The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

The Cappella Palatina muqarnas

EDIT: I’ve made some scans and have adjusted the images as best as possible. Wish I could have copied these in glorious color, but sometimes you have to work with what you can get.

On Thursday, I braved the holiday tourist crowds and took the train from Trenton to New York City. My destination: The Stephen A. Schwarzman building of the New York Public Library. My reason: The library had this set of books and they had kindly reserved them for me in the arts and architecture reading room.

One book of this four-volume set was my holy grail of Norman Sicily research. Before going to Sicily in November 2006, I had read several mentions of a fantastic wooden painted stalactite muqarnas ceiling in the Cappella Palatina of the Norman Palace – the ceiling allegedly had scores of Islamic paintings of courtiers, musicians, dancers, and drinkers, done in the 1130s-1140s. I could not WAIT to see this ceiling for myself, in real life. So, imagine my disappointment when we reached the Cappella Palatina with our tour group … to look up at the nave ceiling and see nothing but netting. Yes, the chapel was in the process of being restored and the ceiling was being worked on. The rest of our time in Palermo, I scoured stores trying to find a book of photographs of the chapel. I did find one book which had great photos of the mosaics, but just one small, rather blurry photo of the entire nave ceiling.

After getting home, I started to run down the references to the Cappella Palatina ceiling, and found that they led to one book published in 1950 by the Italian historian Ugo Monneret de Villard, “Le pitture musulmane al soffitto della Cappella Palatina in Palermo.” A search on Abebooks yielded one copy, for about $85, with shipping. I ordered it and waited (it was coming from Italy). Once it arrived, I was a little disappointed. It’s wonderful, but it’s in black and white, and contains only a small number of the paintings. Still, it was better than nothing.

Last year, there was news that the chapel restoration was finished and there would be a lavish four-volume edition by the Italian publisher Franco Cosimo Panini, and one of the books would contain full-color photos of the muqarnas alone. As you can see from the previous link, this would not be something I would be able to purchase, and I looked for a nearby university library that would allow me to access the books. The closest in distance to me is the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Not only would it cost me more than $200 a year for access to the books, it seemed that since the books arrived in the fall, they were nonstop checked out by professors and students in the university’s medieval studies department. Bless you, New York Public Library. Once I found out that they had the books, they reserved them for me. For free. I would just have to get my butt up to New York.

So, I did. And made a stack of photocopies as well.

What I found out:

Admittedly, I was a bit focused on the types of images I paid attention to. I was specifically looking at the ladies – the dancers and the musicians. And the new photos did not disappoint.

One of the seven musicians playing goblet drums that I found in the muquarnas images.

The musicians played a variety of instruments – ouds, rebabs, end-blown flutes, psalteries, tanburs, and drums. The most common type of drums portrayed, surprisingly, were small goblet drums, the head played with right hand while the left hand gripped the instrument at the bottom or the throat. Unlike a Persian tanbur, a Turkish darbuka, or an Egyptian doumbek, the drums were shaped symmetrically; the bottom was as large as the top, and the throat very small, with a molded ring around it. I counted seven representations of goblet drums, played by female and male musicians, as opposed to four paintings where the ladies were playing frame drums (two round and two square drums – no jingles on them, unlike riqs). Three ladies were playing wooden clappers – sticks held in the hands. One female and one male musician were playing oval drums that were held on the lap and struck with a stick held in one hand. There were absolutely NO portrayals of finger cymbals of any kind.

The dancers were a revelation. Some of them held short scarves in their hands; one had thick golden bangles on her wrists; some of them danced as they played their instruments. What I had thought, in this photo,  was a long single scarf whipping around her was actually the very long ends of her ‘isaba (head scarf), trailing from the large knot on the right side of her head. Most of the ladies, dancers and musicians, wore these very long ‘isabas wrapped around her takiya (also called taquiyah), a sort of bulbous head cap (more about the takiya can be found here, in the “First Encyclopedia of Islam: 1913 to 1936”).  The fringe of their hair could clearly be seen on their foreheads, peeking out from their headgear, as well as their curled side locks on their cheeks. Many of them had a dot between the brows, and three small dots low on the cheek. Some of the male musicians had them as well, as well as the male nadim, or drinking courtiers. I theorize this was makeup and tattoos (especially as the Berber ladies of North Africa tattooed their faces well into the early 20th century, and Sicily had a lively trade with Fatimid Egypt – which included slaves).

(You can see a color picture of the scarf dancer and some of the other figures, very briefly, in a photo montage, at the Fondazione Federico II Website.)

The ladies not wearing the ‘isaba/takiya/taquiyah head gear wear what look surprisingly like large crowns. They in fact bear a very strong resemblance to the Persian headgear worn by Duchess Roxane Farabi, but there is no center cap visible nor a spinel, and they seem to have the ends of a long scarf trailing from them. These may be the original form of the taj (crown) worn by traditional Tunisian brides and the headdresses worn by classical Andalusian musicians of Morocco, and probably derived from Persia.

The scarf dancer and her attending musicians. Note the taj-like headdresses the musicians are wearing.

