman adventurers under the leadership of the remarkable de Hauteville clan. The island of Sicily, because of its strategic significance in the centre of the Mediterranean, and as the stepping stone from Europe to Africa, had been fought over for centuries by different races and cultures. While the island had its own indigenous inhabitants, the Sicani in the west and the Siceli in the east, both of Italic origin, in the classical period it was occupied by successive waves of Greek and Carthaginian colonists, but from the end of the First Punic War in 241 B.C. it became the first Roman province. When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed at the end of the Fifth Century A.D. Sicily, together with the rest of Italy, came under the domination of the Ostrogoths, but the island was reconquered in 535 by Belisarius on behalf of the East Roman, or Byzantine, Emperor Justinian. The Byzantines lost most of the island to the apparently invincible Moslem Arabs in 662, and for centuries its ownership was disputed by Moslems and Byzantines, with the former on the whole having the upper hand. 

In the first half of the Eleventh Century it looked as though the Byzantines might reconquer Sicily, but the death of the invincible Emperor Basil II "The Bulgar-slayer", in 1025, when he was on the verge of launching such a campaign, was a decisive turning point. From then onwards the Byzantines not only lost the chance to reconquer Sicily, but they began to lose their grip on Apulia and Calabria, which they had controlled since the Sixth Century. Norman cavalrymen, originally engaged as mercenaries in the increasingly anarchic southern states of Italy, began to turn on their paymasters and build up territories in their own right. In 1071 Robert Guiscard ("The Cunning"), fourth son of Tancred de Hauteville, captured Bari, the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy. The Normans had already begun to attack Sicily in 1160, taking Messina the following year. While Guiscard turned his attention to attacking the Byzantine Empire itself, he left his younger brother, Roger, to invade Sicily, the control of which was at that time divided among three quarrelling Moslem emirs. In 1072 Palermo, with its splendid harbour, fell to the Normans, and Roger was created Count of Sicily by his brother. By 1091 the whole island, and Malta as well, were under Roger's control. Roger died in 1101 but his second son, Roger II (1105-54), not only united Sicily with Apulia in 1127 when Guiscard's grandson died without heir, but was shortly afterwards created King of Sicily by Pope Anacletus II in 1130. The establishment of the "Regno", as the Kingdom of Sicily was called, in the teeth of opposition from both the Holy Roman Emperors of the West and the Byzantine Emperors of the East, and not long afterwards too by the Papacy, which soon regretted the "enfant terrible" which it had spawned, was a remarkable achievement of the Normans, on a par, perhaps with the earlier conquest of England by William the Conqueror, and its effect was to elevate Sicily from its position as a relative backwater to that of a state of great power and prestige and the seat of the first monarchy in Italy. Furthermore, Roger II conquered significant territories in North Africa - Tunisia and Tripolitania - between 1134 and 1153, and also the coast line of Albania and the island of Corfu, and, he and his successors had ambitions to win the Byzantine imperial throne. But what was the nature of this new kingdom?

Norman rule in Sicily.


This new Norman kingdom in Sicily was unique for two reasons: the number of conquerors, especially in Sicily itself, was few, and the conquered population was sparse as well. Consequently, the policy of the Norman kings was to welcome both comrades and settlers from all parts, and the multi-ethnic population that resulted, whether Norman knights, Italians from both the north and south of the country, the Byzantino-Greek element, and the Moslems that remained, all had to be accommodated and conciliated. In terms of its public image, the Norman kings sought to project themselves as autocratic monarchs 'crowned by God', that is with an authority akin to that of Byzantine emperors. The public law was a mixture of Byzantine law based on the Justinianic Code and the feudalism of Western Europe, which the Normans introduced, but the varying customs of the different communities were respected unless these were in express conflict with royal decrees. Religious toleration was complete: Christians were free to worship according to the rites of their respective churches, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and Moslems too were permitted to follow their traditional religious practices. The feudal system of the Regno, with its barons holding fiefs in return for military service, was based upon that of Normandy. The Norman knights were a privileged caste, and below them were the smaller freeholders, who lived mainly in the towns, and the peasantry who were serfs required to perform the duties of the corvee. The kingdom was administered effectively by the Curia Regis, with justiciars and financial chamberlains in the provinces. It was also very wealthy, and the king's income, derived from feudal dues, customs duties and the profits from royal monoplies such as silk, was unusually large for a medieval state, and Roger and his successors presided over a court of great splendour at Palermo.

