Hundreds of Facets: Reconfiguring Sight and Vision in Norman Sicily

by Jennifer Bürk, Heidelberg Centre of Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University

Exploring New Worlds

When I first met Monica Juneja, on an October afternoon in 2009, to start working as her new student assistant, little did I know how crucial this work relationship would become for my further education and how formative this work would be for developing my own research interests and nurturing my critical thinking. At the time, I was about to complete my bachelor’s degree in art history, and in retrospect, my naïve knowledge of art (history) was mostly limited to the clear-cut bounds of European western art with only some basic awareness of East Asian art, let alone the art of the Islamicate or any other regions of the world.

My tasks were mainly administrative in nature but being part of Monica’s seminars and lectures and initially, only loosely following the contents of the sessions opened up many facets of the world (or worlds) for me. These facets included the vibrant Mughal miniatures and other visual objects and collection practices across the globe, alongside challenging questions as to what the term ‘Islamic’ means in conjunction with the notion of art. Gradually, this led to realizing a keen interest in all those art objects, places, and histories that fell strangely ‘out of place’ within the master narrative of European art history. In these objects, places, and histories the complexities and negotiation processes of cultural encounters felt more tangible (and often more visible), while at the same time providing a deeper understanding of art history as a discipline constituted to not only include, but also deliberately to exclude large parts of artistic production. Consequently, I decided to write my master’s thesis about the garden manors of the Norman king, William II of Sicily. Mary Louise Pratt’s term “contact zones”[i] seemd especially fitting for Norman Sicily as it was often dealt as both exotically fascinating because of the sheer richness of multicultural artistic creations and also impossible to grasp given its history as a site of conquest and power struggle.[ii] I believed that there was more to this story that required unraveling. Thus, I raised and addressed the question of how the Normans dealt with the artistic abundance. My answer, at the time, was that the Norman kings, specifically William II, were engaged in a deliberate and selective process of reconfiguration, irrespective of issues such as ‘origin’. Of utmost importance was that the artistic outcome would be able to address a multiplicity of societal and cultural strata while at the same time artistically linking kings and princes across the Mediterranean. While not being a supervisor to this thesis, I am grateful for Monica’s enthusiasm about this topic which also allowed me to give a guest lecture on Norman Sicily in her course “Europe and the Arts of Islam” (summer term 2013) and to participate in the workshop “Art Histories and Terminologies I” held in Berlin in 2013.

It is not as an afterthought but probably more as a continued interest in Norman Sicily as well as the persistent engagement with and, at least I hope, an expanded understanding of transculturation processes, thanks to Monica’s work and for being my PhD supervisor, that I want to return to Norman Sicily. I would like to specifically focus on an artwork that might be characterized as a “contact zone” in itself: the muqarnas ceiling of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. I cannot go into too much depth here, but I do wish to expand my initial question by adding another dimension to this transcultural process of reconfiguration and taking into consideration the process of seeing itself.[iii]

Multiple Facets of Seeing

Commissioned by Roger II, the (self-)crowned Norman king of Sicily since 1130, as a royal palace chapel in 1132, the Cappella Palatina was part of the larger Palazzo dei Normanni and ‘layered’ in a palimpsestic manner onto an earlier chapel turned into what is known as a crypt today.[iv] Despite being consecrated in 1140, its furnishings were not completed until after Roger II’s death in 1154.[v] In its basic structure, the building interlaced the Western basilica with its horizontal direction of reading images and the Byzantine centrally planned church architecture having a vertical reading direction. The use of marble, porphyry, and colored and gold-leaf glass mosaics showcased the value and significance of the Cappella Palatina for the Norman kings of Sicily.

This ensemble included the wooden ceiling of the nave with its muqarnas vault that was probably finished in its initial appearance already by 1143.[vi] Being made of smaller panels (sizes varying between 66 × 43 cm and 25 × 12 cm) of different kinds of wood (among them fir, pine, birch, beech, and poplar),[vii] the muqarnas ceiling covers an area of 18.5 × 5 m with the coffers being 2.5 m deep. According to Jeremy Johns, the ceiling of the main aisle can be divided into three zones: a central zone with coffers in the shape of eight-pointed stars, octagons, small cupolas, and rhombuses; a transitional zone with a proper muqarnas; and a bottom cornice.[viii] The wooden surface was gessoed, gilded, and painted with miniatures using tempera before being installed at the ceiling.