The tunics were painted in shades of pale blue, pale green, red, and yellow. Some were plain, some were patterned, with with a floral scroll or geometric, regular designs (and in two cases with patterns representing large white daisies). Interestingly, the pants worn under the tunics do not seem to resemble the sirwals popular in the SCA, using Uncle Rashid’s pattern. For one thing, they seemed to scrunch at the ankle; admittedly this effect could be achieved if the pants were long and bunched up. The legs also seemed straighter, but again, the pattern can be modified to provide this effect

Fortunately for us, on page 526 of the volume, a woman is depicted with the front of her tunic hiked up at the center through her belt, clearly showing her drawers. These seem to have soft, loose legs, ending in the ankle scrunches. They are definitely not the crazy Michelin Man-pants worn by the 16th century Morisco women of Spain.”Our Lady of the Underpants” is flanked by two musicians,  a lady playing a fipple flute and another playing a goblet drum. Perhaps she is getting ready to cut a rug and needed to get her robe out of the way?

Thank you, “Our Lady of the Underpants,” for flashing your drawers at us. Generations of medieval Islamic costumers will be grateful. On a more serious note, check out the taj-like headdresses of her musician attendants.

Very few of the ladies seemed to wear any sort of belt – and the ones who did were musicians, not dancers. One seated musician has a golden belt with three golden balls hanging at the front. I have no idea how this belt was constructed, and the painting is not detailed enough to make a guess. The belt of “Our Lady of the Underpants” is a simple band.

Note this frame drummer’s instrument has a word in Arabic on its surface. If you can read it, please let me know what it says!

What does this all mean for my garb? It’s back to the drawing board for my ‘isaba. It will have to be a lot longer than I had originally thought, and the ends will have to be tapered. I will try using a soft, fine white silk – possibly silk broadcloth, if I can find it, but a heavier-weight habotai may have to do.

The blue silk tunic I constructed for Bhakail Yule and future events still needs its brocade hem. My red tunic with the golden dot pattern needs its shoulder/upper arm bands.

Most of all, I need proper pants. Next step – play with Master Rashid’s pattern.

Oh, and I need a proper taqiyah. My original cap pattern needs to be redrafted, yet again.

I have a lot of work in front of me.


12 responses »

  1. I can’t wait to see pics. My sirwal pattern can be easily adjusted to make the ankle scrunches… and partly it depends on the fabric choice. (really soft silk doesn’t want to do that) To get the scrunches you only need to make the legs a bit longer, there is some excess in the pattern already, so you don’t need to add much. But it’s also a matter of making them a bit narrower. When the bottom half is narrowed a little, what is baggy and poufy in the wider pants becomes ankle scrunches.

    There are also other patterns that can be adjust easily to scrunch in the same way. When I see pics I might be able to reccomend a pattern from Tilke that would work.

  2. The lady showing the sirwal photo is great. The pattern I use is Rahsid’s Pattern. What I like about his pattern is that it lends itself to alterations and adaptations for different body types to get the right look.

    The ladies in the Persian Taj-Kulah styled crowns, are also a fun find! Thank you so much for sharing! Cheers!!!

    • Thank you for clarifying for me what those crowns are called! I was staring at them so hard, wondering why in heck they looked so familiar, and remembered Duchess Roxane’s. And had an “A-ha!!!” moment. All I could remember was “taj.” Thanks again!

  3. Terrific web page! Thanks for posting all this really helpful info!

    As for the pants quandary, the pattern of Rashid’s that you reference is for shalvar, not sirwal. There is a difference.

    Shalvar are typical of Central Asian influenced garment systems – Persian and Ottoman, for example. They taper much from thigh to ankle. They can scrunch up a good deal at the ankles if the legs of the shalvar are made a certain amount longer than the legs of the wearer 🙂

    The garments you discuss here actually are sirwal. Sirwal are typical of Arabic influenced garment systems. They usually have more or less straight legs, although they might taper a little at the ankle. I think they will scrunch at the ankles better if they taper just a little, otherwise you could be tripping all over your pants legs.

    The pants in a shalwar-kamiz set are not like these – they are shalvar, after all, not sirwal. For an example of an historical sirwal pattern, i would suggest you look at Rashid’s pattern for Bishop Timotheos’s sirwal:
    and then adjust from there. My thighs are not as thin as the bishop’s so i definitely needed to create an altered version.

    • Thank you, Urtatim! I had completely forgotten about the Bishop Timotheos pattern. Though maybe I should play around with both, the shalvar and the sirwal, as there is a lot of Persian influence in the artwork, and Byzantine influence in clothing styles as well. It’s sort of like a cultural blender. Maybe the ladies had pants of both types.

      • Good point about the Timotheos pants.

        I tend to forget them since all I did was transcribe the pattern from an academic journal. I have never worked with them enough to figure out how to ideally proportion them based on different sizes. The couple pairs I made have not been satisfactory, they still need tweaking. I have a slightly greater than average turn-out and for some reason the pants “snag” on my knees when I walk, and I can tell they will wear out there first. I suspect that getting correct proportions between the width of pants (basically thigh measurement) and size of the crotch gusset is the issue, but I’m just guessing at this point.

  4. Reblogged this on The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife and commented:
    In the heart of Palermo, in the Norman Palace, the chapel was built by Muslim architects and craftsmen. Once the rulers of Sicily, they had become the conquered.
    So they built places for Christian worship with Christian images on the walls, but high on the ceiling, where nobody could see properly before zoom lenses were invented, they decorated the wooden beams as they wished. They painted belly dancers in transparent dresses, musicians playing drums and tambourines, black men and white men naked together, and men in turbans hunting on horseback.
    This post is by Adelisa Salernitana, a Sicilian American and expert on Sicilian history.

  5. I am a researcher in the art of painting Fatimid and I try to find samples of this drawing I read about the palace in Sicily and ceiling drawings, do you have pictures about these drawings and are many and can you provide me because the need is necessary in my research.

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