Culturally, the civilisation of Sicily under the Norman kings reflected its variegated components. Attracted by Constantinople as a beacon of civilisation, the sovereigns of the de Hauteville dynasty adopted the form of State, the imperial vestments and the ceremonial of the Byzantine Empire. The language of the court at Palermo was northern French, but the king's diplomas were issued in Latin, Greek or Arabic, according to need. Arabic poets celebrated the achievements of the kings and royal bureaucrats translated Greek literature into Latin. The king was defended by two corps of bodyguards, one composed of Christian knights and the other of Moslem negroes, while the feudal levy of Norman knights was reinforced by Saracen archers. Another feature of the Norman court at Palermo, borrowed from the Arabs and adopted by Roger II (1105-1154) and fully maintained by his son William I (1154-66), was the development of a harem, in which these kings spent much of their leisure time. The Sicilian kingdom of the Twelfth Century was, indeed, a remarkable amalgam of cultural influences and practices, although fusion between the different cultures involved was relatively limited. The exception to this was in the field of the arts, where an intimate combination of Norman, Byzantine and Saracen forms produced masterpieces of architectural beauty in marble, mosaic and internal church decoration, which have provided a lasting memorial to this extraordinary Norman state in southern climes.

Church art in Norman Sicily.


The Twelfth Century Norman kings of Sicily, following the Byzantine notion of State art, were active patrons of art, particularly in relation to church building and its associated mosaic decoration. Their motives were relatively straightforward: they wanted to emphasise the triumph of Christianity involved in their reconquest of Sicily from the Moslems after almost four hundred years of infidel rule; they planned to use the medium of mosaic decoration to educate the faithful, still mostly illiterate, in the details of scripture;  and they wished to advertise and promote the prestige of the de Hauteville dynasty. Furthermore, they had the financial resources to build on the grand scale, and to hire artists and craftsmen from the Byzantine world, including the workshops of its capital, Constantinople. Although the churches they built were mostly the longitudinal three-aisled basilicas associated with Western Europe, and were generally without the traditional domes of Byzantine churches, their decoration, both without and within, was very Byzantine in detail, and reflected a consciously 'orientalising' style. Futhermore, the decoration of the ceilings and the tapestries produced for these churches were inspired either by the same Byzantine sources or reflected the proximity of the Islamic world.

Although the Eleventh Century had seen a decisive reduction in the territorial size and power of the Byzantine Empire, this Middle Byzantine period was prolific in works of art of the highest quality. Although Constantinople teemed with churches and monasteries in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, which would certainly have been superbly decorated, the accidents of survival have meant that the main examples of Byzantine church decoration from this period available to us today come from monasteries in Greece: Hosios Loukas near Styris in Phocis; the Nea Moni on the island of Chios; and Daphni, between Athens and Eleusis. The churches of these three monasteries have the common factor of a full mosaic decoration, and have been used to exemplify a system of Middle Byzantine church decoration, upon which the Greek artists working for the de Hautevilles in Sicily would have based their own decorative schema. This system was not intended just to beautify or to educate, but was designed to ensure that a Byzantine church was both an image of the cosmos and a calendar of the Christian year. Christ Pantocrator (the Ruler of the Universe) reigns in the dome, the Virgin in the 'orans' position intercedes in the apse, below her and in different parts of the church the apostles, saints and prophets are revealed in the order of the reverence due to them, and on the walls of the church and the narthex (entrance porch) are depicted scenes designed to highlight the Twelve Feasts of the Church. As a result this system was not primarily intended to be didactic; rather it was a mirror of the liturgy. While the three monastic churches of the Eleventh Century, whose decorative system survives,  differ considerably in relation to the number of biblical scenes and saints that they depict, there can be little doubt that they provided the main inspiration for the Byzantine artists working in Sicily in the Twelfth Century, albeit their programme had to be adapted to the longitudinal structure of the Sicilian churches. There are four church buildings, either in Palermo or adjacent to it, which provide superb examples of Byzantine mosaic art: the Cathedral at Cefalu; the Capella Palatina in Palermo; the Church of La Martorana, also in Palermo; and the Cathedral of Monreale. Each of these are now considered in turn.

