Monreale, The Closter Of The Cathedral

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Monreale Cathedral (Duomo), the noblest in Sicily was built from 1174 to 1185. The lovely cloister adjoining the south side was built at the same time as the cathedral. …

Monreale Cathedral (Duomo), the noblest in Sicily was built from 1174 to 1185. The lovely cloister adjoining the south side was built at the same time as the cathedral.
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  • Monreale's cathedral and abbey are good reminders that the beauty of a particularly splendid church transcends that of any single work of art, however noble. Overlooking Palermo, the town of Monreale, from the Latin "Mons Regalis" (literally 'Royal Mountain'), straddles a slope of Mount Caputo about eight kilometers south of Palermo's cathedral. Set at about three hundred metres above sea level, the town overlooks the "Conca d'Oro," as the valley beyond Palermo is known. No extended visit of Palermo is truly complete without a visit to Monreale. The cathedral and its cloister represent the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place. True, Palermo's cathedral is larger, but Monreale's exists in something far closer to its original twelfth-century state. This wondrous place is much more than "just another church." If your impression of the overused word multicultural is at all negative, the effect of Monreale Abbey will convert you to another way of thinking.
  • East meets West The focal point of the town is its cathedral, an amalgamation of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles framed by traditional Romanesque architecture, representing the best of twelfth-century culture. The mosaics covering the cathedral walls are one of the world's largest displays of this art, surpassed only by Istanbul's Basilica of Saint Sofia, once an Orthodox church. (Unfortunately, many of those beautiful mosaics were destroyed or whitewashed when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.) Monreale's mosaics cover over six thousand square metres of the church's's interior, an area larger than those of the splendid church of Saint Mark in Venice. The mosaics of "Santa Maria la Nuova" (Saint Mary the New), the official name of Monreale Cathedral, are far more extensive than those of the cathedral of Cefalù , and while the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo's Norman Palace are of equally exquisite craftsmanship, the latter leave many with the impression of a complex work of art in a restrictive space.
  • The mosaics of "Santa Maria la Nuova" (Saint Mary the New), the official name of Monreale Cathedral, are far more extensive than those of the cathedral of Cefalù , and while the mosaics of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo's Norman Palace are of equally exquisite craftsmanship, the latter leave many with the impression of a complex work of art in a restrictive space. It is tempting to identify each element of the abbey complex with a specific culture and tradition, though in truth these overlap considerably. The mosaics are a strongly Byzantine element, while certain structural details, such as the geometric inlay of the apse exteriors, are Arab and actually Islamic. The cloister, on the other hand, reflects a mixture of influences. Attached to the cathedral, the Benedictine cloister courtyard consists of 228 columns (paired, with four on each corner), some inlayed with Byzantine-style mosaic work, each supporting an ornately carved capital. The capitals themselves depict scenes in Sicily's Norman history, complete with knights and kings. The style of the Norman knight figures evokes that of the knights depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry, a chronicle of the Battle of Hastings. Historians have determined the date of the introduction of heraldry (coats of arms) in Sicily by the shields of the Monreale knight figures, which lack any heraldic decoration. The capitals strongly reflect the Provencal styles of the twelfth century, and at least three of what are thought to have been five master sculptors were probably from that region.
  • Royal Origins The idea of building Monreale Abbey was the idea of King William II "the Good," grandson of the Roger II. On the site of Monreale had stood a small Arab hamlet named "Ba'lat," where local farmers would gather each morning to cart their produce to the souks of Bal'harm (Palermo). In the Norman era the area around Ba'lat, eventually renamed Monreale, became a favorite hunting ground of the Hauteville monarchs. In those days deer, boar and wild cats still roamed Sicily, where there were far more forests than today, and falconry was popular among the baronage. William's extensive royal hunting reserve extended across the valley to what is now Altofonte, and down the slopes of Mount Caputo toward Palermo (probably as far as the Royal Park or Genoard), perhaps encompassing some areas south of Monreale as well.
