As I recently reported, in February I had the opportunity to visit Sicily, helping Michael in preparing his Exploring Sicily tour. Most of the many astonishing sites we saw will make an appearance on this blog before long. Two weeks ago, we posted a first “Impressions of Sicily”, focusing on the site of Agrigento, ancient Akragas, with its extraordinary array of 5th century BC temples.
Today, we are stepping into the past again, but this time into the Middle Ages, the 12th century AD.
2. Monreale – An art historical treasure of the first order
Monreale is a small town set in a rather striking hilltop location just inland from Palermo. It is famous for its cathedral, which I would call – without any hesitation – one of the most stunning medieval monuments it has been my privilege to see. My state of mind on entering it and throughout my whole visit is perhaps best described by a term I learnt during my student days in Dublin: gobsmacked.
The cathedral, properly named Santa Maria La Nuova, was constructed from 1172 to 1176 on the orders of King William II of Sicily (later called “William the Good”, in contrast to his father, “William the Bad”), whose Norman ancestors had conquered the island from the Arabs a century earlier. Its interior decoration ought to have been completed by the time of his death in 1189.
The architectural and artistic style of the cathedral is peculiar to Sicily and goes by the name of Norman-Arab-Byzantine, underlining the fact that the building in itself is a vivid reflection of the island’s turbulent and multicultural medieval history. Essentially, the Norman nobles who were in a position to commission such edifices, and thus to have a major influence on their design and iconography, were a small ruling class, whereas the craftsmen and builders who actually constructed and decorated those structures were drawn from the resident population of Sicily, including Arabs who had settled there after their conquest of the island in the 9th century, and Greeks, who had been there before. As we shall see, specialists from the Byzantine capital, Constantinople itself, were also employed in Monreale.
The result is fascinating. The enormous church, measuring 102m (334ft) in length and 40m (131ft) in width, is a combination of Western and Eastern ecclesiastical architecture: the nave is that of a typical Italian Romanesque basilica, whereas the triple-apsed choir in the east is indubitably Byzantine. Arab elements are found in the external decoration of the structure and arguably the mosaic inlay on the lower part of the internal walls.
Be that as it may, the most memorable aspect of Monreale Cathedral is its breathtaking mosaic decoration, covering virtually the entire interior, from the floors via the aforementioned lower walls, both bearing geometric patterns, to the unbelievably rich figural decoration on the upper walls and in the apses. Those figural scenes, executed as coloured glass mosaics on a gold background, are of the highest quality available at the time, indicating the presence of masters from Constantinople, the centre of this form of art. They are stunningly well preserved and cover an astonishing 6,340 m² (62,000 square ft). If that number is too abstract, it is the area equivalent to 89% of a professional football (soccer) pitch!
In total there are 130 biblical scenes depicted. Their subject matter includes scenes from the Old Testament and from the Life of Christ in the nave and Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the side apses. The central apse is dominated by the huge figure of Christ Pantokrator (Ruler of All), towering above the enthroned Virgin Mary. Two panels at the transition from nave to choir show William II of Sicily himself, on one being crowned by Christ, on the other dedicating the church to the Virgin.
Their art-historical and theological interest and their stunning dimensions aside, the Monreale mosaics should be enjoyed, most of all, for their sheer beauty. They are a testament to what human creativity can achieve and provide a source of hope and serenity in a troubled world even for those of no faith.
Another highlight of Monreale is its wonderful cloister, attached to the southern side of the cathedral. Cloisters are very much part of Western monasticism, so its presence once again betrays the cultural background of the building’s patron, as well as the cathedral’s intended context as part of a monastery. But a closer look reveals the other cultures: the 228 column capitals were almost certainly carved by Arab craftsmen. They show biblical and historical scenes, including Norman knights and Arab warriors. Even more striking are the highly unusual geometric mosaic inlays on the pillars themselves, each and every one of them different, adding a fascinatingly varied touch of colour to this unique monument.
You can visit Monreale as one of many highlights on our Exploring Sicily tour. And if you have taken a fancy to Byzantine art, there is more to see on our Exploring Crete tour, Cruising to the Cyclades, Exploring Athens and Cruising the Dodecanese, but especially on Exploring Macedonia, Exploring Istanbul and Exploring Cappadocia and the Land of the Hittites, where it takes centre stage.