The Cathedral of Monreale (Monreale, means “Royal Mountain” in Italian) is
set on the lower slopes of Mount Caputu overlooking Palermo,
the capital city of Sicily. The history of
this island in southern Italy is
shaped by two invasions and occupations, that of the Arabs in the ninth century
and the Normans in the eleventh century. The Monreale Cathedral is the last
Norman church built (by Wililam II in the twelfth century) in Sicily, and today
it is one of the most beautiful and finest existing Norman structures in the
Its interior contains the richest Byzantine mosaics in Italy, embellished with more than two tons of pure gold. While the outside of this church is interesting and lovely with beautiful and intricate bronze doors, it is fairly simple like most Norman structures. It is the extraordinary rich interior that is considered a national treasure and makes this the most visited of all Palermo attractions.
An interest in fine Byzantine mosaics in Italy would allow you to design an itinerary that would take you from this southernmost part of the country all the way to Ravenna in northern Italy, where the eight early Christian structures that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site are located. In the Monreale Cathedral the mosaics cover virtually all the walls above the ground level, which is finished with marble and decorative polychrome inlay. This draws the gaze upward in awe to the majestic arched roof and the beautiful mosaics.
The brilliantly colored mosaic figures and icons of the Cathedral of Monreale are set on a background of gold mosaic tesserae, or tiles. There are about 130 individual mosaic scenes from both the Old and New Testament. These scenes are in three rows encircling the interior, except for the front of the church that has two rows behind the high altar that are topped by a huge mosaic of Christ Pantocator (Almighty or All Powerful) looking down on the entire congregation. This image of Christ is more than 40 feet wide and 25 feet high. Unusual in Byzantine mosaics in Italy or anywhere else in the West are two scenes—one showing William II being crowned by Christ, and another depicting William II offering the Monreale Cathedral to the Virgin Mary. You will rarely see living monarchs represented interacting with religious figures. Another unusual image shows Saint Thomas Beckett, who was murdered in the Canterbury Cathedral in England in 1170. While these images spread across Europe after his murder, few reached this far south so early.
The Cathedral of Monreale has lovely bronze doors. Two of these were made by
the noted sculptor Bonanno da Pisa from Tuscany,
who also designed doors for the Duomo in
Pisa. One of these was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. The surviving
door depicts the wide sweep pf the Christian narrative, from Adam and Eve to
the Ascension of Christ. Monreale is located about five miles outside of Palermo,
with regular bus service between the two. If you’re staying in one of the Palermo
hotels, most will assist you with private transportation.