Mediterranean Mosaics of Chaos and Order: How Arabic-Speaking Norman Warriors Produced Multicultural Marvels

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“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

–Carl Jung

In the Mediterranean region, diverse cultures and religions of Africa, Asia, and Europe chaotically churn like turbulent currents beating upon a rocky shore. The pounding water brings destruction and change, gradually reshaping the land over the centuries. At the same time, the tumultuous tides deliver fresh nutrients and life. In the chaos new order emerges. The area’s rich art and architecture, represented in three Genesis-story mosaics of the 12th and 13th Century AD, reflect the diversity and continuity of Mediterranean culture.


This article is part of a series exploring art depicting the story of Temptation and Self-Awareness in the serpent’s encounter with Eve and Adam. The serpent represents the introduction of chaos into the perfect order of paradise, which is particularly appropriate to this collection of mosaics in the Mediterranean world.  Oddly enough, the background story includes an Arabic-speaking Viking descendant in Sicily pursuing a solution to the problem of the awakened human consciousness symbolized in the Garden of Eden story. Before we get to him, let’s first ponder the images of the temptation to know good and evil.

Three Mediterranean Mosaic Masterpieces

1140-1170. Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Source.

Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicily

The first image in chronological order was completed sometime between 1140 and 1170 in Palermo, Sicily, where it adorns the nave walls of the Norman kings’ palace chapel. The scene copies what had become the dominant church depiction of the temptation and fall, with Adam and Eve on either side of the serpent-entwined Tree of Knowledge.

Compared to the 10th Century Codex manuscript figures I discussed in my previous post, Adam and Eve’s bodies are much more anatomically correct (minus the male sexual organ). The bodies have smooth, fit shapes. Using a “digital image” of carefully arranged stone tiles, the skilled artists are able to convey expressions of curiosity, desire, and pleasure. Eve is stepping toward the tree, snake, and her partner, with one fruit in her mouth and the next ready to eat. Is she offering the fruit to Adam? Has she just taken it from the serpent, who stares intently into her eyes? Is her gaze returning the serpent’s, is it directed at the tree, or at Adam?

Adam’s gaze appears directed upward, toward the fruit in the tree, which he seems to be thoroughly enjoying, as he reaches for another. The subdued gold background reflects the contemporary trend in Byzantine-inspired mosaic design for churches, with deep somber greens and blues dominating the flora and snake. The plants have strong symmetrical geometric shapes that evoke a cultured garden of paradise.

The Temptation and Fall in the Garden of Eden, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily.

The adjacent panel of the pair standing ashamed before God further demonstrates the ability to show emotion in the stone. That panel also shows very well the passing of blame, from God’s accusing gesture, to Adam’s defensive deflection pointing at Eve, who remorsefully points to the staring snake.

Palatine Chapel mosaic, God confronting Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit. Source.

Cattedrale di Monreale, Palermo, Sicily

Adam, Serpent, Eve in the Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily. Source.

The second figure belongs to one of the largest mosaic displays in the world in the Sicilian Monreale Cathedral, commissioned around 1174 by Roger II’s grandson William II. The 6,338 square meters of interior mosaics were completed about 1190.  The layout mimics the earlier work in the Palatine Chapel, with Adam and Eve on either side of the tree and serpent directed at Eve. There are slight stylistic differences—the Monreale mosaics tend to be more abrupt and not as refined. The central tree has a trunk with cut branches, as if it has been trimmed by a gardener; the blockish outline of the canopy is harsher than the tree in the Palatine Chapel.

The nave wall containing the Genesis story at Monreale Cathedral. Source.

The human figures seem a little more formal, less flowing, and in some ways less well-proportioned. For example, the outstretched arms are abnormally long. Adam, rather than Eve, is the one stepping forward, his determined eyes on Eve while grabbing the fruit with his left hand, right hand open to receive more, or perhaps to receive Eve.

Eve’s gaze is on the serpent, whose stare is neither intense nor directed at Eve. Eve is standing flat-footed, leaning back from the waist, which has the effect of making the image seem heavier and less elegant compared to a more dynamic pose. By her reluctant posture and facial expression, Eve doesn’t seem to express as much confidence in her decision as portrayed in the Palatine mosaic. Neither does her face express as much remorse as the Palatine figure in the following panel showing the confrontation with God. 

