With a splendid position high above the Conca d’Oro, the Monte Reale in Norman times was a royal hunting lodge and residence. It was not until William II decided to build the famous cathedral with a royal palace and monastery attached, that a town developed in its own right in the area. The city’s heart and soul is still represented by the area radiating from the cathedral. On the north side lies Piazza Vittorio Emanuele with its fine Fontana del Tritone. The main front, however, overlooks the smaller Piazza Guglielmo, that gives access both to the cloister and a small public garden (last doorway on the right facing the cloister entrance). Beyond a large courtyard is a fine garden with a magnificent view over the Conca d’Oro. The warren of streets around are all lined with charming cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops.
The Duomo is part of a magnificent complex that also comprises a Benedictine abbey and the royal palace, the latter converted into the Archbishop’s Seminary in the late-1500s. The construction was initiated by William II, Roger II’s grandson, around 1172. According to legend, the Virgin appeared to him in a dream to suggest that he build a church with money concealed by his father in a hiding place that she would reveal. The building had to be so grandiose as to rival the greatest cathedrals of most important cities in Europe and even outshine the beauty of the Palatin Chapel in Palermo built by Roger. The most high-skilled craftsmen came to be employed to work on the project, with no expense spared. To the north, the church was flanked by the royal palace and, to the south, by the Benedictine convent whose magnificent cloister can still be admired today.
Exterior – The church is the product of a blend of artistic styles by the craftsmen employed in the construction. The two massive towers on the façade are Norman; so are the apses – one tall flanked by two smaller ones –, the basilical plan and the Cathedral basic features. The apses’ decoration, that can be best admired from Via dell’Arcivescovado, is Moorish; along this same street, it is possible to make out the vestiges of the original royal palace now incorporated within the Archbishop’s palace. The apses are articulated with three tiers of intersecting blind arcading; the pointed arches, of varying height rise from tall bases through slender columns. The decoration effect is heightened by the use of two different kinds of stone (warm gold-coloured limestone and black lava) as the ribs enclose rectangles filled with miniature circular rose-windows traceried with kaleidoscopic star patterns. The same elements are repeated on the façade, although the full impact is marred somewhat by the portico that was rebuilt in the 18th century. This shelters the beautiful bronze portal designed in 1185 by Bonanno Pisano, an architect and sculptor responsible for Pisa’s Tower. It comprises 46 panels illustrating scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The surprisingly modern feel to this work is accomplished by an economical use of figures and a refined degree of stylisation. The two doors are hung within an elaborately moulded stone door frame in which panels of geometric motifs alternate with animals and human figures concealed among branching plant fronds in shallow relief and narrow streips of mosaic. Another bronze doorway by Barisano da Trani is on the western flnak beneath the 1500’s portico; this is comprised of panels representing three Biblical scenes and others from the lives of various Saints incorporated among a range of decorative elements; although only four years older in date, here the style is more firmly rooted in the Byzantine tradition.
Interior – Entrance from the west side. For a brief moment, the elaborate, mostly golden mantle of mosaics is spell-binding. Gradually the eye grows accustomed to the crowded mass of forms and gleaming designs, focusing on the internal space enclosed by the individual parts of the church. The wide nave is separated from the two smaller side-aisles by columns bearing splendid capitals, some Corinthian, others of a composite order with acanthus leaves below and portraits of Demeter and Persephone (Ceres and Proserpine) above. Between the capitals and the intrados are dosserets decorated with Moorish mosaics. Just beyond the half-way mark, a monumental Triumphal Arch precedes the spacious area contained by the transept and apses, that rise up and above the level of the nave and aisles. This section of the floor is of inlaid marble, as are the skirting and lower part of the walls, echoing Byzantine influences. The wooden ceiling above the choir was rebuilt in the 19th century.
The church contains the tombs of William I and William II, and enclosed within an altar, the heart of Louis IX, King of France who died in Tunis in 1270, when his brother Charles I ruled Sicily. The Cappella del Crocifisso features an elaborated marble baroque decoration, with a profusion of inlay work, shallow and high-relief carving, statues, and volutes. The wooden Crucifix is from the 15th century. The treasury, set to one side, houses various reliquaries and cult objects. Below the arch across the far side of the transept, sit two thrones with mosaic scenes above; the right one above the archbishop’s throne shows William II’s symbolic tribute to the church (the king offers a model of the cathedral up to the Madonna); on the left, the royal throne stands as confirmation of the Divine Protection conferred upon the king (Christ Himself crowns William). This latter panel depicts two lions facing each other (Eastern in derivation) in the tympanum; these symbols of Norman power also feature on the armrest of the royal throne.