  • Walter "of the Mill" (actually "Offamilias" indicating his familial connection to Sicily's Hauteville kings), the English bishop of Palermo, was the head of a faction of nobles that sought to influence and persuade the young king into granting them more power. This faction also hoped to attenuate the power of Muslim ministers and functionaries in William's court. Walter had been William's tutor when the king was a child and during his mother's regency. William was just 13 years old when his father, William I, died in 1166, and until he reached his majority in 1171 he was subject to the regency of his mother, Margaret of Navarre. However, the kingdom was actually controlled by Matthew d'Aiello, the royal chancellor, and Walter, the bishop of Palermo --the latter having attempted to exert undue influence on William as his tutor. The young sovereign wished to demonstrate his independence through the construction of a grand cathedral. The Benedictines, already present in Sicily, readily obliged.
  • King William's first objective was to establish himself firmly as sovereign. William had only been crowned in 1171 when he turned eighteen. Construction began in 1172. The superstructure took four years to build, reaching completion in 1176. Work on the mosaics and cloister was completed by the time of the young king's death in 1189. Apart from demonstrating his true power to the Sicilian nobility, is possible that William wanted the cathedral to impress his subjects in an equal measure. Many Muslims from Palermo had fled to the hill country surrounding the capital after a rebellion against William's father in 1161, and others already lived in towns in the region. Led by Matthew Bonellus, a vocal element of the Siculo-Norman nobility had begun to support an anti-Muslim policy, leaving the 'Saracens' to establish themselves in easily-fortified towns of the interior, though they were nominally loyal to William. Though Bonellus himself was eventually eliminated, the cathedral, actually fortified with embattled towers and slit-windows as if it were a fortress, was strategically important for guarding the passes that served as the gateway to these communities. The nearby hilltop castle of Castellaccio bolstered this military strategy.
  • Though little of the monastery except the cloister survives, the monastery of Monreale originally boasted twelve embattled towers and thick walls. A few of the towers are still visible. The Arabs did eventually rebel, after King William's death, in reaction to the mistreatment and excessive taxation imposed upon them by the Abbot of Monreale, under whose feudal authority they had been placed by William II and the Pope. The cathedral itself was attacked by the Muslims on several occasions, the worst incident occurring in 1216 during the reign of Frederick II (Hohenstaufen). However, the "rebellions" were never a serious threat to the Norman, Swabian (and at all events Christian) rule of Sicily. In 1246, Frederick II dispatched a large army from Palermo to rein in what resistance remained, taking control of Corleone and San Giuseppe Jato. Another reason for William's construction of the cathedral was his desire to establish the Roman Catholic church, known as the "Latin" church in those days, as the official church of Sicily. There were still many Orthodox Christians and Muslims in twelfth-century century Sicily, and a number of Jews. Although Orthodoxy was permitted and Islam tolerated, William embraced Papal authority. Thus, despite the mosaic icons which give it the appearance of an Orthodox basilica, Monreale was actually part of the 'Latinizing' of Sicily. Pope Alexander III granted the abbot of the Benedictine monastery episcopal privileges in 1174, and elevated Teobald to the rank of archbishop in 1183. The installment of a bishop in Monreale who owed his position to pontiff and sovereign and who, as an outsider, had no stake in local politics, neatly accomplished the political purposes of both powers.
  • Building a dream As we've mentioned, work on the cathedral was begun in 1174. In 1177, at twenty-four, William married Joan, daughter of King Henry II of England. The marriage made William brother-in-law to Richard I "Lionheart" and John "Lackland," Henry's sons. In 1170, William's father-in-law had instigated the murder of Thomas Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Canonized in 1173, Saint Thomas is depicted in a mosaic icon of the cathedral's main apse near the altar (as one faces the apse it is the second icon to the right of the apse niche). This is believed to be the first public work of art honoring the English saint. Though William sought to make his realm to be a European one, he engaged in certain practices somewhat unusual for a Christian monarch of the Middle Ages. Not only did he have many Muslim ministers, astrologers and doctors in his court, William is said to have kept a harem in his palace, and to have spoken, read and written Arabic. That work on the cathedral was completed before William's death (aged just 36) in 1189 was indeed a fortunate thing, for the period of quasi-anarchy which ensued as rival claimants sought the crown did not bode well for costly construction projects.