The muqarnas ceiling at the Cappella Palatina is remarkable for several reasons. First, it resists both the conventional vertical as well as the horizontal reading directions of the architecture as elaborated above. Rather, the muqarnas ceiling appears multi-faceted with no clear idea of where to start seeing, much less of how to understand it in the spatial context of the chapel itself. While a closer inspection of the individual panels of the ceiling seems to confirm that majority of the scenes depicted can be attributed to a princely cycle. Therefore, David Knipp emphasized that the ceiling had most probably a secular function, a fact Jeremy Johns ascribed to the translation (and mistranslation) of Christian themes by the Muslim painters.[ix] The aspect of seeing is further complicated by the visual inaccessibility of the images: being almost eleven meters above the floor level, it is almost impossible for the viewer to inspect the paintings closely. What is visible to the viewer are just the larger structural elements of the muqarnas that Philagathos described as an imitation of “the heavens, when […] the host of stars shines everywhere.”[x]

This leads me to the question that I wish to address in the remaining paragraphs, at least in a cursory way: As argued by Monica in her article “The World as Narrative: Reconfiguring Vision in Early Modern Eurasia,” if sight and seeing were an integral part of understanding the world in the early modern era, then what would be the implications for a medieval example such as the muqarnas ceiling of the Cappella Palatina where sight is at least partially impeded? Does it mean that not seeing hampers the grasping of the world? Or is not seeing just another aspect of the “plurality of sight” that unfolds when visual practices become reconfigured through a transcultural experience?[xi]

The Visible and the Invisible World

I propose to approach this question by distinguishing two visual regimes that are ambivalently related. The first of these regimes is that of the visible: the viewer standing under the Cappella Palatina’s ceiling is able to see the starry sky that the muqarnas above seeks to imitate. This imitation is perfected by the star-shaped, golden coffers which are alternating with the deep, dark interstices of small cupolas echoing the celestial sphere. Celestial constellations had a great significance in Norman Sicily, especially during Roger II’s reign, as attested in the so-called mantle of Roger where the lions’ and camels’ joints are marked with rosettes forming a constellation.[xii]

Palazzo dei Normanni, Cappella Palatina, muqarnas ceiling of the main aisle as seen from the ground, 12th century. Author: CarlesVA, 2009. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the high ceiling prevents the viewer from seeing the second regime which is that of the non-visible: it is impossible for the viewer to immerse into a contemplation of the painted inhabitants of the celestial spheres of the muqarnas. Similarly, if one is vice versa able to be close enough to identify the host of heaven, as a viewer can do today by zooming in on a photograph or on the occasion of the ceiling’s restoration from 2005 to 2009 when close-up access was provided to researchers,[xiii] it would be futile to oversee the larger structure of the ceiling. In the twelfth century, it is assumed that the circle of viewers with close-up access were even more exclusive: only those involved in the process of its building and painting as well as Roger II himself or his site supervisor were probably able to inspect the muqarnas’s details before it was installed on the ceiling. Thus, with seeing comes also not seeing.

Palazzo dei Normanni, Cappella Palatina, muqarnas ceiling, detail with musician, 12th century. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Palazzo dei Normanni, Cappella Palatina, close-up of a star-shaped cupola and parts of the muqarnas of the ceiling. Author: Effems, 2019. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Given these limits and conjunction of seeing and not seeing, the critical question is whether it was a crucial matter for medieval viewers to see in order to grasp the concept of the ‘world’ as it is displayed in the miniatures? The answer is yes and no. On the one hand, the answer must be yes because we should by no means impute an autotelic purpose of the miniature paintings in the sense of l’art pour l’art or a horror vacui. This can be concluded from an overall consideration of the scenes used which are unified by the common thematic thread of the princely cycle. In addition, the execution of the paintings in a prominent position such as the nave’s ceiling of a palatial chapel speaks against the assumption of them being simply for self-purpose. Thus, while the viewer is impeded from seeing, the painted ceiling is based on the premise that it is meant ‘to be seen,’ and thus, to display a particular representation of a world view.

Yet, the ceiling also demonstrates that sight can be deceiving: the viewer is looking up to see a sky with numerous stars. But this painted sky is merely an illusion, the real sky (and therefore the real world) is hidden beyond the confines of the ceiling itself.[xiv] While the painted sky is an imitation of the latter, it ultimately only grasps a single moment of an infinite and ever-changing sky, both temporally and spatially. In that sense, the painted sky is deceptive in a double sense because it not only confronts the viewer with a mirror image that is never able to match with reality, but it also delimits this likeness to a particular moment, thus creating an ideal rather than the real. This aspect is also an issue in the miniature paintings of the ceiling: here, different times (and even spaces) are conflated so that it is possible to depict the figure of King David next to Daniel in the lion’s den or St George, musicians next to sportsmen, hunters, or scribes. All is seemingly happening at once and ‘seeing’ all at once is an integral part of this configuration of sight.