Monreale Cathedral. God Confronts Adam and Eve. Source.

Basilica di San Marco, Venice

1215-35 Mosaic of Genesis story of the Temptation and Fall, South cupola, west narthex, Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Source.

The third Mediterranean mosaic comes from a truly impressive Garden of Eden cycle, with 22 scenes from the Genesis creation account completed between 1215 and 1230, in a cupola of San Marco Basilica in Venice. A relaxed and curious Adam and Eve wonder about the garden in a story-weaving series of panels. Their natural looking figures, pictured with sexual organs unlike many contemporary figures, easily fit into the verdant garden of blues and greens on gold background. Eve interacts with the serpent, only partially pictured, while Adam’s attention is directed elsewhere. Is he being willfully ignorant, while Eve seeks to explore new things?

Cupola at Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Source.

In the next panel, the serpent disappears as Eve makes the lone decision to grab the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then offers it to an eager, forward-leaning Adam. The interactions between Adam and Eve change through each scene; at times they face each other, others they are facing in different directions, and when God confronts their disobedience, they both seem angry with each other. The overall effect of the mosaic is to draw the observer emotionally into the storyline.

Adam and Eve appear angry with one another while passing the blame. Source.

These three impressive works of art, completed within 100 years of each other, reflect a world of multicultural influences. The story of how they came to be relates to themes of order and chaos, and facing the consequences of human self-consciousness, told in the serpent’s seduction of Eve and Adam. How? The story starts near where the Garden of Eden was traditionally believed to be—Mesopotamia.

How Mosaic Art Made Its Way to Medieval Sicily and Venice

Mosaic art dates back over 4000 years, when artists decorated pillars of an ancient temple in Abra, Mesopotamia (in current day Iraq) with colored stones, shells and ivory. It appears, however, that this tradition of mosaic art may have died out without influencing subsequent cultures.

Mosaic clay cones of Mesopotamia, Stone-Cone Temple in the Eanna District of Uruk IVc. 3400–3100 BC. Source.

A recent 2018 discovery at an archeological dig in central Turkey revealed ancient mosaic works that are probably more directly related to the tradition that eventually produced the treasures in Sicily and Venice. In an ancient courtyard possibly associated with a Hittite temple to their storm god, archeologists found a floor mosaic with roughly cut stones making geometric patterns. The site appears to have been occupied from the Middle Bronze Age, about 18th-16th centuries BC.

Bronze Age mosaic at Usa̧klı Höyük. Source.

Another archeological site in Turkey shows the continuation of mosaic art through the 9th century BC. The Gordion site, 70 km southwest of Ankara, in Central Anatolia, shows more intricate patterns of stones making up strange geometric motifs.

Phrygian pebble mosaic from Gordion. Source.
Detail of the Phrygian mosaic. Source.
Watercolor reconstruction of a 9th Century BC pebble mosaic found in Gordion, Turkey. Source.

The Greeks fashioned even more intricate patterns with stone and pebble mosaics, incorporating deliberately manufactured cut cubes, called tesserae. Greek mosaic artists leapt dramatically forward with advanced techniques that included lifelike figures, usually telling stories of the gods.

A 325-300 BC Greek floor panel made of a pebble mosaic picturing Dionysos, god of wine and fertility. Source. “The god Dionysos is seated on the back of a panther, his upraised arm brandishing the thyrsus, the long staff twined with ivy that was his usual emblem. His body and that of the panther are executed with white tiles, making them stand out against the black background, while the sculptural volumes are highlighted with chiaroscuro shading effected with grey pebbles. The outlines are details of the god’s head, hand and feet are delineated with lead wire, while strips of fired clay were used in the areas of the eyes and curls. Green artificial pebbles are worked into the wreath and staff, and red ones ornament the trailing ribbons. The chief characteristics of this scene are the harmony of its composition, the calligraphic rendering of the details and the sensitive use of color.” – Archaeological Museum, Pella

The Romans, who controlled Greece by the 2nd century BC, enthusiastically adopted this art form to adorn their own structures, often using Greek craftsmen renowned for their skills.