The cathedral at Cefalu. 


Cefalu is a small coastal town about fifty miles east of Palermo, which nestles immediately below the fortified high cliffs of a headland (kephalos), after which the town is named. It was the location chosen by Roger II for the building of a cathedral, and it was where he originally planned to be buried. Work on the construction of the basilica began in 1131. Seventy metres long from  the west door to the extremity of the apse, it is a Romanesque structure built in a very eastern style, with its elevated east end adorned with blank arcading of a very Byzantine type. (It is regrettable that it is not normally possible for the visitor to gain a view of the east end exterior, as it is wedged in between the cliffs and the property of private houses.) One is struck by the majestic strength of the overall architectural design, daringly projecting upwards at the east end, as if almost ready to take flight. The presbytery was not completed until 1148, when Roger summoned artists from Constantinople to commence the mosaics in the apse, which were completed by 1154 when he died. At this point work ceased, but it recommenced in 1160 under Roger's successor, William I, and between then and 1170 the vault, the walls of the presbytery  and the junction between the two were decorated with mosaics.

The most important feature of the interior, and the one for which the duomo at Cefalu is chiefly renowned,  is the magnificent mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the conch of the apse. In a truly Byzantine building this figure would have occupied the top of the central dome or cupola. In a longitudinal basilica, where there is no dome, the place of honour becomes the conch of the apse, an arrangement which has the virtue of making the icon of Christ more accessible to the worshipper, and the fact that the Cathedral was dedicated to the Transfiguration makes the almost awesome visibility of Christ most appropriate. In this case, the Christ Pantocrator figure is surrounded by the following Latin inscription: "Factus homo factor hominis factique redemptor iudico corporeus corpora corda deus" [Having been made man, (I as) the maker of man and the redeemer (of man) having been made, judge, (as) god incarnate, bodies (and) souls]. His left hand holds a Bible open at the text: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life". In keeping with the dual character of civilisation in Sicily, and in order that all may understand, one leaf of the book is in Latin and the other in Greek. The figure of Christ Pantocrator in the cathedral of Cefalu undoubtedly reflects the influence of the Christ Pantocrator in the cupola of the monastic church at Daphi (about 1100), which portrays Christ as the stern judge of mankind, far removed from the Western conception of Jesus as a suffering mortal. However, at Cefalu, the Pantocrator is a far less awesome figure than the one at Daphni, and, while the face retains its majesty, there is perhaps a touch of melancholy or pathos in it too. More reminiscent of the Pantocrator icon at Cefalu is the miniature mosaic, dated to the middle or later Twelfth Century, now to be found in the Museo Nazionale at Florence. This beautiful work must have come from the workshops of Constantinople, and despite its small size it matches the majesty and poignancy of the Cefalu Christ. On the vertical wall of the apse, below the conch, the members of Christ's court are portrayed in three rows or registers: in the top one is the Virgin in the 'orans' (praying) position, with  two archangels on either side, below her are six apostles, and at the bottom are the other six. Further saints are portrayed on the walls of the presbytery and on the quadripartite vault there are angels in the corners and the Cherubim and Seraphim in the middle. Although it is likely that the artists who worked on the vault and walls of the presbytery were not artists from Constantinople, but local craftsmen who had learned from the Constantinopolitan artists who had earlier decorated  the apse, the stylised drapery of these figures and the human warmth of their faces are most effective and give them a penetrating force.

