The semicircular mantle of red samite (incised silk) is decorated with elaborate gold embroidery depicting at its centre a palm-tree (= Tree of Life). Symmetrically on each side is a lion (the two are mirror images) defeating a camel, which has saddle and bridle and has thus been domesticated. In this ancient oriental motif the bodies of both animals are depicted two-dimensionally, and the composition perfectly fits the semicircular shape of the mantle. The internal features are ornamental, filling the animals’ bodies with stripes, rosettes and tendrils. The contours of the motifs are set off by double rows of pearls and were originally additionally emphasised by stem-stitching in dark-blue silk threads, most of which have now fallen out.
Along the straight side of the semicircle, the mantle is edged with a border of pearls and gold embroidery and set with 31 small enamel plaques. The cloisonné enamelling, which reflects the influence of Byzantium, is purely ornamental apart from two plaques that depict a stylised hare and a lion, respectively. The semicircular edge of the mantle is decorated with a gold-embroidered Kufic inscription, which is read from right to left and reveals the year the mantle was made: “This mantle was worked in the most magnificent royal clothing workshop and is connected with the desire for fortune, respect, splendour, perfection, might, superiority, approval, prosperity, magnanimity, beauty, the fulfilment of all desires and hopes, felicitous days and nights without cease or change, with authority, with honour and felicity, assurances of trust, reverent care, protection, good destiny, freedom from harm, triumph and livelihood in the (capital) city of Sicily in the year 528.” The Islamic Hegira date corresponds to the Christian
year 1133/34. Thus the mantle was created during the reign of the Norman king Roger II. Since Roger had already been crowned king of Sicily in 1130, however, this cannot be his coronation mantle. The mantle was part of the treasure of the Norman kings and passed by inheritance to the House of Hohenstaufen. Following the coronation of Emperor Frederick II in Rome in 1220, the robes must have become part of the imperial treasure.
The motifs of the mantle may contain an allegory on the politicalsituation in Sicily. In this case, the camel, which comes from North Africa, could be seen as a symbol of the Arabs, while the lion – generally a sign of the ruler and at the same time the heraldic beast of the House of Hauteville, from which Roger came – could stand for the Normans. The triumph of the lion over the camel would thus be a demonstration of the power of the Normans over the Arabs. The two large golden appliqués above the lions’ heads, on the other hand, have a cosmological interpretation. Sapphires, garnets and glass stones enclose in a quatrefoil setting a slightly raised disc of cloisonné enamel. The geometric pattern consists of two squares that have been overlapped to create an eight-pointed star, enclosing a sun motif at the centre. In 2nd-century Iran, the world was already considered to be a square and the cosmos a cube. Thus the appliqué ornament should likely be interpreted as a symbol of the cosmos. In the same context, the embroidered rosettes on the head and paws of the lion may be interpreted as stars. They are probably part of an ancient tradition of cladding the ruler in a “celestial mantle”. © Masterpieces of the Secular Treasury, Edited by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna 2008