The Norman Conquest, Sicilian-Style

Sicily is one giant history lesson. As in so much of Italy, each layer of civilization was built over some earlier layer. In Sicily, those layers include Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, and Spanish cultures. Palermo was the island’s capital city during those last three cultures, but the Normans were the ones who left the most glittering mark on the city.

Apparently, the Normans—former Norsemen who settled in what is now northern France—really got around in the 11th century. At the same time that William the Conqueror was invading England, other Normans were busy conquering Sicily from the North African Arabs who had ruled it for two centuries.

Mosaics in the Cappella Palatina

Once established, the Norman kings of Sicily and their top officials proceeded to build lavish churches to glorify God and show off their wealth and power. Two amazing examples in the Palermo area remain intact: the Cappella Palatina, located in the Palazzo dei Normanni (a former palace in the center of the city that now houses Sicily’s parliament), and the cathedral of Monreale, perched on a 1,000-foot hill a few kilometers outside Palermo.


Both churches were built in the 1100s, and when you walk into them, they take your breath away. Every wall surface and much of the ceilings are covered in intricate mosaics of colored glass on a background of sparkling gold—more than 2,000 kilograms of gold in the Monreale cathedral alone. The mosaics, painstakingly created by Byzantine, North African, and Venetian artists, depict Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and famous episodes from the Bible. (If you know your Bible stories, you can pick out Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Jonah and the whale, the prodigal son, and many others.)

The effect of being completely surrounded by such brightness and ornamentation—as the vast face of Jesus looks down on you from the ceiling—is hard to describe. You feel uplifted and humble and thoroughly conquered by beauty.

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