The Capella Palatina.


Like the cathedral at Cefalu, the building of the Capella Palatina (Palatine Chapel), dedicated to St.Peter, in Palermo began soon after Roger II's coronation in 1130, and is another example of a building that reflects a blend of external influences. Its architectural structure, that of a domed basilica, points to a south Italian provenance, its stalactite ceiling to the Islamic world and the mosaics in its cupola and supports to a Byzantine artist. These mosaics were completed by 1143, and have been attributed, almost certainly correctly to Greek craftsmen, and the walls of the central square below, probably worked on by the same artists, were finished by 1148. The mosaics in the nave are dated to 1158 and those in the aisles to the 1160s or later. For any visitor this chapel presents a brilliant profusion of colour, with almost every wall, arch or niche decorated with gleaming mosaics. There are 134 pictures, 110 single figures and 131 medallions, and, in accordance with Byzantine artistic tradition, the characters are portrayed in a strictly hierarchical order. The hemispherical dome has eight small windows that cleverly filter light from the ceiling. The dome represents the afterlife and closeness to God as it rises to the sky. In the middle of the dome, on a golden background, is Christ Pantocrator, in the act of blessing. He is dressed in the sacred colours of purple and gold, with his head surrounded by a halo with a Greek cross, and, as at Cefalu, holding a Bible in his left hand, although this time it is closed, and calling for silence with his right hand.  He is placed inside a circular inscription in Greek, which emphasises his almighty power, both in heaven and on the earth. Below him are archangels and angels, beautifully portrayed, and the other members of his heavenly court: the prophets, the evangelists, other saints, and of course, his mother, Mary. The Church has a massive sanctuary, elevated by a five-step platform. In the conch of the central apse, Christ Pantocrator is portrayed again among angels and archangels; this time the Bible he holds in his left hand is open at the quotation of "I am the light of the world", shown in Latin in the right-hand leaf and in Greek on the left-hand one. The impressive mosaics of the dome and presbytery represent the most refined part of the whole complex.

The mosaics of the nave and aisles were commenced after 1158 and work continued on them into the 1160s and possibly even later. The inscriptions relating to them are in Latin and it is clear that they are the work of Sicilian craftsmen. They represent a transition from the transcendent manner of Byzantine art to a more illustrative style, typical of Western art. Byzantine art specialists find them clumsy in comparison with the mosaics of the dome and presbytery, but this seems a harsh judgment. The scenes portrayed are vivid and delightfully expressive: for instance, those of the Creation story. There is also an arresting mosaic on the wall of the right-hand aisle which depicts the Emperor Nero, dressed in the garb of a medieval king, talking to St. Peter and St. Paul.  On the west wall at the back of the church, over the beautiful Fifteenth Century throne platform, is another icon of Christ, flanked by the two saints. A further and very particular feature of the Chapel is its wooden lacunar ceiling, painted with precious and very rare Kufic figures and inscriptions. The ceiling in the central nave is especially remarkable as it represents the widest Islamic painting cycle in existence. It is made by two orders of eight pointed star-shaped lacunars with geometrical drawings inside and Kufic inscriptions around the perimeter.  The ceiling of the Capella Palatina at Palermo might indeed have graced equally well a palace in Cairo or the Maghreb.

La Martorana.


