The twelfth-century mantle of King Roger II of Sicily traverses geographical and cultural boundaries, primarily challenging modern day conceptions of strict divisions between Christian and Islamic societies. Against the vibrant red ground fabric of the mantle, two lions overcome domesticated camels. The two scenes mirror each other on opposite sides of the mantle and running along the length of the bottom is an inscription in Kufic that speaks to the prosperous and jubilant times, not only in the treasury, presumably in which the mantle was made, but also in Sicily. The contents of the inscription raise questions about the Islamic-Christian interactions in the textile workshops during Norman rule. Further analysis, which evaluates contemporary texts, workshop instructions, and the quality and clarity of the Kufic script, proposes that Christian and Muslim craftsmen worked alongside each other in the Norman royal workshops. These details argue for a much more diverse and interactive cultural environment than the historical narrative of the island’s political history, and its subsequent historiography, proposes.
Sicily, like much of Southern Italy, was home to numerous political and religious groups during the medieval era, although Sicily’s administrative history diverges from that of the Italian mainland. For the two hundred years preceding the Norman’s arrival and Roger II’s ascendancy to the throne, Sicily had been under Islamic rule. As such, Islamic textile traditions, iconography, and style – buttressed by pre-existing Byzantine knowledge – were part of Sicily’s cultural fabric before the Norman conquest. Roger’s mantle, which appears to utilize those skills without promoting a domineering attitude, helps to redefine contemporary conceptions of cross-cultural interactions in the Medieval Mediterranean.
Further Reading: Isabelle Dolezalek, Arabic Script on Christian Kings, Textile Inscriptions on Royal Garments From Norman Sicily (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017).
Mantle of King Roger II, 1133-4, silk, pearls, embroidery.
Detail of Camel, Mantle of King Roger II, 1133-4, silk, pearls, embroidery.
Detail of Kufic Script, Mantle of King Roger II, 1133-4, silk, pearls, embroidery.
Christ Crowning Roger II, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, Palermo, Sicily, mosaic.