  • Externally, most of Monreale Cathedral is not particularly striking. Its front facade faces west, looking onto Piazza Guglielmo. Two massive square bell towers flank the main church entrance. The porticos are not original components of the structure. The sides of the cathedral are over a hundred metres long. From Via Arcivescovado, the street behind the cathedral, can be seen the complex geometric inlay of the apse --a kind of symmetry which reflects Muslim spirituality. Framed by a typical medieval arch, the Romanesque bronze doors under the main (front) portico were manufactured in the workshops of Bonanno of Pisa in 1186. Constructed in the same year, the side doors were designed by Barisano of Trani set within a squared frame decorated in Arab mosaic. Each door features panels on which are carved various religious figures amidst floral and other symbolic motifs. The floor plan of the cathedral combines elements of both a traditional Western (Latin) basilica and an Eastern (Orthodox) one. The combination of Greek and Latin elements is a distinct feature of Norman architecture in Italy.
  • The cathedral has a wide central nave between two smaller aisles. Nine monolithic columns of gray granite support the eight pointed arches on each side of the central aisle, for a total of eighteen columns, each bearing a Corinthian style capital. Each individual capital is sculpted with a different motif featuring religious figures and symbols. Only one of the eighteen columns is not made of gray granite, the first column on the right of the front entrance, which is made of "cipollina" marble. The roof of the cathedral is made of wood, carved and painted in great detail, and while its style shows a strong Saracen influence the present roof is, in fact, a restored reproduction dating from 1811 when the original roof was severely damaged by fire. The present roof is a faithful reproduction, very similar to the original. The sixteenth-century floor of the church is composed of white marble with multi-colored granite and porphyry patterns and borders.
  • Mosaic art and icons The splendid mosaics in the interior of Monreale cathedral are its principal artistic attraction. Their subtle beauty creates an atmosphere of solemn tranquility and perhaps even awe. The mosaics cover practically all the surfaces of the cathedral's walls, except for the ground level, up to a height of two meters, where the walls are finished in white marble bordered with polychrome inlay decoration. All of the cathedral's mosaic figures (many are icons) are placed upon a background of gold mosaic "tesserae" (tiles). The interior of the church is about a hundred metres long by forty meters wide. There are a total of 130 individual mosaic scenes depicting biblical and other religious events. The Old Testament is depicted on the walls of the central nave, starting from the Creation and ending with Jacob's Fight with the Angel. The mosaics on the side aisles illustrate the major events of the life of Jesus, from birth to crucifixion, and include a cycle illustrating the miracles worked. Many of the mosaics are accompanied by inscriptions in Latin or Greek.
  • Dominating everything is the imposing mosaic of Christ Pantocrator ("Ruler of All") located on the central apse over the main altar. The entire image is thirteen meters across and seven meters high. Beneath the stupendous portrait of Jesus is a mosaic of the Theotokos (Mother of God) enthroned with the Christ child on her lap. This depiction is flanked by mosaics of the angels and various saints and apostles. There are mosaics of numerous other saints and scenes from the Gospels all about the transept area, including the previously-mentioned icon of Saint Thomas Becket. Two noteworthy mosaics are located on the sides of the presbytery, over the royal and episcopal thrones. The one above the royal throne shows Christ crowning William II. It is patterned on the icon in the Martorana (in Palermo) showing Roger II crowned by Christ. The mosaic over the episcopal throne shows William II offering Monreale cathedral to the Virgin. In the West it was rare for living monarchs to be represented in a Heavenly setting in this manner. Our printable Key to Monreale's Mosaics explains most of the principal mosaics of the nave, with notes on those of the apse and transepts.
  • Monreale Cathedral also houses several royal tombs. That of William II is a white marble work dating from the sixteenth century. William's father, King William I "the Bad" lies in the deep-red porphyry tomb which dates from the twelfth century and is, presumably, his original. William II's mother, Margaret of Navarre, is also interred at Monreale. Curiously, so is the heart of King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis). The royal cortege stopped here for a funeral en route to France following Louis' death during the Tunisian Crusade (in 1270) when his less-saintly younger brother, Charles of Anjou, was king of Naples and Sicily.
