The complexity of the political, aesthetic and symbolic significance of the sacred architecture introduced by Norman rulers in Sicily remains largely unresolved, although it is often considered an intriguing mélange of discordant parts assembled from Western medieval, Byzantine and Islamic architectural traditions.
This paper focuses on the relationships between political patronage and symbolic meanings of the architectural aesthetics introduced by the Norman conquerors, shedding light on their quest for a new and recognizable spiritual identity within the context of their military conquest of Sicily. This tension between quest and conquest may explain why Sicily’s new rulers were interested in inventing a visual tradition of the sacred buildings comprehensible to their subjects, both the traditionally established Muslims and Orthodox Christians, and the incoming Western Christians.
In particular, the analysis of the features of the so-called ‘domed basilicas’, or ‘basilian churches’, helps us understand the motivations, attitudes and aspirations of that new regime, whose efforts became particularly apparent within the Val Demòne, a rural area in North-Eastern Sicily previously held by the Arabs, in the period stretching from 1091 to 1130 during the comital reigns of Roger I de Hauteville and his son Roger II. I discuss the significance of visual evidence gleaned from field work conducted on the site of five surviving churches within that area: S. Filippo di Fragalà at Frazzanò, S. Maria at Mili San Pietro, SS. Pietro e Paolo at Itàla, S. Alfio at San Fratello, and SS. Pietro e Paolo d’Agrò near Casalvecchio Siculo.
When Roger II became King of Sicily in 1130, he supported the construction of more magnificent sacred buildings such as the Cefalù cathedral (1131) and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo (1132), whose political and symbolic value may be better appreciated in the wake of the tension between quest for identity and military conquest, as is apparent from an examination of the earlier and humbler ‘domed basilicas’.