Discuss the depiction of the Virgin Mary in the mosaics of Norman Palermo

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The Virgin Mary is one of the few female figures who has achieved the status of myth, a myth that for nearly 2,000 years has coursed through our culture as a lively element and often imperceptible.[1] The representation of the Virgin Mary is of fundamental importance in Christian iconography. Its representation already emerged in the early days of Christianity as it can be seen in the cemetery of Priscilla, from the mid-third century, sitting as a midwife with the child in her lap, but it was not until the period between the centuries V and X when fundamental iconographic types are set, essentially in Byzantine art.[2]

Since early Christian times, the mosaic has been the imperial pictorial medium par excellence. In the sixteenth century it becomes a specialty of Greek art and five centuries later Greek mosaic evidences are found in the Italian church of MonteCassino. The following projects would be large mosaics found in Norman Sicily. All they represent superbly an articulated program that has been carefully thought out and coordinated, including scenes and images of the Virgin Mary.[3]

This essay aims to argue the influence of Byzantine culture in the decorative and iconographic depiction of the Virgin Mary in mosaics of some churches in Norman Palermo. Firstly it will study the image of the Virgin in the Cappella Palatina. Secondly it will analyse the representation of the Mother of God in the mosaics of St Mary’s of the Admiral. Finally, it will explore its presence in the cathedral of Monreale.

Although the mosaics in the cathedral Cefalù will not be discussed in this essay, it would be appropriate to make a brief mention of its influence. These mosaics are celebrated for their pure Byzantine style and as one of the most important artistic manifestations of Byzantium in the culture of Norman Sicily. Cefalù decorative project is the product of Byzantine masters and essentially represents the adaptation to a smaller scale program of self-Middle Byzantium to a basilica church. Lacking dome, the Pantokrator is placed in the shell of the apse and the praying Virgin Mary in the centre of the curved wall of the apse.[4] The virgin is standing in the centre of the highest tier with his hands up in a gesture of the Orans. She is dressed in a tunic with different shades of blue and her shoes are red. It would also be very important to consider briefly the chronology of the mosaics in the main churches in Norman Sicily. E. Kitzinger claims that the mosaics in Cefalù were made around 1148, and mosaics in Cappella Palatina that were clearly influenced by them can not be earlier than 1146-1147. They include some scenes in the crossing, like the Nativity, in which the corresponding scene in La Martorana was modelled.

While structurally the Cappella Palatina has little or nothing in common with previous chapels in Byzantium, pictorially many of the mosaics are clearly related to the Byzantine tradition.[5] The Virgin Mary has a strong presence in the decoration of the chapel. Thus, we can find her image in the cycle of the life of Christ, as the Annunciation (in the Eastern arch central square), the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and Annunciation to the Shepherds (same level, southern wing) and Presentation in the Temple. [6] If it is compared the representation of the Virgin in the Nativity scene with the same scene in the Turkish church Kilise Karanlık, a monastic complex built in the eleventh century, it could be argued that the similarity is obvious. The two scenes depicts the Virgin Mary placed in a sort of sitting bed, her body turned to the Christ child, who is represented wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger. The Virgin is depicted dressed completely covered by a sort of toga, only revealing her feet, hands and face.

However, there is a scene in the chapel, which represents an irregularity with respect to the Byzantine tradition. On the east wall, up the side of the apse, it is a scenic representation in analogy to the corresponding wall southern transept (Nativity). It is a figure of the Virgin Mary in the time-honoured type of Hodogetria, accompanied by a small figure of John the Baptist. This representation is a difference both formal and iconographic regarding the Byzantine system, where the virgin Hodogetria is usually placed in the apse, to be seen from the window, as they connected the figure of the Virgin with the idea of praying and safeguard the ruler. Moreover, the figure of the Virgin standing is not situated in the centre, but appears rather shifted to the right; in order to make it visible from the royal box, the virgin was placed on the wall Eastern transept, where the king had direct vision.[7] It is important to note that architecture can also influence this circumstance. The author O. Domus considers probable the possibility that in the original structure the shell was greater, which would have provided a space for the sitting or standing Virgin, similar to the Byzantine way to decorate an apse. Like many Italo-Byzantine decorations which also followed this model, it seems likely that the original plan of the Cappella Palatina provided an image of the figure of the Virgin in the shell of the main apse, as in the contemporary decoration of La Martorana.[8] Therefore, it could be argued that in the Cappella Palatina Byzantine models were used for individual scenes (the Nativity is a clear example), but they were introduced in a non-Byzantine program created to engage with the new monarch.