  • Cloister Except for some foundations and external walls, the cloister court proper is the only part of the monastery standing today. Its plan is a perfect square, measuring forty-seven metres on each side, enclosing a covered walkway. As we've mentioned, there are 228 columns. Carved into the capitals of the columns are all manner of Biblical figures, mythological scenes, quasi-heraldic elements, Arab warriors and Norman knights, as well as floral motifs and fauna. Perhaps the crowning glory of the cloister is the Arab fountain in the southwest corner. The fountain is almost a mini-cloister within the cloister, surrounded by its own four-sided colonnade. Longstanding tradition says that William, who had a small palace next to the cathedral, often washed his face in this fountain. Our printable map of Monreale's cloister capitals describes the fascinating carvings of over thirty of the capitals. The garden terrace or "belvedere" is also worth visiting. Affording a panoramic view of Palermo, it is reached through a courtyard near the cloister, in a corner of the square. Next door, the monastery galleries sometimes host interesting exhibits. Crypt, Museum, Roof While the small crypt is usually closed to the public, the cathedral's Treasury Museum houses some interesting relics and other ecclesiastical items. The stairs and passages to the roof encircle the church, affording good views of the cloister, the inside of the taller tower, and of course the valleys around Monreale.
  • For Visitors: Monreale's cloister is usually open from 9:00 AM to 6 PM Monday through Saturday, and from 9:00 to 12:30 on Sundays year-round, though afternoon schedules may vary. Monreale is also known for its craft and artisan shops, specializing in ceramic art and mosaics ranging in style from the Byzantine to the Baroque to folk and abstract. Monreale boasts some of the island's best mosaic galleries. Two of these are found on Via Arcivescovado in back of the cathedral. Other noteworthy artisan shops will be found on Via Ritiro and the nearby streets.
  • A little background legend... From 1166 King William II reigned in Sicily - because of his excellent qualities of mind he gained the nickname of 'Good' to distinguish him from the father, on contrary nicknamed William "the Bad"(1131-1166). According to the legend about the foundation of the Cathedral of Monreale, after eight years of his reign, one day the young prince, according to his custom, went hunting from his palace in Palermo in his reserve of Monreale, and then, tired from the long and exhausting hunt, he rested in the shade of a carob tree. Here he fell asleep and the Virgin appeared to him in a dream, revealing that at that place was a hidden treasure, urging him to use the money to build a church. Waking up, William found the treasure and he vowed to make in that place a temple to the Virgin, with the name of "Santa Maria la Nuova“ assigning to the task many monks of St. Benedict brought in from the “Trinità della Cava”. As reward for the monks he had a monastery built adjoining the Church, enriching them with pensions and privileges.
  • The monastery, according to a bull of Pope Alexander III (1105-1181) on 30 December 1174, should not be subject to any ecclesiastical power but only to the Holy See, and the abbot of the monastery was honored with the title and jurisdiction of the Bishop. With this the Monastery of Monreale was endowed with many servants, who with their families began to multiply, and in a short time the small village became a town. Many came from surrounding countries, especially from Bulchar, a village of the Saracens. Beyond the legend about the foundation, the fact is that William II "The Good" built a cathedral in Monreale that still amazes for its magnificence and for the building of which he lavished huge amounts of money, so that the cathedral of Monreale is still an attraction for tourists from all over the world. As for the real reasons that led the young king (crowned king at 12 and died at 37 years) to take on the task, the assumptions have been many, but perhaps the most likely is simply that William II had a very strong desire to emulate his ancestors in magnificence, and especially Roger II (1095-1154), for whom he had a great admiration: "The devotion felt by William to the August figure of his grandfather (whose he could not keep any personal memory as at the time of the death of Roger II, he was about 2 years) is a historical fact "(see E. Kitzinger,"The Mosaics of Monreale”, Flaccovio, 1960: 117).
