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Detail of the incredible roof of Monreale cathedral.

Infos from "Best of Sicily.com":

"Monreale, from "Mons Regalis" (Royal Mountain), is a town of some 25,000 residents located on the slope of Mount Caputo (764 Meters) about 7 kilometers south of Palermo's center. Monreale overlooks the "Conca d'Oro," the beautiful valley beyond Palermo, and the town itself is situated at an altitude of roughly 300 Meters above sea level. No trip to Palermo is truly complete without a visit to Monreale.

Monreale is world-renowned for its cathedral, a dazzling mixture of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles framed by traditional Romanesque architecture, all combined in a perfect blend of the best that both the Christian and Muslim worlds of the 12th century had to offer. to view some elements of Sicilian church architecture. The beautiful mosaics in Monreale Cathedral are said to be one of the world's largest displays of this art, surpassed only by Istanbul's famous Basilica of Saint Sofia, once an Orthodox church. (Unfortunately, many of those beautiful mosaics were destroyed when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.) Monreale's mosaics emblazon 6,340 square meters of the duomo's interior surface, more than those of the splendid church of Saint Mark in Venice.

The mosaics of "Santa Maria la Nuova," the official name of Monreale Cathedral, are far more extensive than those of the cathedral of Cefalù, and while the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo's Norman Palace are of equally exquisite craftsmanship, the latter convey the sense of an elaborate work of art stuffed into a tiny house. In contrast, the mosaics of Monreale's duomo are grandiose, covering practically every inch of the vast interior.

The splendid cloister of the Benedictine abbey alone would make Monreale famous. Located next to the cathedral, these 228 columns, some with mosaic inlay, each with a meticulously stone carved capital, enclose the gardens of the cloister. The capitals themselves depict scenes in Sicily's Norman history, complete with knights and kings. The style of the Norman knight figures evokes that of the knights depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry, a chronicle of the Battle of Hastings. Historians have determined the date of the introduction of heraldry (coats of arms) in Sicily by the shields of the Monreale knight figures, which lack any heraldic decoration.

The history of Monreale can be summed up in the name of one man: King William II "The Good." The last of the Norman Kings of Sicily was the grandson of the illustrious Roger II. Prior to the construction of Santa Maria la Nuova, it is believed Monreale was a tiny Saracen hamlet named "Ba'lat," where local farmer's would gather to cart their produce to the market, or "souk," down in Palermo. That outdoor market still exists to this day and is known as Ballarò. It is possible that Ballarò's name derives from an Arabic phrase meaning "Ba'lat Market."

During the Norman dominion, Ba'lat, soon to be renamed Monreale, became a favorite hunting ground of the Hauteville monarchs. In those days, deer, boar and wild cats still roamed Sicily, where there were more forests than today, and falconry was popular among the aristocracy.

Walter of the Mill, the English bishop of Palermo, was the head of faction of nobles who sought to influence and control the young king into granting them more power and lands. This faction also wanted to lessen the power and number of the many Muslim ministers and functionaries in William's court. Walter had been William's tutor when the king was a child and during his mother's regency. William was just 13 years old when his father, William I, died in 1166, and until he reached his majority in 1171 he was subject to the regency of his mother, Margaret of Navarre. However, the kingdom was actually controlled by Matthew d'Ajello, the royal vice-chancellor, and Walter, the bishop of Palermo, the latter having attempted to exert undue influence on the William as his tutor. The young sovereign wished to demonstrate his independence through the construction of a grand cathedral.

The first of King William's objectives was to establish himself firmly as sovereign. William had only been crowned in 1171 when he turned eighteen; he was 21 when the construction of the cathedral was begun. The second reason King William wanted the cathedral built was to impress on his subjects, especially the Muslims, the power and riches of his monarchy. William II wanted to inculcate the sense of rule by divine right upon his subjects, thus the cathedral's mosaic of Christ crowning William king.