The scene of the ‘Dormition‘ of the Virgin in the mosaic of the Martorana, made in 1143, also demonstrates the Byzantine influence. From the second century onwards, the way in which the Virgin Mary dies is described throughout Near East, Syria, Palestine… There are different versions of her death. Greek explanation claims the authority as an eyewitness of the apostle John himself, forming the basis of the sermons and homilies in the East. The mosaic describes the Virgin lying with her arms crossed, on a bed richly decorated with ruffles wavy arms. The virgin is surrounded by apostles and is staffed by angels, whose hands are covered respectfully, as Byzantine courtiers. Christ is standing besides her, holding a child, who represents the childlike soul of the Virgin Mary, as if he had torn from her heart. San Juan rests his head on the chest of the Virgin, while San Pedro laments her death at her feet. This same scene is found in the gospel book cover of the German Emperor Otto III in a fine ivory panel. The book was made in the late tenth century in Constantinople and described, like the mosaic of La Martorana, the Koimesis, Dormition or Falling Aesleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. [9]

The Martorana church was built in honour of the Virgin Mary by George of Antioch, Admiral of the fleet of Roger II, king of Sicily. George, a Greek from Syria, fought most of his life in the West Mediterranean for a Normand king, and in his church he hired Italian craftsmen to decorate the walls with mosaics in Byzantine style. Around the dome they are represented the four main Byzantine festivities, and the Nativity of Jesus looks at the Dormition of the Virgin with harmonious symmetry in the two scenes the virgin appears reclined. In one of them, she gives birth to the Saviour of the earth; in the other, El Salvador gives her new life to her soul.[10]

The Virgin of the Annunciation scene in the church Trikomo (Cyprus) is a close history of the corresponding figure in the Martorana. The two performances are so similar that could assume a concrete connection between the atelier who worked in Cyprus and who worked for Admiral George. The Virgin of Trikomo, however, lacks the refinement of Palermo. Loss of body weight and refinement of ornamental surface effects is a distinguishing feature of the figures in the Martorana regarding the Greek images that served as inspiration.[11]

It is important to note that the author Kitzinger points out an evolution in the mosaic of La Martorana over other mosaics in churches in Palermo. While it is true that at a given moment, the mosaic of the apse of Cefalù came to represent a model, there is a separate identity and separate Byzantine affiliation in La Martorana. It is in the representation of the human form where this individuality is more evident. However this feature is more evident in some figures than others, being barely noticeable in the representation of the Virgin Mary.[12]

Although clearly inspired by the decoration of the Cappella Palatina, the cathedral of Monreale shows the introduction of new elements and a clear concern about what expressed artistically. In terms of style, Byzantine influence emerges without equivocation. But, whatever the background, the traditional components take a local flavour and character, so the Byzantine model attains a degree of perfection and refinement unprecedented.[13]

Although O. Demus attributed the mosaics of the cathedral to a Byzantine first-class team of mosaicists, which could have been imported for this task after the Norman conquest of Salonika in 1185, E. Borsook author contradicts this theory and she does not consider them Greek mosaics. She argues that nothing is comparable in contemporary Byzantine culture, and Greek masters may have trained the artists who made the mosaics.[14]

Although the cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, her role is subordinate to the coming of the Saviour.[15] The imagery of the Virgin is aligned through the central axis of the church. Before its destruction in the eighteenth century, the exclusively Marian themes in the northern half of the entrance portico illustrated the Birth of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple in the wall of the narrow end, followed by the Dormition and Assumption on the wall more the wide left of the portal. In the other half of the portal, the story of Mary is joined to the childhood of Christ. To the right of the door were two scenes: the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi. Within the portal, in the recessed tympanum, it is a shortened version of the Hodegetria, the protectress of kings. They are no longer hidden in the depths of the sanctuary as she was in the Cappella Palatina, it starts here the central axis of the interior. Represented in half-length, Mary has a baby Jesus restored. In the gold plant a Greek inscription identifies her as the Mother of God (Theotokos).[16]