A Hellenistic Greek floor mosaic from the period of Roman control. A mythological nymph rides a marine creature. Rhodes, Greece, 2nd century BC. Source.

The tradition of using mosaic figures to decorate palaces and churches slowly died out in Western Europe after the breakup of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, but lived on in the Byzantine Empire, centered in present-day Greece & Turkey. One of the earliest examples of the Genesis story in religious architecture is this mosaic of the moment Eve and Adam become self-conscious.  The Greek text above the picture quotes Genesis: “And they ate and they realized they were naked”. This piece is a fragment of a floor panel in a Byzantine church in current-day northern Syria, from the late 5th to early 6th century AD. Floor mosaics were typical of Greek and Roman art, but were not popular in later Western European churches.

Adam and Eve, Fragment of a Floor Mosaic, late 400s to early 500s, northern Syria, marble and stone tesserae Source.

Greek artists were the acknowledged masters of mosaic, and were highly sought after in both Western Asia and Mediterranean Europe for church decoration. Although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions formally split in 1054, and European powers often battled against Byzantine forces, many Latin churches in the Mediterranean continued to incorporate the artform. Thus, when Roger II, King of Sicily, and his grandson William II sought to reinforce their political and spiritual authority by commissioning churches, and when Venice sought to display their wealth, sophistication, and high civilization in their basilicas, they all recruited Greek artisans.

Chaos and Opportunity

The 11th to 13th century Mediterranean world in which the Sicilian and Venetian mosaic figures were created was a chaotic yet flourishing place. Three large powers, along with numerous local centers of power, maintained influence over the Mediterranean world—the Byzantine Empire centered on the Bosporus Strait between western Asia and various Mediterranean strongholds; the Holy Roman, or Teutonic, Empire in Central and Northern Europe; and Islamic-ruled Caliphates in Western Asia, Northern Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, Roman Papal states, Venice, and other independent Italian city-states vied for power in the areas affecting the sites of these mosaics. Political, religious, and military leaders shifted alliances among the three great powers to gain influence and advantage when possible.

Map of Norman Empire circa 1100 AD. Source.

The 1054 “Great Schism” split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church was one manifestation of 11th century dynamism and chaos. It was more than a theological separation; it followed linguistic, cultural, political, and geographic boundaries that had developed over ages. The Byzantine Empire held a strategic position of trade in which they could control (and set prices on) goods coming from Asia into Europe. Islamic merchants controlled just as much or more of the trade coming from Asia and Africa. Emerging Western European powers started to develop technology and a mindset that was ready to challenge that world order. The turbulent times in the Mediterranean world of our Sicilian and Venetian mosaics saw Christians fighting Christians, Muslims against Muslims, and Christians versus Muslims.

This timeline shows the complex interplay of powers vying for control of Northern, Central, and Southern Italy, and Sicily during the 11th and 12th Centuries. Source.

Order Out of Chaos – The Rise of the Normans

Chaos provided opportunity for one important group of people: the Normans. “Norman” originates from Scandinavian for “North Man”, known to the early Medieval European people as Vikings. Either as a result of curiosity, ambition, or escape from local economic hardship or political turmoil, groups of Vikings began excursions into coastal areas of present-day France around 800, just about when Charlemagne was being crowned by the Roman Pope Leo III as “Emperor of the Romans”.

A remarkable mosaic from the papal dining hall, at the Lateran Palace in Rome, circa 800 AD. The apostle Peter, possessing the keys to heaven as the traditional first head of the Roman Catholic Church, gives a pallium symbolizing authority to Pope Leo III, and a banner symbolizing protection and power to Charlemagne. The square blue halos indicate that the figures were still living. Source.

Viking Occupation of Normandy


The Vikings, arriving as skilled mariners and warriors from Denmark, Norway, and even Iceland, became an increasing problem for the Frankish successors to Charlemagne. A particularly formidable raider, Rollo the Walker (so-called because legend says he was too tall to ride a horse), had seized control of much of the area around the lower Seine River downstream of Paris. King of West Francia, Charles III, after a successful battle against Rollo, solved the Viking problem by assimilating the threat into Frankish culture.


