Page 1 of 2 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To AD 1254
     Hub of the Mediterranean
     Byzantine Sicily
     Muslim Sicily
     Norman Sicily
     Capella Palatina in Palermo
     Sicily and the empire

From the 13th century

Bookmark and Share
Hub of the Mediterranean: 8th c. BC - 8th c. AD

Sicily, a large fertile island at a pivotal point in the Mediterranean, is one of the world's most desirable patches of land. Colonized by Phoenicians and Greeks, and fought over between Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans in the Punic Wars, its architectural and artistic remains bear witness to its past grandeur - in the great series of Greek temples, or the Roman mosaics at Piazza Armerina.

In medieval times the island achieves a different creative blend, of three later cultures - Byzantine Christianity, Islam and Roman Christianity.


Byzantine Sicily: 6th - 9th century

The Byzantine influence in Sicily begins with the capture of the island from the Ostrogoths in 535. It is consolidated in the 8th century during the Iconoclastic Controversy. The clash between the pope and the Byzantine emperor on this issue prompts the emperor to give the patriarch of Constantinople jurisdiction over Sicily, removing it from the papal see. Meanwhile the island has received a large number of Greek immigrants from the Balkans, fleeing from invasions by Slavs.

It is therefore largely Byzantine in culture by the 9th century, when a new threat emerges. From 827 Arabs begin arriving from north Africa, in what will amount to a slow conquest of the island.


Muslim Sicily: 10th - 11th century

The last Byzantine stronghold falls to the Arabs in965, beginning a century of Muslim rule. Arabs settle in large numbers, and many Christians convert to Islam. As in other Muslim countries, Christianity is tolerated and Christian communities survive throughout the island. Sicily in the 11th century is therefore a mixed community of Arab Muslims and Greek Christians when a third element arrives, in a new wave of conquest.

The newcomers are Latin Christians. The pope in 1059, wishing to recover Sicily from the infidels, grants feudal rights over the island to an adventurer family of Normans. One of them, Roger I (as the first Norman count of Sicily), completes the conquest of the island in 1091.


Norman Sicily: 1091-1194

The first Norman ruler sets a pattern which will characterize Sicily for more than a century. Roger I has brought Latin Christianity to the island, conquering it as a vassal of the pope. But he is also a generous patron of Greek Orthodox monasteries in his new territory. And, continuing in reverse the tradition of Muslim tolerance for Christians, he encourages the Muslim communities in Sicilian towns and employs Muslim serfs from the countryside in his army.

Unrivalled in medieval Europe except in certain Spanish cities, Norman Sicily achieves a vibrant culture of three religions - differing from Spain in that the third religion here is Greek Christianity rather than Judaism.


The complexity of this culture is evident in the fact that the Normans issue their official documents in three languages - Latin, Greek and Arabic. Sicily's religious unorthodoxy is attacked by scandalized opponents who describe a later Sicilian king, Frederick II, as a 'baptized sultan' (he justifies the nickname at a more elementary level by keeping a harem). The vitality of the island is evident in the superb Norman architecture.

The building which most powerfully brings together the three traditions of Sicily is the exquisite palace chapel built by Roger II.


Capella Palatina in Palermo: 1132-1189

The small palace chapel in Palermo, with its walls covered in bright pictorial mosaic, is one of the most exquisite buildings of the Middle Ages. Known as the Capella Palatina (Latin for 'palace chapel'), it is begun in 1132 and completed in about 1189.

The mosaics are in the Greek tradition, created by craftsmen from Constantinople. Christ Pantocrator is in the apse and cupola, in traditional Byzantine style. Round the walls are sequences of scenes from the Old Testament, and from the lives of St Peter and St Paul. This is a narrative convention which will later be much used in Italian frescoes.


The roof of the Capella Palatina, by contrast, is unlike anything in a Byzantine church. In vaulted wood, carved and painted in intricate patterns, it would seem at home in a pavilion of a Muslim palace or in a covered section of a mosque. The sturdy round arches supporting the walls are from yet another tradition - that of European Romanesque. Classical pillars, inherited from an earlier period of Sicily's rich history, complete the influences seen in this eclectic building.

It perfectly encapsulates the merits of Norman Sicily.


Sicily and the empire: 1184-1254

The papal encouragement of the Normans, as conquerors of southern Italy and Sicily, makes political sense in the 11th century as a way of protecting the southern flank of the papal states. It seems less wise a century later. Now Rome finds herself in danger of being surrounded by territory belonging to the empire.

The reason is that Henry, heir to the emperor Frederick I, marries in 1186 Constance, heiress to the Norman kingdom of Sicily.


The marriage of Henry to Constance brings Sicily and southern Italy into the German empire. Henry VI is crowned emperor in Rome in 1191 and king of Sicily in 1194. But he dies shortly afterwards, in 1197, when his son Frederick is just three years old.

At first it seems unlikely that the boy can inherit both Sicily and the German kingdom, particularly since the prospect displeases the papacy. From 1198 he is recognized only as king of Sicily. But after a period of confusion, with warring candidates, he is also elected king by the German princes in 1211. With some reluctance the pope accepts the situation. He crowns Frederick II emperor in Rome in 1220.


Subsequent popes have cause to regret this coronation. They excommunicate Frederick II twice, and even proclaim a crusade against him, in a prolonged power struggle which eventually weakens his authority in both Sicily and Germany. In spite of the brilliance of his court in Sicily, and the nonchalant ease with which he achieves his own crusade to Jerusalem, Frederick leaves an inheritance which cannot long survive him.

His son, Conrad IV, becomes the last ruler in the Hohenstaufen line. With Conrad's death, in 1254, there is a vacancy on the German throne which is not filled for another nineteen years.


  Page 1 of 2 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF SICILY