This large semi-circular cape – a common form in the mediaeval period for ceremonial mantles – is one of a whole batch of luxurious clothes made between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries in Sicily by craftsmen of Arab origin. Some are dated.
Arriving in Germany by marriage or inheritance at the very beginning of the thirteenth century, they were very quickly used for the coronations of emperors of the Germanic Roman Holy Empire. Initially preserved in Aix-la-Chapelle (it is believed that the cape once belonged to Charlemagne), then, from 1424 to the end of the eighth century in Nuremburg, they finally entered the treasury of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1801.
The decoration of the back of the cape, in monumental mirror form, is in gold on a red background, detailed in red, light blue, yellow, dark brown or in reserve. It is entirely underlined with two rows of little pearls (several hundreds of thousands). Backing on to either side of a date-palm there are two couples of animals displaying the antique theme of the predator seizing its prey: a lion, with head proudly held high and tail curving up above its back to meet a half palm leaf, curves punctuated with rosettes broad-leaved foliage, crushing and holding a dromedary in it is powerful claws. If the different unrealistic details emphasising the anatomy of the animals were already common in the tenth century, others (lions claws, the hairs on the lips of the dromedary for example) are very realistic as well as the execution of volumes and the tension which emerges from the attack. While contemporary mantels offer repeated decorations on a small scale, this one, on the contrary was designed as a powerful symbol of the victory of the Norman Hauteville dynasty, whose emblem is a lion, over the Arabs.
Because of its date, the cape cannot have been used at the coronation of Roger II (1130). Perhaps it was created for a particular occasion? The upper border of the item (which appears on its front when it is worn) is embroidered with a frieze of quatrefoils furnished with a lily alternating with golden lozenges. Behind the head of the lions, two circular broaches in goldsmith’s art, decorated with star-shaped rosettes are at the centre of a quatrefoil enriched with gems set in the claws; with two small “rings” in gold encrusted with rubies set on either side of the collar, these would fasten the mantle.
The inside of the cape is lined with different bits of material with diverse techniques and decorations. Several are ornamented with snakelike dragons whose bodies knot to form openings which frame isolated characters, knights, animals and “candelabra” trees. The way in which these dragons are crafted, with heads which face or back onto each other, evokes the decorations sculpted in stucco and stone of several edifices, or painted on the ceramics of the Seljuq and Ayyubid eras. On one of these materials, large ribbons draw lozenge shaped frames and semi-lozenge shaped frames in degree which enclose trees with parallel branches, two of which are longer and finish in dragons heads (?) which stand up, with leaves that are all downturned displaying birds heads; in the lozenge shaped frames, this tree is flanked by two moving women. Similar decorations can be found on other textile attributed to Sicily and even evoke the glazed ornate cup of the “bird tree” at the Louvre.
This unique item of clothing, by the extraordinary finesse of its creation, its decoration and its inscription, perfectly illustrates the luxury of the court of Roger II and the successful symbiosis of the savoir-faire and decorative themes of the Islamic Orient and Christian Sicily.