The church of La Martorana in Palermo differs from the other three buildings, upon which this article is focussed, because it was not commissioned at the behest of a king, but was built by a courtier, George of Antioch, Grand Admiral to Roger II. At this time, the post of Grand Admiral was the chief administrative post in the Kingdom of Sicily; indeed, the word 'Admiral' (Amiratus in Latin) comes from the Arab title 'Amir'. George had an outstandingly successful military career under Roger II. From 1141 to 1148 he commanded the naval operations which led to the conquest of Tunisia and Tripolitania, and in 1147 his piratical raids on Thebes and Corinth enabled him to abduct and to bring back to Palermo, as slaves, the silk weavers who were to form the first group of workers in the royal workshop, upon which was based the King's very lucrative silk monopoly. George of Antioch was Byzantine in culture and Greek Orthodox in religion, and thus his church, Santa Maria dell' Ammiraglio (St. Mary of the Admiral), as La Martorana is still often called today, was intended as a church for the Greek rite and designed architecturally as a centralised domed structure of the Greek type. It was built, next to George's palace, on a hillock in the centre of Palermo overlooking the port of La Cala, and it was dedicated, as an act of thanksgiving to Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos in the Greek language). Work on the Church commenced in 1143 and it was finished and dedicated in 1151, and the mosaics too can be dated to between these years. The Church was originally conceived with a Greek cross plan (i.e. a cross with four arms of equal length) inscribed in a square and covered by a dome supported by a polygonal drum resting on four columns.

The hierarchic outlook of Byzantine art is well illustrated by the two mosaic panels in the narthex (the entrance porch) to the Church. In the scene on the one on the right-hand side of the entrance, King Roger II is being crowned by Christ in accordance with the iconographic model which was a prerogative of Byzantine emperors. Roger II is standing, dressed in the sumptuous ceremonial clothes of a Byzantine emperor, slightly bowing his head to receive the crown from Christ, who is also standing, but higher than him. The King's figure is nearly as large as that of Christ, for, through the act of coronation, he subsumes the role of Christ's vice-gerent on earth. Although no parallel portraits contemporary to this one survive in Constantinople, there is a Tenth Century ivory, now in the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow, showing the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (945-959) being crowned by Christ, the details of which are almost identical to this mosaic panel in La Martorana. As in the portrait of Roger II, Constantine VII is wearing identical ceremonial clothes, is standing with head slightly bowed and once again is almost equal in height to Christ. A similar scene is also enacted in an ivory of the Emperor Romanus II (959-62) being crowned (this is held in the Cabinet des Medailles, Paris), although it differs to the extent that Christ is also simultaneously crowning the Empress Eudoxia. There can be no doubt that the artist who produced the mosaic of Roger II's coronation was working to an exact imperial stereotype.  The mosaic panel to the left-hand side of the entrance in the narthex, portrays George of Antioch, the Church's founder, in the act of 'proskynesis' (prostration), that is, he is kneeling before the standing figure of the Virgin Mary, who is towering above him, holding in her left hand the top of a long scroll in medieval Greek, which states as follows: "He who built this house of mine from its very foundations, George, first among the first of all princes, O Son (Jesus Christ), protect him and his own people from harm and forgive him for his sins: for you are empowered to do so as the one and only God, O Word". This is the 'Deesis', that is, the dedicatory prayer offered to God thorough the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The head and shoulders of Jesus, benevolently receiving his mother's prayer, appear in the top right-hand corner of the panel. Another Greek inscription, just above George's head reads: "Prayer of your servant George the Admiral". Whereas the King is shown in the coronation scene as almost as tall as Christ, the Grand Admiral appears grovelling on the ground like a worm. This is intentional: to stress on the one hand the importance of the King, and on the other hand, through the abasement of George, to emphasise the immensity of the gap which separates the divine from the human figure. Once again, there are no contemporary parallels to this panel in Constantinople, but there  are sufficient examples of such dedicatory scenes to show that this panel was also designed in fulfilment of a Byzantine model or stereotype. For instance, there is the mosaic over the west door  of Hagia Sophia in which the Emperor Leo VI The Wise ( 888-911) is prostrated before Christ; and then there is the mosaic of about 1310 in the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, in which Theodore Metochites, chief minister to Andronicus II (1282-1328), in an act of dedication, hands a model of his church to Christ. (In this case, however, the humbling effect of Metochites' kneeling posture is somewhat weakened by the spectacular size of the turban which he is wearing.) The effect of these two panels in the narthex of La Martorana, when taken together, is to reflect the religious, ethical, and political ideas which George of Antioch wished to promote, and, in the case of the coronation mosaic, it is clear that George played a key role in establishing the political ideology of Norman Sicily, based on the notion of an imperial power spanning the Mediterranean and ruled by a royal dynasty, the de Hautevilles, who could legitimately aim at the imperial throne of Constantinople itself.

