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Monreale's cathedral and abbey are good reminders that the beauty of a particularly splendid church transcends that of any single work of art, however noble. Overlooking Palermo, the town of Monreale, from the Latin "Mons Regalis" (literally 'Royal Mountain'), straddles a slope of Mount Caputo about eight kilometers south of Palermo's cathedral. Set at about three hundred metres above sea level, the town overlooks the "Conca d'Oro," as the valley beyond Palermo is known. No extended visit of Palermo is truly complete without a visit to Monreale. The cathedral and its cloister represent the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place. True, Palermo's cathedral is larger, but Monreale's exists in something far closer to its original twelfth-century state. This wondrous place is much more than "just another church." If your impression of the overused word multicultural is at all negative, the effect of Monreale Abbey will convert you to another way of thinking.
East meets West
The mosaics of "Santa Maria la Nuova" (Saint Mary the New), 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 leave many with the impression of a complex work of art in a restrictive space.
It is tempting to identify each element of the abbey complex with a specific culture and tradition, though in truth these overlap considerably. The mosaics are a strongly Byzantine element, while certain structural details, such as the geometric inlay of the apse exteriors, are Arab and actually Islamic. The cloister, on the other hand, reflects a mixture of influences.
Attached to the cathedral, the Benedictine cloister courtyard consists of 228 columns (paired, with four on each corner), some inlayed with Byzantine-style mosaic work, each supporting an ornately carved capital. 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 capitals strongly reflect the Provencal styles of the twelfth century, and at least three of what are thought to have been five master sculptors were probably from that region.
In the Norman era the area around Ba'lat, eventually 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 far more forests than today, and falconry was popular among the baronage. William's extensive royal hunting reserve extended across the valley to what is now Altofonte, and down the slopes of Mount Caputo toward Palermo (probably as far as the Royal Park or Genoard), perhaps encompassing some areas south of Monreale as well.
Walter "of the Mill" (actually "Offamilias" indicating his familial connection to Sicily's Hauteville kings), the English bishop of Palermo, was the head of a faction of nobles that sought to influence and persuade the young king into granting them more power. This faction also hoped to attenuate the power of 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'Aiello, the royal chancellor, and Walter, the bishop of Palermo --the latter having attempted to exert undue influence on William as his tutor. The young sovereign wished to demonstrate his independence through the construction of a grand cathedral. The Benedictines, already present in Sicily, readily obliged.
King William's first objective was to establish himself firmly as sovereign. William had only been crowned in 1171 when he turned eighteen. Construction began in 1172. The superstructure took four years to build, reaching completion in 1176. Work on the mosaics and cloister was completed by the time of the young king's death in 1189.
Apart from demonstrating his true power to the Sicilian nobility, is possible that William wanted the cathedral to impress his subjects in an equal measure.
Many Muslims from Palermo had fled to the hill country surrounding the capital after a rebellion against William's father in 1161, and others already lived in towns in the region. Led by Matthew Bonellus, a vocal element of the Siculo-Norman nobility had begun to support an anti-Muslim policy, leaving the 'Saracens' to establish themselves in easily-fortified towns of the interior, though they were nominally loyal to William. Though Bonellus himself was eventually eliminated, the cathedral, actually fortified with embattled towers and slit-windows as if it were a fortress, was strategically important for guarding the passes that served as the gateway to these communities. The nearby hilltop castle of Castellaccio bolstered this military strategy.
Though little of the monastery except the cloister survives, the monastery of Monreale originally boasted twelve embattled towers and thick walls. 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 authority they had been placed by William II and the Pope. The cathedral itself was attacked by the Muslims on several occasions, the worst incident occurring in 1216 during the reign of Frederick II (Hohenstaufen). However, the "rebellions" were never a serious threat to the Norman, Swabian (and at all events Christian) rule of Sicily. In 1246, Frederick II dispatched a large army from Palermo to rein in what resistance remained, taking control of Corleone and San Giuseppe Jato.
Another reason for William'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 twelfth-century century Sicily, and a number of Jews. Although Orthodoxy was permitted and Islam tolerated, William embraced Papal authority. Thus, despite the mosaic icons which give it the appearance of an Orthodox basilica, Monreale was actually part of the 'Latinizing' of Sicily.
Pope Alexander III granted the abbot of the Benedictine monastery episcopal privileges in 1174, and elevated Teobald to the rank of archbishop in 1183. The installment of a bishop in Monreale who owed his position to pontiff and sovereign and who, as an outsider, had no stake in local politics, neatly accomplished the political purposes of both powers.
Building a dream
Though William sought to make his realm to be a European one, he engaged in certain 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. That work on the cathedral was completed before William's death (aged just 36) in 1189 was indeed a fortunate thing, for the period of quasi-anarchy which ensued as rival claimants sought the crown did not bode well for costly construction projects.
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 porticos are not original components of the structure. The sides of the cathedral are over a hundred metres long. From Via Arcivescovado, the street behind the cathedral, can be seen the complex geometric inlay of the apse --a kind of symmetry which reflects Muslim spirituality.