Many Muslims from Palermo had fled to the hill country surrounding the capital after a rebellion against William's father in 1161. Led by Matthew Bonello, the Norman-Sicilian nobility had begun to support an anti-Arab policy, leaving the Saracens to establish themselves in easily-fortified towns such as San Giuseppe Jato, Corleone and Cinisi, though they were nominally loyal to King William. The site of the duomo and the Benedictine monastery attached to it was strategically well-placed for controlling the passes that served as the gateway to these communities. The nearby castle of Castellaccio bolstered this military strategy. Though little of the monastery except the cloister has survived to the present, the monastery of Monreale originally boasted twelve embattled towers and thick walls, features that would have allowed the structure to be rapidly transformed into fortress if need be. A few of the towers are still visible. The Arabs did eventually rebel, after King William's death, in reaction to the mistreatment and excessive taxation imposed upon them by the Abbot of Monreale, under whose feudal they had been placed by William II and the Pope. Monreale Cathedral itself was attacked by the Muslims on several occasions, the worst attack occurring in 1216. However, the "rebellions" were never a serious threat to the Christian rule of Sicily. In 1246, Frederick II Hohenstaufen dispatched a large army from Palermo to put an end to this once and for all. Frederick's army captured Corleone and besieged the Saracen castle at San Giuseppe Jato for nearly two years until it yielded, when it was razed.

Another reason for William II's construction of the cathedral was his desire to establish the Roman Catholic Church, known as the "Latin" church in those days, as the official Church of Sicily. There were still many Orthodox Christians and Muslims in 12th century Sicily. Although Orthodoxy was permitted and Islam tolerated, King William embraced Papal authority.

Pope Alexander III granted the Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery episcopal privileges in 1174, and elevated Bishop Teobald to the rank of archbishop in 1183. The installment of a bishop in Monreale who owed his position both to the Pope and King William II, and who, as an outsider, had no stake in local politics, neatly accomplished the Pope's political purposes.

Work on the cathedral was started in 1174. In 1177, at the age of 24, King William married Joan, daughter of King Henry II of England. The wedding made William the brother-in-law of two other noted English monarchs, Richard I "The Lionheart" and John "Lackland, Joan's brothers and Henry's sons. In 1170, William's father-in-law had instigated the murder of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Canonized in 1173, Saint Thomas Becket is depicted in a mosaic icon of the cathedral's main apse near the altar. This is believed to be the first public work of art honoring the English saint.

Though William II wanted his realm to be a Catholic one, he engaged in some practices somewhat unusual for a Christian monarch of the Middle Ages. Not only did he have many Muslim ministers, astrologers and doctors in his court, William is said to have kept a harem in his palace, and to have spoken, read and written Arabic. Most of the major work on the Monreale Cathedral was finished before William II's death at 36 in 1189.

Externally, most of Monreale Cathedral is not particularly striking. Its front facade faces west, looking onto Piazza Guglielmo. Two massive square bell towers flank the main church entrance. The portico is not an original part of the structure. The sides of the cathedral are approximately 105 meters long. From Via Arcivescovado, a street behind the cathedral, can be seen the intricate stonework of the apse.

The cathedral's two main doors are outstanding. The double doors are made of bronze, signed and dated by their maker, Bonanno of Pisa who completed this masterpiece, distinctively Romanesque, in 1186. The portals are divided into 42 panels. Bas relief panels which depict various scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and are only opened for weddings held in the cathedral and other festive and ceremonial occasions. The side portal was also built in 1186, by the artist Barisano da Trani. This door, also of bronze, has 28 panels on which are carved various religious figures amidst floral and other symbolic motifs. The door frame itself is a very Arabic and dazzling mosaic of geometric patterns.

The floor plan of the cathedral combines elements of both a traditional Western (Latin) basilica and an Eastern (Orthodox) one. The combination of Greek and Latin elements is a distinct feature of Norman architecture in Italy.

The cathedral has a wide central nave and two smaller aisles or naves, one on each side of the main nave. Nine monolithic columns of gray granite support the eight Arabic-style pointed arches on each side of the central nave, for a total of 18 columns, each column having a Corinthian style capital. Each individual capital is sculpted with a different motif featuring religious figures and symbols. Only one of the 18 columns is not made of gray granite, the first column on the right of the front entrance, which is made of "Cipollina" marble. The roof of the cathedral is made of wood, meticulously carved and painted, and its style shows a strong Saracen influence. The present roof is a restored reproduction dating from 1811, when the original roof was severely damaged in a fire. However the current roof is as faithful a reproduction as possible, some scholar scholars maintain it is virtually identical to the original roof. The floor of the church is composed of white Taormina marble with multi-colored granite and porphyry patterns and borders. It was laid out between 1561-1569 by the Palermitan craftsman, Baldassare Massa.