In exchange for ceasing attacks, and defending against other Viking raiders, the regent ceded lands already controlled by Rollo in 911.  Waves of Scandinavian settlers quickly populated what would eventually become known as Normandy, expanding their territory westward along the coast, intermarrying with indigenous people (ethnically already a mix of Germanic Franks and Celtic Gauls), and adopting the local language and culture. Within a few generations, the Normans transformed from “pagan” illiterate Scandinavians into ardent French-speaking Roman Catholics.

Rollo with the Archbishop of Rouen, from a much later 14th Century manuscript. Source.
Rollo statue at Falaise, France. This statue was created circa 1850 as part of a group of Norman dukes by sculptors Charles and Louis RochetSource.

The Secret of Norman Superiority

The Normans, however, retained the restless and fighting spirit of their ancestors. From their heritage of courageous and mobile maritime skills, they developed two critically important military technologies that would make them famous and successful conquerors: heavy cavalry and castle-building. They were fierce and resourceful in war, highly sought after as mercenaries bolstered by their reputation for daring, craftiness, and ability to surmount overwhelming numerical odds.

The technology of heavy cavalry depended on a number of other technological and economic developments. Horses fit for battle only gradually became available in Europe, mainly via the importation of Arabian horses that accompanied the Islamic expansion. Elite battle horses require a great deal of grain and care. Food production, via technologies such as the horse- or oxen-drawn heavy plow, along with a climatic warm period known as the Medieval Warm Period (900-1300 AD), increased seed yields enough in this era to support the mounted troops.

The heavy, horse- or oxen-drawn moldboard plow was one just one medieval innovation that increased food production, allowing for heavy cavalry warfare. Source.

Seating a heavily-armored knight on a horse who could control movement of rider, horse, and weapon also required a complex mix of technological development. A leather saddle with a single strap (known as a “girth” or “cinch”) came into use by the 6th century AD, followed in the next century by the iron stirrup (an ancient Chinese invention) and a curb bit for controlling the horse via its mouth and head. Iron horseshoes didn’t come into use until about the 9th century, spurs appear about the 11th

English axman in combat with Norman cavalry during the Battle of Hastings, detail from the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, Bayeux, France. Giraudon/Art Resource, New York. Source.

Norman riders wore full-sleeved chainmail, composed of iron rings welded or riveted together, that covered arms, torso, and head. Padded undergarments, often of leather, an iron helmet with nose guard, a shield about two-thirds body size, and lance meant that the mounted soldier required a great deal of support. At the same time, a knight firmly mounted in a secure saddle brought the full kinetic force of a charge onto target via the lance, making the mounted charge a formidable shock force that could overcome great numerical disadvantages against ground troops, which was often the case in the Norman conquest of Sicily.

Chain mail protection, secure saddle and stirrups, a heavy shield, and long lance created a formidable force that could overcome greatly superior numbers in medieval combat. Source.

Normans turned Viking raids of plunder into more permanent occupation of lands through the building of heavily fortified stone castles. Castles served multiple forces physically and psychologically. Norman castles featured massive, high walls and domineering stone keeps (the Tower of London is perhaps the most well-known example of Norman castle architecture). Especially when situated on high elevations looking out to the sea, these provided excellent reconnaissance platforms, as well as tactical advantages in firing weapons. Psychologically, they communicated strength and permanence, sending a constant visible reminder to the local population of Norman rule.

Il Castello di Caccamo, a Norman-built castle in Sicily. Source.
Another towering Norman castle, Castello Di Venere, Erice TP, Sicily, Italy

The Normans in Italy

The Norman Conquests in Europe. Source.