Mosaics – Against a gold background, the characters of the Bible re-enact their stories. The colours are not as bright as those of the contemporary mosaics in the Palatine Chapel, but the figures seem more expressive. They were completed between the late-1100s and early-1200s century by craftsmen from Venice and Sicily. The composition and their features, and the symbols used are often the same as those used in the Palatine Chapel. Their arrangement follow a precise programme in accordance with recommendations laid down under the papacy of Adrian I during the Seventh General Council at the second Council on Nicaea, that was convened so as to end the Iconoclastic Controversy (787). This specified that art should be an instrument of religion and serve to educate the faithful in the teachings of the Christian Church. The mosaic tell the story of Divine Redemption, beginning with the Creation of the Earth and Man, who by committing the act of Original Sin was forced thenceforth to toil and expiation, until God intervened by choosing the people that He will prepare for salvation (nave). The sending of Christ His own Son, represents the realisation of redemption through the sacrifice of His life (transept) and works (aisles). Christ’s mission is then continued with the Foundation of the Church and the example given by those men that followed in His example (smaller apses).
The individual scenes are full of realistically portrayed incidental detail: the ropes that bind the scaffolding erected around the Tower of Babel; the knives on the table of the Wedding at Cana (high up on the left-hand side of the crossing); the coins falling from the table upset by Christ when He chased the moneylenders from the temple (about half-way along the north aisle); the astonishing variety of fish depicted in the Creation and caught in the fishermen’s nets illustrating the miraculous draft of fishes (north transept). Many iconographic symbols are used like the cloud (used to denote transportation to another world) that wraps itself around the figures that have fallen asleep as in the Angel appearing to Joseph (crossing, on the right), or the little dark figure that appears in several scenes representing the Devil, being cast out of those possessed or simply haunting evil people. The image of Abel’s soul depicted as a small red figure of split blood is particularly striking. In the central aplse is the majestic Christ Pantocrator with the Virgin and Child below, pictured among angels and apostles. The lowest tier is populated with saints. Below the arch, in the middle, is the Throne of Judgement.
The vaults of the lateral apses accommodate the figures of St. Peter (on the right) and St. Paul (on the left) with scenes from their lives below. The life of Christ is depicted in the chancel, starting at the crossing where stories from His childhood are related. Christ’s adult life is represented in the transept (starting with south side), up until the descent of the Holy Spirit. The aisles illustrate a selection of Christ’s miracles. In the triumphal arch, above the archbishop’s throne (right), King William II offers a model of the cathedral up to the Virgin; above the royal throne (opposite), William II is crowned by Christ.
The nave is devoted to the Old Testament; listed below are the chapters from this extraordinary picture book. Where appropriate, explanatory notes are given to help unravel some of the more complex stories.
Nave – Starting from the beginning of the nave on the right-hand side (south wall). The spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. God dividing the light from the Darkness in the presence of seven angels. The making of the firmament (Heaven). Separation of the waters into the seas from the land that was earth. Creation of the sun, the moon and the stars. Creation of the birds of the air and the fish of the ocean. Creation of man. God resting. God leads Adam into the Garden of Eden. Adam in the garden of Eden. Creation of Eve. Eve is presented to Adam. Eve is tempted by the Serpent. Original Sin. God discovers that Adam and Eve are ashamed of their nudity. Adam and Eve are expelled from Earthly Paradise. Adam working. Eve is seated with a spindle in her hand. Sacrifice of Cain and Abel. Only the sacrifice of Abel pleases God, symbolised by the ray of light shining straight from the Lord’s hand. Cain slays Abel. God discovers Cain’s crime and curses him. Cain is slain by Lamech (a story from the Jewish tradition and not mentioned in Genesis). God commands Noah to build an Ark. Noah builds the Ark. The animals board the Ark. Noah welcomes the dove carrying the olive sprig, the sign that the waters have abated. The animals come out of the Ark. Noah’s sacrifice as a sign of thanks to God. Behind him is the rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with Man. The grape harvest (on the left). On the right, Noak, drunk and half-naked, is discovered by his son, Ham, who calls his brothers to deride him. They are more respectful of their father’s dignity and cover his nudity. Hence the reason for Noah to curse Ham and his descendants, the Canaanites. This is why, henceforth, fathers often express the hope that their sons should not take a Canaanite wife. Noah’s descendants unite and build the Tower of babel in an attempt to reach heaven; this results in chaos. Gods, fearing that the force of Man might overthrow Him, caused the people to quarrel with each other, to confound their language and scatter them abroad; this story is often taken to be a parable for upholding Church authority in the face of Man’s litigiousness. Abraham, having settled in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, encounters three angels sent by God and invites them to his house. The angels represent the Trinity. The hospitality of Abraham. God sends two angels to destroy Sodom. