A Sicilian proverb says, “He who goes to Palermo without seeing Monreale leaves a donkey and comes back an ass.”Our sole opportunity to see Monreale Cathedral was Easter Sunday, April Fool’s Day the year we were in Sicily. Crowds! But how could we not make the effort to see this masterpiece of Norman ambition and Islamic architecture? To see the well-preserved Byzantine mosaics—a storybook of biblical scenes, hundreds of thousands of glass tesserae richly ornamented with 2,200 kilograms of pure gold (worth US$150 million today!) covering practically every inch of the cathedral’s vast interior, unequalled in any other church in the world.
Magellan and I waited until late afternoon to visit the cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage site inscribed in 2015.
Fascinated by the why, I wondered: why was it built, here in the countryside, almost a thousand years ago?
Like many great cathedrals, Monreale has humble origins, a monastery.
When the Arabs took control of Sicily in 831, they banished the Bishop of Palermo. It became a small hamlet where farmers brought their produce to be delivered to Palermo.
In 1072, the Normans, Christian Vikings from France, took over the island of Sicily. The third Norman king died when his son William was only a kid, 13 years old. Until the young prince was crowned when he turned eighteen in 1172, the kingdom was controlled by the royal chancellor and the Archbishop of Palermo, the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan city in Europe after Constantinople. (I tell you this because some say young King William II built the cathedral to firmly establish himself as sovereign over those who had accumulated excessive power in the interim before his reign. In the cathedral’s most iconic mosaic, he is shown being crowned by Christ, a heavenly representation rare for living monarchs.)
Others say that William II built the cathedral to commemorate the exiled bishop and consolidate the power of Catholicism by building a new and bigger cathedral here, not in Palermo.
Family dynamics? There’s also speculation he was trying to outdo his grandfather who built the Cathedral of Cefalù and Palermo’s Palatine Chapel. (The mosaics of Monreale are far more extensive than those of Cefalù and while those in Palermo’s are equally crafted, the Palatine Chapel is quite small.)
Or, as some historians state, did the bishop of Palermo order the build?
Legend also has it that William II fell asleep under a carob tree and envisioned the Virgin Mary instructing him to build a church in a spot where his father had buried a considerable treasure.There he found gold coins and used them to finance the construction.
Because the young king also took the Arab title of a caliph, calling himself al-Musta’izz bi-llah (He Who Seeks Exaltation in God), others say he built it to demonstrate his appreciation of North African and Middle Eastern culture and art. (He had many Muslim ministers, astrologers and doctors in his court, kept a harem in his palace and could speak, read and write Arabic.)
William II’s cathedral was built by Sicilian craftsmen, including Arabs and Greeks, along with artisans from Puglia, Tuscany and Provence and specialists in mosaics from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.
Built on the brow of a hilltop, the cathedral’s asymmetrical, twin-towered façade doesn’t look like much, a stark contrast to the most extensive mosaics in the Christian world within. Its construction took only four years, but the mosaics and cloister occupied workers for another six. A royal palace flanking the north transept came later. King William II died in 1189 at the age of only 36, much-mourned, his masterpiece complete.
Officially called Santa Maria la Nuova, the cathedral, monastery and medieval village that sprang up alongside it came to be known as Monreale, from the Latin Mons regalis (mountain worthy of the king).
Our wait to enter wasn’t long; by the time we arrived, the tour buses had left, many Sicilians had headed home for their traditional Easter dinner: lamb with potatoes and vegetables, preceded by pasta and ending with cassata, coffee and Moscato di Pantelleria. A few hundred of us had the place to ourselves.
Except for the mosaics, we’re not going to tell you a lot about the confluence of styles in the cathedral’s vast interior, 100 meters long and 40 meters wide.
A Latin cross with three naves is divided by eighteen marble columns (gifted by the pope and shipped from Rome), each decorated with different capitals. Lofty, wooden ceilings express the Arab penchant for purity of volume. Gilded rafters resemble the spines of expensively bound books. Lancet arches leap from column to column, drawing the eye to the window-punctured clerestory and swirling golden mosaics. The dazzling beauty culminates at the eastern end in the triple-apsed Byzantine choir with a mosaic (thirteen metres wide and seven metres high) of Christ Pantocrator in the half-dome above the main apse.
Mary Taylor Simeti describes the unknown architect:
…the mysterious, anonymous mastermind whom art historians postulate, a man well enough versed in local traditions to incorporate specifically Sicilian elements into the strict canons of Byzantine iconography, and yet worldly enough to succeed in blending east and west, present and past, in a perfectly connected entity. A visionary genius capable of conceiving the whole, yet pragmatic enough to harness toward its realization the differing creative energies that the scholars can distinguish at work in the decorations.
Exquisite twelfth-century mosaics on shimmering golden tiles, a storybook of 130 biblical scenes—that’s what we loved most about Monreale. The serpent tempting Adam and a cranky-looking Eve. Noah coaxing anxious-looking animals onto his ark. Angels climbing Jacob’s ladder. Deciding where to point our cameras was a bit overwhelming—the voluptuous mosaics cover an area equivalent to 90% of a soccer field!
The artistry in the cloister of the Benedictine monastery, which we visited the next day, is almost as spectacular as the mosaics.
Twenty-six arches on each of the four sides open onto the luxuriant garden. Each arch is supported by double Romanesque capitals atop 228 Moorish columns. Some columns are smooth, some are inlaid with stripes and swirls of polychrome mosaic inlays, each one unique with imaginative detailing of whimsical animals, human figures, mythical beasts and biblical themes. They were created by five masterful artists from Provence. The Master of the Eagles filled 44 capitals with winged creatures. The Master of the Dedication created the Annunciation scene and the capital portraying William II offering the Madonna a replica of the church. By 1176 enough of the monastery was ready to house a hundred monks brought in from Cava, near Salerno, Italy.
When starting to plan our trip to Sicily, I told Magellan I didn’t want to go at Easter when it would be crowded with religious celebrations. A week or so later, I said I wanted to go at Easter to witness the pageantry. You could see Monreale Cathedral at any time of the year. But to enjoy William the Good’s multicultural masterpiece on one of the most significant holidays of the year in the company of others from around the world who appeared to be equally jubilant about the experience was storybook perfect. According to the Sicilian proverb we’re not donkeys. But we’re still braying about those mosaics.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. “Monreale cathedral: why Sicily’s ‘multicultural masterpiece’ is a lesson for our times”. Christies, July 22, 2019.
Simeti, Mary Taylor. “Monreale’s Medieval Splendor”. The New York Times. October 23, 1994.