Kapitaikin, Lev, The twelfth-century paintings of the ceilings of the Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Thèse de doctorat soutenue en 2011, (dir. J. Johns, University of Oxford)
The three ‘Islamic’ ceilings of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily, were commissioned by king Roger II around 1143. The grandiose muqarnas (stalactite) ceiling of the nave and the two smaller ceilings of the two aisles were just one part of the opulent, multifaceted decoration of the royal chapel, that included also Byzantine mosaics with Christian scenes and Southern-Italian marble pavements and revetments. As with other medieval chapels of palaces, the Cappella Palatina served concomitantly as a royal audience hall, a thing evidenced by the great throne platform at its west end. The paintings of the three ceilings present ‘Islamic’ figural and ornamental decoration and Arabic inscriptions, the salient subject-matter of which is the Islamic royal banquet, the majlis, centered upon the king. The study presents new stylistic and iconographic evidence to show that the painters of the ceilings came mainly from Fatimid Egypt, and that the paintings could reflect also some impact of the Christian arts of that country, if not the actual participation of Coptic artists in their production. Despite the predominantly Islamic subject-matter of the paintings, their imagery was simultaneously enriched with Christian themes, the models for which were likely provided by Romanesque, Middle-Byzantine, and – to a lesser extent – Coptic artwork. Far from being an alien ‘Oriental’ element incorporated into the otherwise Christian chapel, the designer/s of the chapel actually sought to manipulate the Islamic princely imagery of the ceilings through the insertion of Christian ‘triumphal’ themes and a few crosses in the paintings. The Christian scenes were, moreover, placed in focal programmatic points at the ceilings, and associated spatially with ceremonial and-liturgical features of the chapel, namely: the royal throne platform at the west end, and the entrance to the sanctuary at the east. The ‘Islamicate’ – rather than Islamic – ceilings and their imagery were thus adapted to the Christian setting within the palatine chapel of the Norman monarchs.