Within the Church itself, despite the transformation of the church interior over the centuries and the demolition of the original main apse and the west wall, the mosaic circle has been for the most part preserved. The arrangement of the mosaic panels is marked by its simplicity and its symmetry. That the Church was intended for the Greek rite is shown by the fact that all the inscriptions that accompany both the individual figures and the more crowded scenes are in Greek. The focal point of the mosaic decoration is the dome, where an enthroned Christ Pantocrator is depicted within a central medallion, his right hand blessing and his left hand holding a closed Bible on his knees. The circular frame of the medallion contains the inscription, "I am the light of the world", etc., as is shown in the open Bibles held by the Christ Pantocrator figures at Cefalu and in the Capella Palatina. At his feet, the Earth is represented as a foot-stool. In the external ring of the sparkling golden dome are the four archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. In the drum beneath are the prophets and in the corner niches the four evangelists. The two small apses feature the Virgin's parents, St. Joachim in the prothesis on the left, and St. Anne in the diaconicon on the right. In front of the presbytery, in the east vault between the dome and the Seventeenth Century Capellone, or 'Big Chapel' in the central apse, the archangels Michael and Gabriel are portrayed again, wearing sumptuous robes similar to those worn by Byzantine emperors. The triumphal arch on the west side, between the vault and the central square shows the Annunciation. The archangel Gabriel on the left is making his announcement to the Virgin Mary, depicting on the right, turning her head in surprise towards him. High in the centre is depicted the hand of the Creator, projecting towards the Virgin a ray of light, bearing a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the vault to the west of the central square is the Nativity of the Christ and the Dormition of the Virgin, scenes which underline the dedication of the Church to Mary. These are the best known scenes in La Martorana's mosaic cycle, as well as being those which are most easily observed. Both these scenes are especially moving. In the Nativity scene the Madonna, draped in a shawl is watching over the Child who is lying in a cradle with the ox and the ass breathing enthusiastically over him. In the Dormition scene, the Madonna is represented on her death bed, surrounded by the apostles. In the centre of the picture stands Jesus, raising an infant, the symbol of the Virgin's soul, to the sky, and offering it to two descending angels who will take it to heaven.  There can be little doubt that the authors of these superb mosaics will have been summoned directly from Greece, if not from Constantinople.

The future history of this most interesting church is worth recording briefly. In 1193 the small Greek convent set up beside Santa Maria dell' Ammiraglio was converted into a Benedictine convent, named after its founders Goffredo and Elisa Martorana. In 1435 the Church was annexed for the use of this convent and at that point  it was transferred from the Greek to the Latin rite. It was then too that the name of the Church was altered to that of La Martorana. In 1588 the Church was transformed and enlarged to meet the needs of a  conventual church, and in particular to have a choir large enough to meet the need to seat all the nuns.

The cathedral at Monreale.


