Friday, April 30, 2010

Geometric Patterned Art at the Cappella Palatina in Sicily

Some readers will already be aware of the Christian tradition of geometric and patterned art. This was an adaptation of the patterned geometric art that we see in the pre-Christian classical period.

The study of the quadrivium four of the seven liberal arts (geometry, music, number and cosmology) is concerned with the study of cosmic order as a principle of beauty, and which is expressed mathematically. The patterns and rhythms of the liturgy of the Church reflect this order too. Christian geometric art is an abstract (in the sense of non-figurative) visual representation of number, consistent with Christian number symbolism. In a recent address, Pope Benedict XVI described how St Boethius worked to bring this aspect of Greco-Roman culture into a Christian form of education, by writing manuals on each of these disciplines.

This is not, to my knowledge a living tradition as a Christian art form. By the time of the Enlightenment it had died out (with a limited revival in Victorian neo-gothic architecture).

I recently taught a class about geometric patterned art at Thomas More College. in order to look at a living tradition we considered Islamic art. This art form was derived from the Byzantine patterned art of the lands they conquered (and of course the classical mosaics and other patterned art that preceded them). Because Islam was forbidden completely, in its strictest interpretation, from any figurative art, their focus on abstract art forms was intensified. Islamic craftsmen took what they had taken from the Byzantine craftsmen and developed it into something more complex than had previously existed.

The question the class was considering was: can we safely take it back? That is, in order to reestablish this as a Christian form, can we look to the Islamic art form, which is a living tradition, and create a Christian tradition out of it? It would make it easier if we could: there are schools that teach it in its Islamic form, for example, the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. And I have been able to get hold of textbooks that explain how to draw the tiled patterns of the great mosques of the world but no equivalent for patterned Romanesque art.

I was pleased that in response my class said, yes. (Teachers are always pleased when their class gives the right answer!) They understood further that while we can adopt some of the forms, we don’t have to adopt the Islamic numerical symbolism as well. Islamic number symbolism is similar, but crucially different from the Christian symbolism. (The number three and the Trinity come to mind immediately.) That is, it is always important to make sure that due proportion is used – that the number symbolism contained within the symmetry of the pattern is appropriate to the place where it was used, when understood in Christian terms.

We are learning to draw some Islamic patterns at the moment, so I suggested to them that they consider how to incorporate them into a pattern, or combinations, that could be used in the floor of the sanctuary of a church. We’ll see what they come up with!

Perhaps the next day I stumbled across this website, which is a great resource of images of mosaics and opus sectile work. Its gallery ranges from the floors in the offices of a Victorian architect in Norwich to Roman villas and the great churches of the world. The section on Sicilian mosaics has 80 photographs of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. This revealed that precisely what my class was proposing had been done by the Norman king, Roger II of Sicily when he built his private chapel in the 12th century. He employed not only Christian mosaicists and Cosmati pavement specialists who produced geometric art in the Christian tradition, but also Islamic craftsmen. The ceiling is the pattern that is most obviously, to me at any rate, taken from a pattern also seen in mosques. for the most part, however, there is such harmony between the presentation Romanesque, Byzantine and Islamic influences they all seem consistent with a single expression.

This, in my opinion, is an incorporation of Islamic form which has been carried out with the appropriate level of discernment. It is a model, I suggest, along with a number of other churches built around that time in Sicily, such as the cathedral a Monreale near Palermo, that would be well worth further study. I hope any architects reading this might consider commissioning something like this in any churches they are designing. I have included some photographs below of patterns from the chapel and from the cathedral at Monreale.

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Islamic from the Alhambra, Granada


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The floor at the Capella:

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The floor pattern at Monreale

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