Envisioning the World: The Relation between Sight and Vision

At this point, it is important to finally distinguish between seeing as sight and seeing as vision.[xv] If sight is the sensual perception of the image, then vision, even though connected to sight, goes beyond the material confines, and is extrasensory. Vision includes a thought process that aims at understanding. Following this, the answer to my previous question of whether seeing was crucial to the medieval beholder of the Cappella Palatina’s muqarnas ceiling in grasping the world proffered can also be answered with negation. Being impeded from seeing the miniatures did not matter to the viewer; what mattered was that the viewer knew or understood that there was something to see (and probably even being familiar with what one would see through other sensorial experiences such as listening to a story) so that one was able to ‘envision’ the visible. Therefore, Avinoam Shalem has emphasized in the context of early Islamic audience halls that while seeing was crucial, the issue of not seeing was equally important:

The absence of a specific and usually expected royal symbol, official image or even person […] was immediately noticed, and the non-existent thing gained a powerful visual presence, at least in the mind of the beholders.[xvi]

While the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina has often been interpreted mainly from a profane point of view as it was created by Muslim artists,[xvii] I am arguing that this interplay between seeing and not seeing, vision and non-vision also fits well with a more eschatological reading of the ceiling resulting from a creative process of reconfiguring a muqarnas to both materially as well as meaningfully fit into a church interior. My point here is that both a profane and religious reading is not as mutually exclusive to the medieval viewer as it may seem, but they are both parts of the medieval Weltanschauung complementing and alternating between each other. Thus, while the view of the heavenly hosts was blocked for the contemporary believers, the knowledge of the existence of an afterlife gave the miniatures of the muqarnas ceiling the character of an otherworldly vision that had become reality. Assuming that the ceiling displayed a view of heaven would also explain the ubiquity of seated rulers, the spiritual ancestors of Roger II, but also the synchronism of certain depicted scenes. The message is simple yet effective: only those who are firm in faith will be rewarded in the end by being welcomed into the celestial kingdom. This comes close to what Monica has discussed in her article with the example of Jan Breughel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens’ Sight from the quadripartite Allegories of the Senses (1617-1618) when she points out that vision “comes as a reward for true faith.”[xviii] At the same time, extending the idea that the muqarnas ceiling has turned this heavenly kingdom into a materially graspable reality, Norman Sicily, at least in the mind of the medieval beholder and its ruler Roger II, may have been this utopian heaven on earth where there is only peace and harmony. Grasping the world, thus, not only comes with seeing but also with not seeing, opening up a pluriverse of envisioning the world both in palpable and intangible ways. Transcultural encounters in which the boundaries of sight and vision are reconfigured, therefore, challenge us to look even closer into the artistic worlds we are offered that we see and sometimes not see.

May this short essay bring you some joy, Monica, because your understanding of visual production as a medium to grasp the plurality and “the alterity of the world”[xix] has shaped so many of your students – happy birthday!


[i] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33—40.

[ii] Sicily had been a Byzantine province before it was conquered by the expanding Arab Empire in the 9th century and flourished both culturally and scientifically in the 10th and early 11th century before it fell, weakened through civil war, to invading Normans in the late 11th century.

[iii] I am also dealing with the issue of seeing and not seeing in my PhD dissertation on the so-called Umayyad Desert Castles, especially in the context of the ruler and his image as a means of exercising power, thus connecting seeing also to the question of the gaze. On the gaze see Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking study “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18; also see for a similar approach to the power of the gaze Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): 12-21; as well as on the gaze and surveillance Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). On the gaze also see Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. by Hal Foster, Dia Art Foundation: Discussions in Contemporary Culture 2 (New York: The New Press, 1988), 87-108; Margaret Olin, “Gaze,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, Collection Art Référence (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 208-219; James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, On the Nature of Seeing (New York; London; Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[iv] See Vladimir Zorič, “Arx Praeclara Quam Palatium Regale Appellant: Le Sue Origini e la Prima Cappella della Corte Normanna,” in Schede Medievali 34-35, Contrade e Chiese nella Palermo Medievale (1999): 31-139; Thomas Dittelbach, “La chiesa inferior,” in La Cappella Palatina a Palermo, ed. by Beat Brenk, Mirabilia Italiae 17, 4 vols. (Modena: F. C. Panini, 2010), 1: 283-293; Dorothée Sack, “Bauforschung in der Unterkirche der Cappella Palatina in Palermo,” in Die Cappella Palatina in Palermo — Geschichte, Kunst, Funktionen: Forschungsergebnisse der Restaurierung, ed. by Thomas Dittelbach (Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2011), 87-109.

[v] Yet an inscription at the base of the cupola indicating the year 1143 suggests that major parts of the building were completed by then.

[vi] On the Cappella Palatina as palimpsestic ensemble see William Tronzo, The Cultures of His Kingdom: Roger II and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), esp. 10-17. In terms of the palimpsest (also as a transtemporal process) the additions and overpaintings of the 15th and 16th century are especially noteworthy.