Under Roger II, the ecclesiastical centre of Norman Sicily was Cefalu, but William II (1166-89), under whom  the Kingdom reached its apogee of power and prosperity, determined to move it nearer to Palermo, to the site of Monreale, on the heights above the valley of the Conca d'Oro (the Golden Shell), hemmed in on one side by a majestic range of mountains and skirted on the other by the Gulf of Palermo. The construction of this huge Romanesque church, 102 metres in length, and adjoining Benedictine monastery, of which now only the cloister survives, began in 1172 and was completed in about 1176, the construction work employing a large number of labourers and craftsmen of different origins, as the wide variety of styles visible clearly testifies.  Particular highlights of its exterior are the mosaic intarsia along the upper part of the front facade, its richly ornamented west door, known as 'The Door of Paradise', and its superb external apses at the east end of the Cathedral, with its intricate interlacing of ogee arches at different heights, which are obviously the work of Islamic masters. Decoration began in 1183 and was completed in 1190, the year after William II's death at the early age of thirty-six. The cycle of scenes is the fullest that survives in the whole Byzantine world, whether in mosaic or in paint, and involved the largest surface which any mosaicist had ever attempted to cover. The golden and polychrome surface covers almost 8,000 square metres, reaching out and into every conceivable space available. The dazzling scene which confronts the visitor upon entering the nave is as much the effect of the grandiose architecture with its spacious interior and harmonious interplay of forms as of the breathtaking blaze of colours on its mosaic-covered walls, but it is the forcefully impressive nature of the mosaics rather than the architecture which captures the eyes' attention. There is no doubt that this cathedral church was designed specifically to facilitate the decorative cycles of mosaics, and was not constructed first, and then decorated as an after-thought. But, if the architecture is intended for the decoration, the decoration is not an end in itself. Its purpose is that of conveying a message - a message of faith in Christ the Saviour, placed at the centre of the universe and of the course of human events. Part of the intensity of these portraits is explained by the fact that first and foremost this mosaic representation was aimed at the masses, very often illiterate, and it was intended to convey a profound and incisive message to them.  

The focal point of the complex, located, because there is no dome, in the apse, is the representation of Christ Pantocrator (the Almighty) amid his heavenly court of angels, prophets and saints. This massive image in the conch of the apse, seven metres in height, with the head measuring up to three metres, and a lateral span of over thirteen metres, is unforgettable. The penetrating gaze of Christs's eyes appears to cover every inch of the Cathedral and remains indelibly impressed upon the minds of the viewers. The effect on those who worshipped regularly in the Cathedral must have been electrifying. Suddenly there was before them a vision of their Saviour God, no longer incomprehensible, but now accessible. Yet those eyes, which encompass the whole cathedral, also look deep into the souls of the worshippers and demand their total submission. The figure of Christ is wrapped in rich and winding robes and its head is encircled by a radiant golden halo, forming a cross. His right hand is elevated in the traditional Greek gesture of blessing, and in his extended left arm he is holding a Bible open at the "I am the light of the world" quotation, once again shown in both languages. It is interesting to compare this image with the similar one at Cefalu, upon which it is obviously based. Byzantine art specialists generally consider the Monreale face to be harder and less sympathetic, and its pose more angular and exaggerated than its counterpart at Cefalu, but, if the figure of Christ at Cefalu is a more spiritural rendition of the Pantocrator image than the one at Monreale, and, if the latter is less expressive and perhaps less refined, it nevertheless serves its purpose excellently, that is, a purpose of communicating a sense of regal majesty, authority and power. At the same time, while the icon of Christ at Cefalu appears detached from its immediate surroundings, the Monreale Pantocrator is intimately related to the space in which it is placed, almost as though this space was subsumed within the figure rather than vice-versa. As at Cefalu, the Virgin Mary, is shown in the apse immediately below Christ, enthroned in glory and majesty at the centre of the scene. That she is in the central position and the fact that she is seated are appropriate because the Cathedral was dedicated to her. In her right hand she holds the Child Jesus, who stretches out his right hand in blessing. In her left hand she is holding a 'mapula' or white drape similar to the one held by the emperor when he directs the circus games. This indicates that she is leading the prayers of the faithful. Around her is the inscription "Mater theou, he achrantos" (Mother of God, the All-pure). The position of the child in the lap of the Virgin or Madonna is in itself symbolic as it signifies that the Word of God was made flesh through the womb of a woman. Her central position over the high altar of the presbytery is also symbolic as it shows that she presides over the sacrifice of Christ offered up and renewed daily in the Eucharist. On either side of Mary are portrayed the archangels Michael and Gabriel, dressed in imperial garments. They hold in one hand a staff and in the other a globe with a cross on it, representing the Eucharistic Host. They are further surrounded by saints.