In the triumphal arch framing the apse of the presbytery, under Pantocrator and above a window Mary appears enthroned again. But this time is described in a hieratic frontality as queen of the heavenly court with the Christ child sitting on her lap. A Greek inscription identifies her as Panachrantos (Immaculate One) thus making explicit the notion of bodily assumption of the Virgin because doctrinally this was only possible if she was immortal, born free of original sin. The final acts of the Assumption of the Virgin at her coronation and enthronement with Christ. Although these events as action scenes, in Greek culture, the static of the enthroned Virgin icon is represented (although not crowned) in the Latin tradition was preferred, as in the cathedral of Monreale.[17] The icon of the Immaculate Virgin was held in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and many churches were dedicated to this type.[18]

The type of Virgin seated with the child was known as ‘Throne of Wisdom’. In this regard, the designers who worked in the mosaic at Monreale surely based on the queen in the model of the shell of the apse of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The scene in the cathedral of Monreale describes the virgin being enthroned beneath the colossal figure of Christ Pantocrator. In her lap she holds a child who raises his hand in a gesture of blessing. The position of the child in the lap of the Virgin symbolizes that the word of God was made flesh from the womb of a woman. The Mother of God occupies a central position on the scene of the church dedicated to her. Moreover, her position directly above the altar is also a symbol that she presides over the sacrifice of Christ offered every day in the celebration of the Eucharist.

In conclusion, there is a clear influence of the Byzantine tradition in the representation of the Virgin Mary in mosaics of Norman Palermo. In a formal aspect, the figures of the Virgin are clearly similar, usually dressed in a cloak that covers her entire body. Her face is also represented in a very similar way to the Byzantine virgin. In iconographic terms, we found in the mosaics of Palermo various models of virgin, such as Hodogetria or Theotokos, belonging to the Byzantine culture. However, while it is true that the representation largely follows the rules of decoration Byzantine church, one might conclude that this scheme is Byzantine in appearance only, since on many occasions was modified to serve as an expression of the own ideas of the rulers in Norman Sicily.

 

[1] M. Warner, Alone of all her sex. The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), p. xxv

[2] A. Due and Laboa, J. M. Atlas Histórico del Cristianismo (Madrid: Editorial San Pablo, 1998), p.74

[3] E. Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187) (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1990), p.xxii

[4] M. J. Johnson, ‘The Episcopal and Royal Views at Cefalù’ in Gesta, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1994), pp. 118-131

[5] E. Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187), p.20

[6] E. Kitzinger, ‘The Mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo: An Essay on the Choice and Arrangement of Subjects’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol.31 (1949), pp.269-292

[7] O. Demus, The mosaics of Norman Sicily (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1949), p.52

[8] Demus, The mosaics of Norman Sicily, p.53

[9] Warner, Alone of all her sex. The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, p. 83

[10] Warner, Alone of all her sex. The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, p. 89

[11] E. Kitzinger, The Mosaics of St. Mary’s of the Admiral in Palermo (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Studies, nº27, 1990), p.234

[12] Kitzinger, The Mosaics of St. Mary’s of the Admiral in Palermo, p.223

[13] G. Schiro, The Cathedral of Monreal. City of the Golden Temple (Palermo: Casa Editrice Mistretta, 2008), p.26

[14] Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187), p.53

[15] Museum with no Frontiers, Siculo-Norman art : Islamic culture in medieval Sicily (Vienna: Museum With No Frontiers, 2005), p. 59

[16] Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187), p.53

[17] Borsook, Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130-1187),

[18] J. Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (London: Yale University Press, 1993), p.267

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

– Beckwith, J. Early Christian and Byzantine Art (London: Yale University Press, 1993)

– Borsook, E. Messages in Mosaic: the royal programmes of Norman Sicily (1130- 1187) (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1990)

– Demus, O. The mosaics of Norman Sicily (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1949)

– Due, A. and Laboa, J. M. Atlas Histórico del Cristianismo (Madrid: Editorial San Pablo, 1998)

– Johnson, M. J. ‘The Episcopal and Royal Views at Cefalù’ in Gesta, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1994), pp. 118-131

– Kitzinger, E. The Mosaics of St. Mary’s of the Admiral in Palermo (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Studies, nº27, 1990)

– Kitzinger, E. ‘The Mosaics of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo: An Essay on the Choice and Arrangement of Subjects’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol.31 (1949), pp.269-292

– Museum with no Frontiers, Siculo-Norman art : Islamic culture in medieval Sicily (Vienna: Museum With No Frontiers, 2005)

– Schiro, G. The Cathedral of Monreal. City of the Golden Temple (Palermo: Casa Editrice Mistretta, 2008)

– Warner, M. Alone of all her sex. The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976)

 

 

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