[vii] See Manuela Romangoli, Mara Sarlatto, F. Terranova, E. Bizzarri, and S. Cesetti, “Wood Identification in the Cappella Palatina Ceiling (12th Century) in Palermo (Sicily, Italy),” IAWA Journal 28, no. 2 (2007): 109-123.

[viii] See Jeremy Johns, “Muslim Paintings and Christian Models in the Painted Ceilings of the Cappella Palatina,” in Romanesque and the Mediterranean: Patterns of Exchange Across the Latin, Greek and Islamic Worlds c.1000-c.1250 (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions), ed. by Rosa Bacile and John McNeill (London: Routledge, 2015): 59-89, 59.

[ix] See Johns, “Muslim Paintings and Christian Models,” 65; David Knipp, “Die almoravidischen Ursprünge der Holzdecke über dem mittelschiff der Cappella Palatina in Palermo,” in Die Cappella Palatina in Palermo — Geschichte, Kunst, Funktionen: Forschungsergebnisse der Restaurierung, ed. by Thomas Dittelbach (Künzelsau: Swiridoff, 2011), 217-228.

[x] Philagathus of Cerami as quoted in Michael Featherstone, Jean-Michel Spieser, Gülru Tanman, and Ulrike Wulf-Rheidt, The Emperor’s House: Palaces from Augustus to the Age of Absolutism, Urban Spaces 4 (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 277.

[xi] See Monica Juneja, “The World as Narrative: Reconfiguring Vision in Early Modern Eurasia.” Soziale Systeme: Zeitschrift für Soziologische Theorie 18, no. 1-2 (2012): 360-385, here 367-370.

[xii] Oleg Grabar explained this cosmological layer of the mantle with the public function of the king, whereas Hartner and Ettinghausen connect it back to the lion and bull constellations in the Babylonian origins of the zodiac, see Oleg Grabar, “The Experience of Islamic Art: The So-called Mantle of Roger II, The Ceiling of the Cappella Palatina,” in The Experience of Islamic Art on the Margins of Islam, ed. by Irene A. Biermann (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2005), 11-59; Willy Hartner and Richard Ettinghausen, “The Conquering Lion: The Life Cycle of a Symbol,” Oriens 17 (1964): 161-171.

[xiii] See Fabrizio Agnello, “The Painted Ceiling of the Nave of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo: An Essay on Its Geometric and Constructive Features,” Muqarnas 27 (2010): 407-447, 407f.

[xiv] On the paradoxical relationship between reality and illusion respectively reality and image as illusion see among others Ernst Grombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial (London: Phaidon Press, 1960); Murray Krieger, “The Ambiguities of Representation and Illusion: An E.H. Gombrich Retrospective,” Critical Inquiry 11, no. 2 (Dec 1984): 181-194; on the deceptive quality of art in the early modern age see Thijs Weststeijn, The Visible World: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), 273-276.

[xv] The field of sight and vision is also indebted to Monica Juneja, “Translating the Body Into Image: The Body Politic and Visual Practice at the Mughal Court During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Paragrana 18, no. 1 (2009): 243-266.

[xvi] Avinoam Shalem, “Manipulations of Seeing and Visual Strategies in the Audience Halls of the Early Islamic Period,” in Visualisierungen von Herrschaft: Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen – Gestalt und Zeremoniell, Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, ed. by Franz Alto Bauer, Byzas 5 (Istanbul: Ege Yayınlar, 2006), 213-232, 215.

[xvii] See Johns, “Muslim Paintings and Christian Models”; Tronzo, The Cultures of His Kingdom; further also in Ernst J. Grube and Jeremy Johns, The Painted Ceilings of the Cappella Palatina, Islamic Art Supplement 1 (London: Saffron Books, 2005); Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le Pitture Musulmane al Soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo (Rome: La Libr. Dello Stato, 1950).

[xviii] See Juneja, “The World as Narrative,” 369.

[xix] Juneja, “The World as Narrative,” 360f.


Jennifer Bürk is currently finishing her PhD dissertation on the so-called Umayyad Desert Castles (working title: “The Fertile Crescent as Architectural Playground for a New Ruling Elite: Reconsidering the Umayyad Desert Castles in a Transcultural Perspective”) supervised by Monica Juneja. Her research interests include exchanges and transcultural processes in the visual arts as well as the interaction of visual regimes in the medieval Mediterranean and Levant with a special focus on Norman Art in Sicily, Islamic Art in the Near East and Muslim Spain, as well as late Byzantine Art; the theorization of visual perception; and the disciplinary history of fields of visual and material studies such as Art History, Archaeology, Museum, and Heritage studies.