Surveying Palermo and the Conca D’Oro from its panoramic hill-top position, Monreale would be a fairly non-descript town were it not for the presence of one of the world’s most stunning architectural treasures: the Duomo.
The story of how this splendid cathedral came into being starts when the Arabs took control of Palermo in 831. They transformed the cathedral into a mosque and banished the Bishop of Palermo from town. Not wishing to venture too far from his beloved cathedral, the Bishop settled in a small village in the hills overlooking Palermo, the site of modern-day Monreale. There, he built a modest church to keep the flame of local Christian worship alive.
Every other pair of columns is decorated with unique mosaic patterns (no two are the same) and each is topped by a floral capital. The overall effect is one of not quite perfect symmetry, but absolute perfection!
Some 240 year later, in 1072, the Normans drove the Arabs from Sicily, establishing Palermo as their capital and re-consecrating the cathedral.
In 1174, in an act of piety, thanksgiving and commemoration of the exiled Bishop, King William II ordered the construction of a new church in Monreale, dedicated to the Virgin Mary (one of the mosaics depicts King William II presenting the church to the Madonna). On its completion in 1182, Pope Lucius III elevated the splendid church to the status of metropolitan cathedral.
Enlightened, tolerant and appreciative of many aspects of North African and middle-eastern culture and art, William II employed the very best Arabic and Byzantine (as well as Norman) craftsmen to work on the cathedral. The result is a fabulous and fascinating fusion of architectural styles, artistic traditions and religious symbolism.
The cathedral’s asymmetrical, twin-towered façade gives little clue as to the splendour to be found within. The geometrically patterned marble floor, in-laid with Middle-Eastern mosaics, supports two lines of granite Corinthian columns that delineate the wide, lofty, wooden-roofed nave. Lancet arches leap from column to column drawing the eye to the window-punctured clerestory and its astonishing display of art: over 6,500m2 of swirling golden mosaics animated by biblical scenes and depictions of saints, kings and angels, all interspersed with gilded motifs and sumptuous decorative patterns. Wave after wave of this dazzling beauty culminates at the east end in the triple-apsed choir, surveyed from on high by a colossal representation of Christ Pantocrator.
Outside the Cathedral, adjoining its south side, is another artistic and architectonic masterpiece: the cloisters. Built in 1200 as part of the Cathedral abbey, the cloisters comprise 108 pairs of marble columns, a covered arcade of Arabic arches and a central quad. Every other pair of columns is decorated with unique mosaic patterns (no two are the same) and each is topped by a floral capital. The overall effect is one of not quite perfect symmetry, but absolute perfection!
The real beauty of it all, however, is that even though you are conscious of strolling around the cloisters of a European church, you could equally be relaxing in the internal garden of a rich man’s house in the Damascus or Cairo of yesteryear!
In 2015, Arab-Norman Palermo and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù were granted status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spread over a combined 6,235 hectares and including nine monuments - the Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel, the Zisa Palace, Palermo Cathedral, the Palermitan Churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo, the Admiral’s Bridge, and the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù - the site provides, in UNESCO's words, "an outstanding example of a socio-cultural syncretism between Western, Islamic, and Byzantine cultures. This interchange gave rise to an architectural and artistic expression based on novel concepts of space, structure, and decoration that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean region... The innovative re-elaboration of architectural forms, structures, and materials and their artistic, decorative, and iconographic treatments – most conspicuously the rich and extensive tesserae mosaics, pavements in opus sectile, marquetry, sculptural elements, paintings, and fittings – celebrate the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins".