Monreale Cathedral

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October, 2017

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There are some cracking churches in Sicily so it takes something really special to top the list. The interior of Monreale cathedral does literally take your breath away.

Monreale is a small hill town a few miles to the south west of Palermo with views down to the Conca d’Oro Valley. After Palermo fell to the Arabs in 831, the Bishop of Palermo moved his seat out of the capital to a small church in a nearby village which later became Monreale. After the Normans arrived in 1072, the Bishopric moved back to Palermo. The Norman Kings used the area as their hunting grounds.

In 1174, William II commissioned the building of a church and monastery on top of the hill, which he intended to be the burial place of all future kings. He wanted it to outshine the Cappella Palatina in Palermo as well as the new “cathedral”: being there. He employed the best Arabic and Byzantine craftsmen to work on the building. On its completion in 1182, before Palermo Cathedral was completed, Pope Lucius III elevated the splendid church to the status of a metropolitan cathedral.

The outside of the cathedral is very plain with the north west tower never being completed, which does give the building a lop sided look. The portico was added in the C18th. The bronze west door set between highly carved pillars dates from 1189. The north door is slightly earlier and has images of saints and evangelists.

The cathedral is one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Sicily with its triple apses at the east end, covered with inlay and Arab style carving. The nave is very wide with grey marble columns with elaborately carved capitals and arches, separating the narrow side aisles. Above is a painted beamed ceiling.

The inside of the cathedral can be quite dark as the only light comes from the small windows in the side aisles and the high clerestory windows.

The Byzantine mosaics are among the most magnificent anywhere in the world and are made with an estimated 2200kg of pure gold and are breathtaking. They were completed between 1179-1182 by some of the finest Greek and Byzantine craftsmen. They cover the walls of the upper nave, side aisles transept and apse. Only the bottom of the side aisles are free of mosaics, being covered with marble panels separated by borders of gold inlay, reflecting the Arabic influence.

On entering the cathedral, eyes are immediately drawn to the glorious mosaic of Christ Pantocrator covering the dome of the apse. Beneath is the Virgin and Child surrounded by archangels and saints, including the recently martyred Thomas Beckett (who was murdered on the orders of William II’s father in law, Henry II of England).

Old Testament stories from the Book of Genesis are depicted on the walls of the nave, while scenes from the life of Christ adorn the aisles and transept. They repay studying for their attention to detail. There is a lovely mosaic of Adam and Eve after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden with Adam toiling while Eve sits and watches him.

In the south choir aisle are the two royal tombs with a porphyry tomb of William I and the carved Carrera marble tomb of William II. Looking down on them are mosaics of the Last Supper as well as Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

At the end of the south aisle is a small chapel dedicated to the Virgin complete with a splendid Baroque reredos.

There is a fee to access the sanctuary and high altar with the Treasury off the north choir aisle. Unfortunately the group didn’t have time to do this, as we had to fit in the “cloisters “: before heading back to the hotel.

There are lots more pictures “here.”:


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