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, shows them hospitality. Lot tries to prevent the inhabitants of Sodom from entering the house where two angels are. The following scene does not come from the Old Testament, but relates to the story about St. Cassium St. Castus and St. Castrense (patron saint of Monreale) which continue in the tier below. Cassius and Castus, condemned to being thrown to the lions because they refused to renounce their faith in Christ, are saved when the lions are suddenly tamed and lick their feet. Cassius and Castus are taken to a pagan temple causing it to collapse onto the infidels. St. Castrense cures a man possessed of the Devil who throws himself into the sea and causes a storm. Sodom in flames while Lot flees with his daughters; his wife, turning round to look back, is transformed into a pillar of salt. God appears to Abraham and bids him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The angel of the Lord stops Abraham from sacrificing his son. Abraham sends a servant to seek a wife for Isaac. At the well, Rebecca offers up water to Abraham’s servant and his camels to drink. Rebecca sets out on the journey to her chosen bridegroom. Isaac. Isaac with his favourite son Esau, and his second son Jacob. Isaac blesses Jacob, believing mistakenly that he is Esau (depicted on the right, as he returns from hunting). Isaac who is almost blind in his old age, is deceived by the goatskins covering the arms of Jacob who, unlike his brother, is smooth-skinned. Jacob flees from the vengeful anger of his brother, from whom he has stolen his father Isaac’s blessing. On his jouney, Jacob dreams of a ladder leading from earth. God, at the top, grants him the land on which he has fallen asleep; on awaking, Jacob takes the stones he had been using as pillows and lays them down as a foundation for his city. Jacob wrestles with the angel. On his journey back to his brother Esau’s, fearing lest he should be angry. Jacob sent forth his sheep and goats as offerings to him. That night, having made his family ford the stream, an angel approached and wrestled with him until dawn, when the angel blessed Jacob and bestowed upon him a new name: Israel (meaning the one who has fought with God and with Man, and has prevailed).
Ascent to the terraces – Access from the far end of the south aisle. Beware, as this involves a long and arduous climb. The first outlook provides a marvellous view down over the cloister. Further round, there is a wonderful view of the apses. The last, highest section provides a breath-taking view of the Conca d’Oro.
The huge cloister, one of the finest examples of a building inspired by Islamic architecture, is surrounded by a series of pointed arches supported by sets of splendid small paired columns, many decorated with polychrome mosaic that is Eastern in inspiration. The columns marking each corner of the cloister, together with those at the corner of the tiny square cloister surrounding the fountain (southwest corner), are sculpted with animals and human figures interwoven among fronds of luxuriant vegetation. The true jewels in the crown, however, are the fabulous Romanesque capitals, each distintively different and imaginatively carved. The subject-matter is drawn from both the Medieval and Classical iconography. Without following any particular order – implying that the capitals were intended as merely decorative – scenes from the Gospels alternate with stories from the Old Testament, symbolic and purely ornamental images. The classical subjects also betray a certain inventiveness; the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capitals, for example, although surprisingly natural-looking, appear to be being ruffled by the wind. To these are added a variety of other subjects; birds stretching down to peck the plant volutes of the capital, Atlas figures reeaching up to support the weight of the arch, cherubs feeding animals, exotic characters wearing turbans with snakes. Perhaps the most remarkable capital is the one in which William II offers the church up to the Madonna: note the detail with which the south side of the church has been carved. One capital depicts a man killing a bull, the sacred symbol of the cult of Mithras. Another features acrobat: his position, his weight supported by his arms, his back arched so that his feet rest on the back of his head (his head in the centre), recalls the Trinacria, the ancient symbol of Sicily.
The tiny cloister, nestling in the southwest corner, is graced with a lovely fountain. The column in the centre of the circular bowl is sculpted with banding and rested with a cluster of animals.
San Martino delle Scale – 10km west of Monreale. Pleasantly standing at a height of 548m, the village is a fine summer resort most appreciated for its cool climate. It derives its name from a Benedictine monastery founded in the 6th century by St. Gregory the Great, rebuilt and enlarged in the 16th century.
The church preserves a beautiful 1600’s wooden intarsia choirstall. The road leading up to the town affords spectacular views over the roofs of Monreale, the cathedral, and down over the Conca d’Oro and Palermo.
Castellaccio – 3km west of Monreale. The ruins of a late-Norman castle rising from the Caputo Mount are a major attraction especially in spring and summer months. It offers an excellent place for a picnic with some facilities available.