Framed by a typical medieval arch, the Romanesque bronze doors under the main (front) portico were manufactured in the workshops of Bonanno of Pisa in 1186. Constructed in the same year, the side doors were designed by Barisano of Trani set within a squared frame decorated in Arab mosaic. Each door features panels on which are carved various religious figures amidst floral and other symbolic motifs.
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 between two smaller aisles. Nine monolithic columns of gray granite support the eight pointed arches on each side of the central aisle, for a total of eighteen columns, each bearing a Corinthian style capital. Each individual capital is sculpted with a different motif featuring religious figures and symbols. Only one of the eighteen 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, carved and painted in great detail, and while its style shows a strong Saracen influence the present roof is, in fact, a restored reproduction dating from 1811 when the original roof was severely damaged by fire. The present roof is a faithful reproduction, very similar to the original. The sixteenth-century floor of the church is composed of white marble with multi-colored granite and porphyry patterns and borders.
Mosaic art and icons
All of the cathedral's mosaic figures (many are icons) are placed upon a background of gold mosaic "tesserae" (tiles). The interior of the church is about a hundred metres long by forty meters wide. There are a total of 130 individual mosaic scenes depicting biblical and other religious events. The Old Testament is depicted on 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 birth to crucifixion, and include a cycle illustrating the miracles worked. Many of the mosaics are accompanied by inscriptions in Latin or Greek.
Dominating everything is the imposing mosaic of Christ Pantocrator ("Ruler of All") located on the central apse over the main altar. The entire image is thirteen meters across and seven meters high. Beneath the stupendous portrait of Jesus is a mosaic of the Theotokos (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 numerous other saints and scenes from the Gospels all about the transept area, including the previously-mentioned icon of Saint Thomas Becket. Two noteworthy mosaics are located on the sides of the presbytery, over the royal and episcopal thrones. The one above the royal throne shows Christ crowning William II. It is patterned on 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 Virgin. In the West it was rare for living monarchs to be represented in a Heavenly setting in this manner.
Our printable Key to Monreale's Mosaics explains most of the principal mosaics of the nave, with notes on those of the apse and transepts.
Monreale Cathedral also houses several royal tombs. That of William II is a white marble work dating from the sixteenth century. William's father, King William I "the Bad" lies in the deep-red porphyry tomb which dates from the twelfth century and is, presumably, his original. William II's mother, Margaret of Navarre, is also interred at Monreale. Curiously, so is the heart of King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis). The royal cortege stopped here for a funeral en route to France following Louis' death during the Tunisian Crusade (in 1270) when his less-saintly younger brother, Charles of Anjou, was king of Naples and Sicily.
Perhaps the crowning glory of the cloister is the Arab fountain in the southwest corner. The fountain is almost a mini-cloister within the cloister, surrounded by its own four-sided colonnade. Longstanding tradition says that William, who had a small palace next to the cathedral, often washed his face in this fountain.
Our printable map of Monreale's cloister capitals describes the fascinating carvings of over thirty of the capitals.
The garden terrace or "belvedere" is also worth visiting. Affording a panoramic view of Palermo, it is reached through a courtyard near the cloister, in a corner of the square. Next door, the monastery galleries sometimes host interesting exhibits.
Crypt, Museum, Roof
For Visitors: Monreale's cloister is usually open from 9:00 AM to 6 PM Monday through Saturday, and from 9:00 to 12:30 on Sundays year-round, though afternoon schedules may vary. Monreale is also known for its craft and artisan shops, specializing in ceramic art and mosaics ranging in style from the Byzantine to the Baroque to folk and abstract. Monreale boasts some of 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.
Getting There: 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 follows Corso Calatafimi, one of Palermo's main streets, and takes about thirty minutes, depending on traffic, to arrive at Monreale, with its terminus in the square next to the cathedral. A taxi will co cost you about 30 euros from the centre of Palermo. Keep in mind that finding a taxi to take you back down to the city may not be very easy.
Its strategic position was intended to guard all the possible approaches to the city, either by land or by sea. This castle is one of a handful of medieval fortresses left standing in the immediate Palermo area, the others being the largely reconstructed Steri (in Piazza Marina in Palermo) and the ruins of Castello al Mare (near the Port of Palermo), neither of which retains much of its original form as Castellaccio. The fortress provides one of the most spectacular views of the area, so make sure you visit on a clear day if possible. The castle is well preserved owing to its rather remote location. The ride from Monreale takes about 15 minutes, and once you park on the side of the road (or in the small parking lot) you have to take a fairly demanding 20-minute hike up a winding path along the side of the mountain to reach the castle. This hike is never advised for any but the fit or stout-hearted. The castle itself is sometimes open during tourist season, with tours arranged by the Sicilian Alpine Club. (The club may make special arrangements for your visit, especially if you are part of a large group or organization.) The castle can be visited when it's closed, if you want to see the exterior and view the magnificent panorama. It's also a good place to have a picnic or to enjoy nature.
San Martino Abbey
Last revision June 2014.
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