Within a century of pagan marauder Rollo’s buy out by Charles III, the Normans had earned a reputation as fervent Catholics. According to the 11th Century Benedictine monk Amatus of Montecassino, who wrote a history of the Normans, a band of Norman pilgrims returning from Jerusalem in 999 AD arrived in Salerno (think of the front ankle of the boot of Italy) as it was under siege from Northern Tunisian Muslims. The local ruler recruited them to successfully repel the attack, and was so impressed that he requested them to stay as mercenaries.  While they declined, they took news of the Italian opportunities for coin, crusade, and conquest to their compatriots in Normandy. Little did that ruler know that this was like inviting the serpent into the garden.

Italy was a chaotic collection of principalities at the time of the Norman arrival, providing plenty of opportunity for ambitious warriors. Source.

Within two decades the Normans were back in southern Italy, but not to fight the Muslims. A local Lombard nobleman (Lombards were of Scandinavian/Germanic origin and had ruled much of Italy in the 6th to 8th Century) recruited Norman pilgrim-warriors to throw off Byzantine rule. While that nobleman fled north after escaping a defeat in battle, the Normans remained and established a foothold in Southeast Italy.

The Byzantines under Georgios Maniakes  land at Sicily in 1038 with Norman mercenaries, including three Hauteville brothers, who helped defeat the Arabs temporarily. Source.

In the mid-11th century, a remarkable cohort of Norman brothers of the Hauteville family rose to prominence through their battlefield prowess and political skills. Alliances frequently shifted. In 1038 several of the Hautevilles were under Byzantine command attacking Muslims in Sicily; a few years later they were teaming with Lombards against Byzantine rule. The Norman relationship with Popes and anti-Popes was chaotic, at times receiving blessings and titles, at other times fighting coalitions of the Pope, Germanic troops, Byzantines, and Lombards. Sometimes Normans fought against Normans; at other times rivalry families joined to conquer more of the Italian Peninsula. Normans even sided with Muslims on occasion (taking advantage of rivalries) and heavily recruited Muslim troops for infantry.

Chaos and internal strife described Muslim Sicily as well, where control of the island was by no means monolithic. Muslim factions included Arab, Egyptian, and Berber (North African) groups that established local centers of power on the island. Out of all this chaos, two Hauteville brothers, Robert and Roger, ably maneuvered among factions to consolidate a Norman state in Southern Italy and Sicily. These two warriors and their forces fought fiercely, true to their Viking heritage. In one victory outside the key city of Palermo, Roger ordered that news of their defeat be written in blood and sent by the Muslim carrier pigeons back into the capital city. Palermo fell three years later in 1072, and by 1091, all Muslim resistance in Sicily had fallen.


But technological superiority, ferocity in battle, and savviness in choosing alliances were not the only Norman keys to success. To give us the extraordinary mosaic works in the Palatine Chapel and Monreale Cathedral, it took a special kind of Norman governance after conquest. Sicily was a multicultural mix of Arabic and African Muslims, Greek Orthodox, and Latin Catholics. After the conquest of Sicily was complete by 1091, Roger, as Count of Sicily, showed relative tolerance for all groups. He sponsored the construction of Greek monasteries, while allowing Muslims to maintain their mosques and their own judges. Economically minded, he promoted freedom of trade for Muslims, Jews, Greeks, and Latins alike, although non-Catholics had to pay a special tribute to maintain their privileges.

An Arabic-speaking Norman King in Sicily

Roger’s situation in Sicily and Southern Italy remained unstable until his death in 1101; it would be his youngest son, Roger II, who would consolidate Norman power and establish a remarkably diverse Kingdom of Sicily. In return for supporting his contentious election as Pope, Anacletus II crowned Roger II “King of Sicily” on Christmas day, 1130. Over the following ten years, the 35-year-old monarch faced multiple revolts of local Italian peninsular rulers (including his own relatives), as well as a coalition brought together by the contending Pope Innocent II that included kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperor. After initial severe losses, Roger II turned the tables, in no small part by kidnapping Pope Innocent in 1139 and forcing a papal proclamation recognizing Roger II as “Rex Siciliae ducatus Apuliae et principatus Capuae” (King of Sicily, duke of Apulia and commander of Capua).  

Roger II, depicted over four decades after his death in 1196 by Peter of Eboli. The illustration is part of a propagandist piece to support the legitimate rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who by his marriage to Roger II’s daughter Constance claimed sovereignty over Sicily.  Source.

