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Norman Byzantine style

The Norman Byzantine style was a unique multicultural experiment that lasted several centuries. It was a singular movement which encompassed three diverse styles: Norman, Arab and Byzantine.

The Cathedral in Monreale, Side view of the nave, with depictions from the Bible.
Image source: by Stacy Spensley

History and culture

The term Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture represents the combination of the Norman, Latin, Arab, and Byzantine Greek cultures. The fusion of cultures happened after the Norman conquest of Sicily and Norman Africa from 1061 to 1250. The Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture developed under the reign of Roger II of Sicily. He used Byzantine, Greek, and Arab troops in his campaigns in southern Italy. He also mobilized Arab and Byzantine architects to build monuments in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. Many Classical Greek works were translated from Byzantine Greek manuscripts found in Sicily directly into Latin. Under Norman rule, Sicily became a model which was widely admired throughout Europe and Arabia.

Close-up of the mosaic series in the sanctuary, with Christ Pantocrator and saints
Image source: by jkrauss

Norman-Arab-Byzantine art

Norman-Arab-Byzantine art combined Occidental features with typical Islamic decorations, such as calligraphy and muqarnas. A lot of artistic techniques from the Islamic and Byzantine worlds were incorporated into Arab-Norman art. For example, sculpture of ivory or porphyry, inlays in mosaics or metals, sculpture of stones, manufacture of silk, and bronze foundries. During a raid on the Byzantine Empire, the silk weavers were transported from Greece by admiral George of Antioch. The Byzantine silk industry was founded as part of the guarded monopoly. The new Norman rulers started to build different constructions, thus creating the Arab-Norman style. They incorporated the best practices of Byzantine and Arab architecture into the arts.

Byzantine Mosaics

Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator (“the All-Powerful”), in the Monreale Cathedral, commissioned in 1174 by King William II of Sicily.
Image source: by michael clarke stuff

Byzantine mosaics were produced from the 4th to 15th century under the heavy influence of the Byzantine Empire. Mosaics were the most popular and historically significant form of art in ancient empires. Byzantine mosaics evolved out of early Roman and Hellenic styles and were made of small pieces of stone, glass, ceramic, or some material called tesserae. On the moist surface, artists drew images and used tools like compasses, strings, and calipers to outline geometric shapes. After that, the tesserae were cemented into position to create the final image. In addition, Byzantine mosaics went on to influence artists not only in the Norman Kingdom of Sicily but also in the Republics of Venice, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Russia.

Norman-Arab-Byzantine Architecture

Internal view of the Palatine Chapel located on the ground floor at the center of the Palazzo Reale in Palermo, southern Italy.
Image source: by Madmartigand

The Cappella Palatina is a regal chapel located in the Palace of the Normans. It was first built as a palace for Arab emirs and their harems. During the reign of Roger II Arabs abandoned the structure, yet by 1140 Roger II had built a new chapel. The Cappella Palatina combines harmoniously a variety of architectural styles. The gold-laden mosaics in the Cappella Palatina resemble the Byzantine style, while the chapel layout looks like a traditional Roman basilica. The arches in the Cappella Palatina belong to Saracen style, with other Arabic influences apparent with the 10th century. Clusters of four eight-pointed stars are typical for a Muslim design, even though they arranged to form a Christian cross.

The Cathedral of Palermo is an architectural complex in Palermo (Sicily, Italy).
Image source: by Chiara Marra

Another example of Arab-Norman architecture is the “Palazzo dei Normanni” or “Castelbuono.” Formerly called al-Qasr, it was founded by the Emir of Palermo in the 9th century. Some parts of the original building are still visible in the basement. After the Normans conquered Sicily the palace was chosen as the main castle of the regnants.

The Church of Saint-John of the Hermits was built by Roger II in Palermo. This church is famous for its brilliant red domes, which showcase the Arab influence in Sicily.

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