The Mediterranean island of Sicily, the sea's largest island, has a complex and multi-layered medieval history that connects the distinctive Greek, Tunisian, Egyptian, Norman and Southern Italian decorative cultures, as well as the religions of Greek Orthodox, Catholicism and Islam. That all these elements came together to form a fascinating yet complex woven multi-culture, can be seen through a number of examples of architecture and the decorative arts.
The three examples of embroidery work shown in this article were produced for Christian church vestments in the 12th century. They were all hand worked in Sicily and therefore are an excellent illustration of some of the factors that were used and incorporated into medieval Sicilian textile work.
Sicily has always had strong connections with the Eastern Mediterranean. It was at one point part of the larger Ancient Greek world, where a number of important colonies were founded including Syracuse. However, at the same time, there were also Phoenician colonies on the island and it was Sicily's geographical closeness to the North African coast that inevitably led to its unique cultural heritage. As well as being both a part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire, it was also from the 9th century part of the Aghlabid Empire of North Africa and then that of the Fatimid of Egypt. It was invaded and occupied by the Normans in the late 11th century which abruptly brought an end to Islamic rule from North Africa.
It was the combination of the Greek culture of Byzantium and the Fatimid rule from Egypt that seems to have flavoured the decorative arts of Sicily during the earlier medieval period. Although Islamic rule was to last barely a century, much less than that of Islamic Spain, cultural ideas and pattern work are easily identifiable on the textile pieces shown in this article.
The griffin motifed embroidery produced in 1181, long after direct Islamic rule of the island had ended, still includes Islamic calligraphy at the bottom of the piece. Admittedly, there are a number of examples in Sicily during this period and after, whereby the calligraphy has become garbled and lost its grammatical meaning. The calligraphy was being used as both an intrinsic pattern effect and as a means of raising the status and standard of a textile piece by connecting it with Islamic culture, which was often defined in medieval Europe with luxury and excellence in craftsmanship. The facing griffons were widespread in the Islamic world and are said to have derived from pre-Islamic Sassanid Persia and therefore can trace their history back into the ancient world.