Having finally secured a stable regime, Roger II turned to solidifying his control through a centralized, yet relatively tolerant, rule. Out of a mosaic of individual religions, ethnicities, and cultures, he produced a prosperous kingdom that rivaled all the other powers in the region. Relying on precepts of not only Norman and French law, but of Muslim and Roman-Byzantine legal traditions, he promulgated the Assizes of Ariano in 1140. One scholar describes the system as “indirect rule” over the Islamic population, not unlike the Muslims had previously used in Sicily to govern Christians and Jews. The Norman system allowed people of different faiths to worship freely and use their own traditional law within their communities in return for paying tribute.

While giving the king absolute authority in a feudal system, the Assizes made clear that all—Latins, Greeks, Arabs, North Africans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews–were to be treated equally under the law. It was a practical matter to emphasize fairness; having undergone decades of unrest and rebellion in a wild mix of cultures, Roger II could not afford to antagonize any group or provide them with a common enemy, himself, around which to unite.

By the time of Roger II’s death in 1154, the Normans ruled over a consolidated area of Sicily and Southern Italy, one of the most powerful and wealthy kingdoms of the European and West Asian world at the time. Source 1154 Map.
Roger II dressed and seated Islamic style. Ceiling of Cappella Palatina. Source.

Moreover, it appears that Roger II was indeed of a more open mind than one might expect in the Medieval period. He spoke Arabic, and had a royal mantle inscribed in Arabic with the Muslim dating system. He employed Muslim chefs and accountants in his retinue, and hired Muslim (probably Fatimid Egyptians) to decorate his chapel ceiling, which includes an image of Roger II wearing Islamic-style dress, seated in the Islamic tradition. His fighting troops included Islamic infantry, and his navy was headed by a Byzantine Greek, George of Antioch.

After consolidating power, Roger II set about making his realm on par with the Great Powers of the day. Sicily was one of few places, or perhaps the only place, in the world in which one could simultaneously study Greek and Arabic, both required to unlock the known scientific knowledge of the time.

Greek scholars, identified by their large beards, Muslim scholars with trimmed beards and turbans, and clean-shaven Latin scholars in the Kingdom of Sicily, from the Liber ad honorem Augusti sive de rebus Siculis (Book in honor of the Emperor, or on Sicilian affairs), written circa 1196 by Peter of Eboli. Source.

The king actively recruited an international array of scholars, such as Byzantine historian Nilus Doxopatrius and Arab geographer al-Idrisi. The former wrote a treatise commissioned by Roger II that explored Byzantine ideas of the “Universal Church”; few early manuscript copies remain, probably due to its controversial nature. Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani as-Sabti (or simply al-Idrisi) produced the most influential atlas of its time (Christopher Columbus would refer to it over 300 years later) on Roger’s commission. After nine years of research, exploration, and interviews, the North African-born and Cordoba-educated scholar presented “The Excursion of One Who is Eager to Traverse the Regions of the World”, commonly referred to as “Tabula Rogeriana (Map of Roger)”, just before Roger’s death in 1154.

A 1929 reproduction of al-Idrisi’s circa 1154 map of the known world, with South (Africa) at the top. Source.

Sicilo-Norman architecture reflected the diversity of the culture as well. The palace in which the Palatine Chapel mosaics appear was originally a 9th Century Arabic building, converted into a multifunctional residence and administrative palace by the Norman rulers. Latin-Romanesque features included using towers at the sides of façades and an emphasis on verticality; Arabic-Fatimid inspired elements are seen in pointed arches, polychrome inlaid designs, and a stunning wooden ceiling in the chapel; Byzantine-Greek influence shows up in the basilica-like Greek cross floor plan of the chapel, and of course the mosaics, which adorn the palace living quarters as well.

The “Norman wing” of the Palazzo dei Normanni, originally constructed in the 9th Century by Arabs, and converted by Roger II as his governing castle. The pointed arches show Islamic influence. Source.
The Islamic-style wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel. Source.
An Islamic-style 8-pointed star with Kufic script that are intended to be good omens. Source.
Detail of the Palatine Chapel ceiling. Source.