The dazzling mosaics in the interior of Monreale Cathedral are what make the church world-famous. Their splendid and delicate beauty creates an atmosphere of indescribable tranquility, solemnity and awe. The mosaics cover practically all the surfaces of the cathedral's walls, excepting the ground level, up to a height of two meters, where the walls are finished in white marble bordered with inlaid polychrome decorations.

All of the duomo's mosaic figures (most are icons) are placed upon a background of gold mosaic "tesserae" (tiles). The interior of the church is about 100 meters long by 40 meters wide. There are a total of 130 individual mosaic scenes depicting biblical and other religious events. The Old Testament is portrayed upon the walls of the central nave, starting from the Creation and ending with Jacob's Fight with the Angel. The mosaics on the side aisles illustrate the major events of the life of Jesus, from His birth to the Crucifixion, and include a cycle which portrays the miracles worked by Christ. Most of the mosaics are accompanied by written inscriptions in Latin or Greek.

The masterpiece and key representation of the whole cycle is the domineeringly majestic Christ Pantocrator (All Powerful) located on the central apse over the main altar. The entire image is 13 meters across and seven meters high. Beneath the stupendous portrait of Jesus is a mosaic of the Mother of God enthroned with the Christ child on her lap. This depiction is flanked by mosaics of the angels and various saints and apostles. There are mosaics of various other saints and scenes from the Gospels all about the transept area, including the previously-mentioned tribute to Saint Thomas Becket. Two noteworthy mosaics are located on the sides of the presbytery, over the Royal and Episcopal thrones. The one over the Royal throne shows Christ crowning William II. It is similar to the icon in the Martorana (in Palermo) showing Roger II crowned by Christ. The mosaic over the Episcopal throne shows William II offering Monreale Cathedral to the blessed Virgin. Rarely in the West were living monarchs represented in a Heavenly setting in a public work of art.

Monreale Cathedral also houses several royal tombs. King William II's mortal remains rest in the white marble tomb dating from 1575. William's father, King William I "the Bad" lies in the reddish porphyry tomb which dates to the 12th century and is, presumably, his original tomb. William II's mother, Margaret of Navarre, is also interred at Monreale.

Except for some foundations and external walls, the cloister is the only part of the monastery that has survived intact to the present. It is laid out in a perfect square, measuring 47 by 47 meters on each side, consisting of a covered walkway encircling the square garden. The walk is buttressed by 104 pointed arches supported by 228 twin columns of white marble. The capitals of the columns are an amazing variety of meticulously sculpted refigurations of scenes from the Bible, lives of the Saints, Norman knights in action, gargoyles, and floral motifs.

The crowning glory of the cloister is the Arabic fountain in the southwest corner. The fountain is almost a mini-cloister within the cloister, surrounded by its own four-sided colonnade.

The "belvedere" is also worth visiting. Affording a panoramic view of Palermo, the Belvedere is reached through a courtyard near the cloister. The entrance to the Antevilla and the Belvedere is located at the southwest corner of the piazza, passing through an archway. Proceed about twenty meters through this courtyard to another archway which brings you to the Belvedere and its spectacular view of Palermo and the Conca d'Oro, the valley below Monreale. There is also a small museum on the north side of the Belvedere, featuring works by contemporary Sicilian artists.

For Visitors: Monreale's cloister is open from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM Monday through Saturday, and from 9:00 to 12:30 on Sundays year-round. Afternoon schedules can be a bit tricky; it is usually open from 3 PM to 7 PM every afternoon except Sunday, but these hours only apply during the tourist season from April to October. We suggest you visit the cloister in the morning. Monreale is also known for its craft and artisan shops, specializing in ceramics and mosaics ranging in style from medieval to Baroque to folk to modern. Monreale boasts the island's best mosaic galleries. Two of these are found on Via Arcivescovado in back of the cathedral. Other noteworthy artisan shops will be found on Via Ritiro and the nearby streets.

Driving to Monreale is not advised because you're not likely to find a parking space in the town. However, Monreale, which is actually on the edge of the city of Palermo, can easily be reached with the number 389 bus departing from Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo. The bus proceeds along Corso Calatafimi, one of Palermo's main thoroughfares, and takes about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic, to arrive at Monreale. The bus drops you off in the piazza right by the side of the cathedral. A taxi will co cost you about Lit. 30,000 from the center of Palermo. Keep in mind that finding a taxi to take you back down to Palermo may not be very easy."

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Additional Photos by Giorgio Mercuri (giorgimer) Gold Star Critiquer/Silver Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 3442 W: 12 N: 2249] (34800)
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