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.
The two other embroidery pieces which come in the form of borders for church vestments, take the traditional Greek palmette motif as their mainstay. The palmette could well have come directly from the strong Byzantine influence on the island which had been an integral province of the Byzantine Empire before the Islamic invasion, or could well have come to the island indirectly through the influence that Byzantine pattern work had on the Islamic craft workers of Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Either way the palmette traces its history back to the ancient Greek and then Roman decorative arts.
Added to this complexity are the Normans who settled on the island in the later 11th century and influenced the textile craftsmanship of the island by importing Greek textile craft workers, mostly weavers and embroiderers, from mainland Greece to Sicily. These workers although not part of the islands decorative arts culture until the 12th century, no doubt still laid another layer of interpretation on the already multi-layered island, by producing work that was strongly influenced by Byzantine examples.
It was perhaps this unique combination of the excellent quality and craftsmanship of Greek and Islamic textile work that gave Sicily the reputation of high status textile hand crafted work that made its unique output sought and coveted across Europe.
Important, yet often geographical small regions such as Sicily which often lie between cultural, religious and politically divided areas of the world are often seen as cultural crossovers or even crossroads. Small regions whereby large mutually divergent and often hostile cultural traditions come together to form a unique blending, producing yet another hybrid culture. Although many of these unique cultural points are by their very nature tenuous and fragile and therefore relatively brief and short lived when seen in the context of the long history of humanity, they still nonetheless are relatively tranquil and sane points in human turbulent history. They can often point future generations towards seeing a more rational and harmonious approach to divergent approaches to the decorative and cultural arts if nothing else. They show us perhaps that there is little that separates us and much that unifies us.
Originally Published in the Textile Blog by John Hopper