Of the magnificent ceiling at the Palatine Chapel, art historian Pier Paolo Racioppi writes, “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 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.” From Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2020.

The “Ruggero Room” in the Gioaria Tower of the Norman Royal Palace, Palermo. Racioppi tells us, “[The mosaic] covers the walls, lunettes, the undersides of the arches and the vault. Leopards, lions, harts, peacocks, centaurs and bowmen confront one another symmetrically amongst fruit trees and palms in the large lunettes. Spiral branches with leaves and flowers entwine the decorative elements of the vault, interrupted only by geometric bands (at the crossing points) and the medallions with lions and griffins. The Swabian eagle, within an octagon at the centre of the vault, dominates the composition, while the double-headed eagle appears on the keystones of the minor arches. The entire decorative structure is laid out on a single tessera background with gold leaf. Thought to be the work of mosaicists trained in Byzantium, the iconographic themes of the mosaic cycle show clear eastern influence, more Persian and Seljuq than Arabic, as a result of the osmosis between the Islamic and Byzantine worlds.” Source.
A secular mosaic scene in the Palatine Palace, where animals roam in an idyllic setting reminiscent of Eden. Source.

The architecture at the Monreale Cathedral and cloisters, commissioned by William II (Roger II’s grandson) shows even more extravagant use of the blended Norman-Islamic-Byzantine style. William II likely saw the construction of Monreale as a symbolic securing of his reign; it was built at the same time, and in competition with, the Palermo Cathedral. As a royal project, William intended for the magnificent multicultural structure to be the final resting place for him and his long-reigning progeny. Unfortunately, he died in 1189 leaving no children.

Islamic and Byzantine influences can be seen in this apse of the Monreale Cathedral. Source.
Cloister at Monreale Cathedral. The archways, Grecian capitals, and inlaid mosaic show a blend of Arab, Byzantine, and Norman design. Source.

The Cycle of Chaos and Order

In this series I’m exploring the evolution of artistic representations of the archetypical story of Temptation and Self-consciousness in the Garden of Eden. In that story, we see Eve and Adam set in a perfectly ordered garden—a paradise of abundant flora and fauna with no real challenge to their pleasant life. The serpent represents a call to chaos, a call to leave the comfortable unchanging existence to explore the unknown. Eating fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil awakens the consciousness of the couple. Their eyes are opened to their vulnerabilities—their nakedness—which includes an awareness of their inevitable death.

The Viking explorers and conquerors left their known, stable world and faced chaos. Out of the chaos Rollo the Walker built an orderly Normandy in a fertile area blessed with the fruits of land and sea. And still, out of that orderly environment, Norman warriors spread north and south, making opportunities out of chaotic conditions.

The society established by Roger I and II, and their successors William I and II, was a remarkable new order of Latin and Greek Christians, Arabic, North African and Andalusian Muslims, and Jews. The Norman kings dealt with the consciousness of their mortality by attempting to establish lasting dynasties and glorious works. Politically, however, the cycle would continue. After William II died without a direct heir, chaos returned, and Sicilian power slowly ebbed. The merchant warriors of Venice were on the ascendant. The Venetians would famously populate their city, including Saint Mark’s Basilica, with treasures of the Byzantines after sacking Constantinople in the fourth crusade. The awe-inspiring mosaics of St. Marks are another attempt at immortality. They reach for the heavens as one eating of the Tree of Knowledge reaches for godlike perfection, and proclaim to viewers the once great power and imposed order of Venice.

The cycle of chaos and order repeats endlessly. Too much order is stultifying. Too much chaos is deadly. There seems to be an area between order and chaos in which creativity flourishes. For a brief moment in history, the Norman court in Sicily approached that balance.

The order that comes out of each cycle isn’t always better than the previous order. In the archetypical story, after all, the original order was paradise. But the story is meant to continue, and thankfully there are examples pandemonium producing a closer approximation to perfection. This is what makes the story of the Temptation in the Garden an archetype, and makes our tour of its representations in art through the centuries so interesting.

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