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By Edward Bleiberg

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The cathedral of Monreale on the Italian island of Sicily, the Norman buildings of Sicily serve as a reminder that architecture is a language of communication whose vocabulary is often tailored to local circumstances. Thus, rather than erasing all signs of the past, the Palatine Chapel, built and decorated by King Roger II between 1132 and 1189, recasts the traditional basilican structure in forms absorbed from the conquered Byzantines and Muslims. The alternating smooth and fluted columns, the dome that rises over the crossing, as well as the glittering gold-ground mosaics are Byzantine in style; the pointed arches and elaborately faceted stalactite ceiling draw upon Muslim architecture.

As the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury noted in his Deeds of the English Kings, “You may see everywhere churches … [and] monasteries rising in a new style of architecture; and with new 16 BETTMANN/CORBIS. ” The ambitions of the new regime were apparent immediately in the projects launched by the conqueror and his ecclesiastical entourage, including Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury, and Walkelin, bishop of Winchester. If the recent Norman plans of Rouen Cathedral or Saint-Etienne at Caen guided design at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Durham, or Lincoln, the conscious desire to evoke Rome and rival the architecture of the Continent lies behind Arts and Humanities Through the Eras: Medieval Europe (814–1450) Architecture and Design Choir with roof vaulting, stalls, and woodwork of Winchester Cathedral, England, eleventh century.

Roman city gates, it should be remembered, had included towers and upper chambers used in imperial ceremonies. At the Abbey of Lorsch in Germany, a freestanding triple-arch gateway that probably “copied” the Arch of Constantine in Rome coupled with the church’s westwork behind to create a spectacular entry sequence. The tower, like the inventive mix of Roman and medieval forms of Carolingian architecture in general, resonated on multiple levels as it invested the church with the aura of imperial power, triumphal authority, and transcendental spirituality.

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