Also on the walls of the presbytery and facing each together, are the mosaics of the ideal crowning of King William II by Christ, and of the dedication of the Monreale Cathedral by the King to the Virgin Mary. As in the two mosaics at La Martorana, these mosaics tell us about the political and religious ideology of the de Hauteville dynasty. In the coronation mosaic at Monreale, Christ is seated in  majesty on a bejewelled throne. His face has a stern and severe expression and his head is surrounded by a cross-bearing halo. In fact, it is a model for the many other images of Jesus in the Cathedral. The inscription in the Bible which Christ is holding with his left hand is, "I am the light of the world; he who follows...", just in Latin this time. Christ is shown as laying the crown on the head of William II, who is standing to his right, and who, because Jesus is elevated by his throne, appears much smaller than Him. The King's gaze is turned downwards, with his arms and his hands stretched open as a mark of submission and devotion. Aesthetically, this portrayal of the King's coronation is hard and mechanical, and is somewhat spoiled by its clumsy inscription and by the awkward arrangement of the angels hovering overhead. At the same time the figure of the King is rigid and hesitant, and his countenance seems strained. Certainly this mosaic compares unfavourably with its counterpart at La Martorana. In the mosaic opposite, King William II is shown presenting an archetype of the Cathedral to the Virgin Mary. Precedents for this set-piece scene include the mosaic over the south door in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (probably commissioned under the Emperor Basil II between 986 and 994) where the Emperor Constantine (306-337) is shown presenting a model of the city, and the Emperor Justinian (527-565) one of the church, to the Virgin. In the dedication scene at Monreale, the Virgin is shown seated on a throne bedecked with jewels, and with a bejewelled halo surrounding her head.  The youthful figure of William II is shown dressed in his royal robes, as in the coronation scene opposite, in the act of presenting the model of the Cathedral to the Virgin who is stretching out her hands in a gesture of acceptance. Two angels are descending from above with outstretched arms ready to take the cathedral from the Virgin, while the hand of God is seen emerging from a celestial rainbow to bless the event. The details of this mosaic confer a lively character upon it and it is markedly less rigid than the coronation scene opposite.

The Pantocrator and his heavenly court is the focal mosaic cycle in the cathedral. Of the other cycles, the one of the Old Testament is on the upper level of the right-hand side of the nave (as one looks down from the sanctuary) and on the lower level of the left-hand side. The cycle concerned with the Life of the Saviour is shown in the transept area and the interior of the presbytery, and the miracles of Jesus are illustrated in the right-hand and left-hand aisles. The cycles concerning the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul appear in the side apses. The sheer quantity and extent of detail in these mosaics is remarkable. Assessment of their quality is mixed. Some Byzantine art specialists consider them inferior to the earlier Sicilian art works of the Twelfth Century, believing their colour to be frigid and unattractive, the setting of the cubes to lack subtlety, and  the composition of some of the scenes to be unpleasingly overcrowded. However, others are impressed by how the compositional schemata binds the scenes on the walls into a single decorative pattern, in which the flow of movement and line is extended from one picture to another, and by how the figures in the mosaics are enmeshed and entangled in a web of abruptly contrasted and repeated lines and sparkling touches of light.  It may be that the mosaics in Monreale reflect the somewhat later period in which they were executed in comparison with the works considered above, and that their prevailing mood of expressive and dynamic vitality, at the expense, perhaps, of spiritual refinement, reflects the mannerist tendencies of late Comnenian art, or that these works reflect the tastes of the Sicilian artists who probably produced them, or perhaps those of artists of Thessalonica, sacked by the Normans in 1185, and who may have been compelled to assist in the works at Monreale. Whatever one's assessment of their artistic quality, some of the individual mosaics are delightful and exciting, as well as iconographically of great significance.The scenes of the Creation, and of Adam and Eve, the scene in which Cain is shown in the act of killing his brother Abel, and the mosaic in which Isaac bids his son Esau to hunt for game show the dynamic composition of the mosaicists at their best, where a marked feeling for the decorative nature of mosaics is subtly allied to a vivid interest in the narrative of  the stories themselves.















      



No comments:

Post a Comment