  • The Normands (1060 – 1194) came in Sicily as mercenary knights in help of Byzantines who were trying to conquer again Sicily from Arabs whose internal power was in crisis. The Angioini (French) (1266 – 1282) The Aragonese (1282 -1516) During the Spanish domination (which lasted five centuries) Sicily was sometimes directly dependent by the King of Spain and sometimes was governed by a vice-king
  • MONREALE'S BRONZE DOORS   The West Door of Monreale (above left) - another Door of Paradise and another masterpiece - was made in 1189 by a Tuscan - Bonanno da Pisa.  Bonanno had earlier done doors for the Pisa duomo , but sadly only one pair survived a major fire in the fading years of the 1500s.  The Monreale panels follow the narrative of the Christian story from Adam and Eve (bottom right of door), through Cain and Abel (left) to the Ascension.   The less elaborate North Door (above) was made by the Trani master, Barisano da Trani, who was also responsible for the bronze door of Trani Cattedrale itself (now displayed inside, it includes a rare artist self portrait), Ravello, and Astrano (?) all of which which he made in Italy in the 1180s.  Barisano used a technique of low relief casting finished by chiselling.  The Monreale door has 28 panels, most of which portray Christian motifs.


  • 1. Monreale 4
  • 2. Monreale
  • 3. The Cathedral of Monreale is one of the greatest extant examples of Norman architecture in the world. It was begun in 1174 by William II, and in 1182 the church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was, by a bull of Pope Lucius III, elevated to the rank of a metropolitan cathedral. The lovely cloister adjoining the south side was built at the same time as the cathedral. Consisting of 228 double columns supporting Arab-style arches, it is richly decorated with Romanesque figurative carvings on the columns and capitals. Mosaic work appears on some of the columns as well. Overlooking the south side of the cloister (opposite the cathedral) is a wall of the original monastery. A mini-cloister at the southwest corner contains a beautiful fountain with lion-head spouts. It is possible to ascend to the roof terraces over the cloisters, which is well worth the climb (and small fee) for the views. The highest terrace provides a beautiful panoramic view to the sea and the bay of Conca d'Oro Catedrala din Monreale este unul dintre cele mai frumoase exemple de arhitectură normandă din lume. Construcţia a început din ordinul lui Wilhelm al II-lea, cunoscut drept Wilhelm cel Bun, în anul 1174 iar în anul 1182 , cu hramul Adormirea Maicii Domnului , prin bulă papală a fost ridicată la rang de catedrală. Catedrala este monument naţional italian şi un important obiectiv turistic în Sicilia. Un important punct de interes este Mănăstirea benedictinilor, aflată lângă catedrală. C laustrul mănăstirii este singura parte care a rămas intactă până în prezent. C laustrul măsoară 47 X 47 m şi constă dintr-un culoar acoperit care înconjoară o grădină, el are 104 arcade care se sprijină pe 228 de coloane duble din marmură albă placate cu mozaic, fiecare având un model diferit. Capitelurile coloanelor sunt sculptate cu o minunata precizie şi minuţiozitate, reprezentând scene din Biblie, vieţi ale sfinţilor, cavaleri normanzi în acţiune, animale fantastice şi motive florale.
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  • 5. Exist ă ş i o legend ă care spune cum s-a n ă scut acest dom: se pare c ă dup ă o v ână toare, c â t timp Wilhelm se odihnea sub un copac, Fecioara Maria i-a ap ă rut î n vis şi l-a rugat s ă ridice un lăcaş de cult î n onoarea sa ş i i-a dezv ă luit locul unde se afl ă o c omoar ă ascuns ă de tat ă l regelui normand. 
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  • 7. "Monreale" is a contraction of monte-reale, "royal mountain", so-called from a palace built here by Roger I of Sicily
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  • 11. Famed for its glorious golden mosaics, Monreale Cathedral is perhaps the finest Norman building in Sicily. It was built in the 12th century as part of a grand royal complex a few miles outside of Palermo. Catedrala din Monreale este una dintre cele mai mari ş i frumoase catedrale ale lumii. Biserica a fost î ntemeiat ă de c ă tre î mp ă ratul norman d Wil helm al II-lea, cunoscut drept Wilhelm cel Bun, nepotul lui Roger al II-lea.
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  • 13. The lovely cloister adjoining the south side was built at the same time as the cathedral.
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  • 21. Rodia ( Punica granatum ) - Pomegranate
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  • 39. S ound: Adorate Deum - Gregorian Chant For Meditation Text : Internet Pictures: Sanda Foişoreanu Internet slide 1 - 12 Gabriela Cristescu Copyright: All the images belong to their authors Arangement : Sanda Foişoreanu