Painted wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel
Between 1131 and 1140
King Ruggero (Roger) II.
The painted wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, erected by Ruggero II immediately after his coronation in 1131, is the only monumental-scale pictorial cycle from the Fatimid period in the Mediterranean basin to have survived in its entirety. The ceiling, made up of star-shaped polygons, is decorated with lively scenes, painted in a clean, clear style with an undeniable Middle Eastern influence, depicting dancing girls, musicians, gamblers, lions and other animals, horsemen and wrestlers, all combined with geometric and vegetal decorations. The polygons are surrounded by inscriptions of good omens in kufic script. The band between the ceiling and the walls is decorated with muqarnas.
The identification of the craftsmen responsible for the decoration remains the subject of lively debate. G. D’Erme (1995) suggests the persistence of a late Sassanid, early Islamic pictorial tradition probably upheld in the Mediterranean basin over the centuries due to the circulation of collections of figurative models. The extremely cultured artists could have been either descendents of the island’s Iranian conquerors (whose presence in Palermo is confirmed by historical sources) or indeed Iranian Seljuq craftsmen brought to Palermo by the Norman king. D’Erme is inclined to exclude the possibility of craftsmen from North Africa or Cairo.
J. Johns (1995) maintains that the paintings would have been done by a workshop imported at the behest of Ruggero II directly from Fatimid Egypt, challenging the traditional theories according to which the painters were Sicilian Arabs and the chapel ceiling the ultimate expression of the artistic legacy of the island’s Islamic past, now passed on to the new Norman kingdom and used by it for political and ideological ends. Among other things, Johns provides evidence of the close political and cultural links established between Ruggero II and the Cairo Caliphate, through the personal correspondence with Caliph al-Hafiz, the frequent exchange of gifts, the presence of Egyptian diplomatic experts at the Palermo court and the use of the same epigraphic formulas, as in the exquisite Fatimid inscription once in the Palatine Chapel (now in the Abatellis Palace regional gallery) likening the king’s palace to a sanctuary.
With regard to the possible meaning of the pictorial cycle, many academics, drawn by the apparently irreconcilable nature of the secular character of the cycle and its ecclesiastical context, contrive to see a celebration of the pleasures of Qur’anic paradise, often overloading their interpretation of individual figures with religious symbolism when a more simple interpretation would be a joyful celebration of life in the royal court (celebrations that were also common in court culture in the Islamic world) and its earthly pleasures: gambling, drinking, music and hunting. Both Johns (1995) and Aurigemma (2004) interpret the cycle on the basis of this assumption, stripped of symbolic and religious implications, with the latter drawing plausible comparisons between these paintings and their contemporaries on the wooden ceiling of Cefalù Cathedral, also commissioned by Ruggero II.
This painted wooden ceiling, produced during the reign of Ruggero (Roger) II, depicts lively scenes of dancing girls, musicians, gamblers, lions and other animals, all set against a background of plant and geometric decoration. The transition from ceiling to wall is softened by muqarnas (honeycomb decoration). Recent studies have revealed that the craftsmen employed included painters from Egypt, or at least painters influenced by contemporary Fatimid art.
Historical sources report the date the chapel was founded (1131) and consecrated (1140).
Aurigemma, M. G., Il Cielo Stellato di Ruggero II: Il Soffitto Dipinto della Cattedrale di Cefalù, Milan, 2004.
Cruikshank Dodd, E., “Christian Arab Sources for the Ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, Palermo”, in Arte d’Occidente: Studi in Onore di Angiola Maria Romanini, Roma 1999, pp.823–31.
D'Erme, G.M., “Contesto Architettonico e Aspetti Culturali dei Dipinti del Soffitto della Cappella Palatina di Palermo”, Bollettino d’Arte Series 6, 80, 1995 (1996), 92, pp.1–32.
Grube, E., “La Pittura Islamica nella Sicilia Normanna”, in La Pittura in Italia: L’Altomedioevo, Milan, 1994, pp.416–31.
Johns, J., “I Re Normanni e i Califfi Fatimidi. Nuove Prospettive su Vecchi Materiali”, in Del Nuovo Sulla Sicilia Musulmana, Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, 1995, pp.9–50.
Monneret de Villard, U., Le Pitture Musulmane al Soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Rome, 1950.
Tronzo, W., The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, Princeton, 1997.
Siculo-Norman Art: Islamic Culture in Medieval Sicily, pp.129–32.
Pier Paolo Racioppi "Painted wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2018. 2018. http://www.discoverislamicart.org/database_item.php?id=monument;ISL;it;Mon01;10;en
Prepared by: Pier Paolo RacioppiPier Paolo Racioppi
Laureato e specializzato in storia dell'arte presso l'Università di Roma “La Sapienza” sta conseguendo il dottorato di ricerca in Storia e conservazione dell'oggetto d'arte e d'architettura presso l'Università di Roma TRE. Ha svolto attività seminariali presso l'Istituto di Storia dell'Arte all'Università La Sapienza di Roma e attualmente è docente di storia dell'arte del Rinascimento presso la IES at Luiss (Roma).
Ha pubblicato diversi contributi sulla tutela artistica, il collezionismo e le accademie d'arte, ed ha collaborato al Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani dell'Enciclopedia Treccani.
Translation by: Laurence Nunny
Translation copyedited by: Monica Allen
MWNF Working Number: IT 10
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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