Monreale Cathedral, Santa Maria la Nuova, Province of Palermo, Sicily, Italy

This is a must for whoever visits Sicily: a rare jewel, a wonderful fusion of Romanesque, Byzantine and Arab culture, the masterpiece of Norman art in Sicily and world-famous for the absolute beauty of the mosaic cycles that cover almost every inch of the interior. Founded in 1174 by Norman king William II, known as William the Good, Roger II's grandson, it was at the time included in a large complex comprising also the Abbey, the Royal Palace and the Bishopric Seat.
Monreale Cathedral, Sicily How to arrive: Monreale is well connected by buses to Palermo, and it's just 8 km driving by car. Palermo can be reached by ferry from Genoa, Leghorn, Naples, Cagliari and Olbia, and the airport is connected to the major Italian and European cities.

Visits: The cloister is open from 9:00 am to 12:30 every day, in the afternoons usually only during the summer months from 15:00 to 19:00.

More info on the town of Monreale

The Outside

Along the left side there is a Renaissance porch (1547-1569) made by Giovanni Domenico and Fazio Gagini, descendants of a family of artists originary of Ticino, that had settled in Palermo in 1463. Under this porch it is possible to enter the leads the left nave through a portal whose doors contain 28 bronze panel made by Barisano da Trani in 1178 representing figures of Saints. The apse is decorated by arches and multi-coloured insertions in white and lava tiles. The terraces around the Cathedral offer an astounding, bird's eye view of the whole Conca D'Oro (= the Golden Valley). Behind the Cathedral is the Bishopric Palace, in front of which is a Roman sarcophagus. To the left, the Seminario dei Chierici, which was the ancient Norman mansion, transformed in a Seminary in the 1591.

The Facade

Sided by two massive towers of different forms, and decorated in the upper part by arches, it has and 18th century porch in front, which leads to the Gothic-arched portal, whose bronze doors, a work by Bonanno Pisano of 1186, represent scenes from the Old and New Testaments accompanied by words in ancient Italian vernacular. The cathedral's two main doors are outstanding. The double doors are made of 42 bronze panels, signed and dated by their maker, Bonanno of Pisa who completed this masterpiece, distinctively Romanesque, in 1186.

The Inside

The interior of the church is about 100 meters long by 40 meters wide. In the form of a basilica, it is divided by 9 monolithic columns on each side into 3 naves leading to a wide presbyterium and 3 apses. The 18 columns have each a different Corinthian capital. The original ceiling in carved and painted wood was destroyed in a fire in 1811 and reconstructed trying to reproduce the original, while the precious mosaic floor in white Taormina marble, the work of Baldassare Massa of Palermo, is still in its original 16th century form.

The walls are covered in the lower part by later marble slates, while in the upper part is the most amazing work of art in this church, the 12th century mosaics, still in their original form. Along the right nave are the 12th century sarcophagus of Guglielmo I, and the sepulchre of Guglielmo II, remade in the 16th century. Always in this nave, is the Chapel of St. Benedict, a Renaissance work decorated with marble tiles, with low-relief sculptures, a work made in 1776 by Giovanni Marino; a high-relief on the altar representing the Glory of St. Benedict, made by Ignazio Marabitti in 1776. The left nave opens into the 17th century Crocifisso Chapel, and to the Treasure of the Cathedral, which preserves Gothic relic containers, and sacred items from the 13th to the 17th century.

The mosaic cycle

All the scenes of the mosaic are created against a background of yellow-gold tiles. There are a total of 130 individual mosaic scenes depicting biblical and other religious events. Made in the late 12th-early 13th centuries, the mosaics on the walls cover over 6 thousand square mt, and represent the Old and New Testaments, with inscriptions in Greek and Latin. Along the central nave is the Genesis cycle, in the central apse are Christ and the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne, surrounded by apostles, saints and angels. On the two sides, over the royal and the episcopal thrones, there are mosaic scenes representing William crowned by Christ and again William offering the cathedral to the Virgin.

The Old Testament is portrayed upon 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 His birth to the Crucifixion, and include a cycle which portrays His miracles. Most of the mosaics are accompanied by written inscriptions in Latin or Greek.

The Cloister

The entrance to the cloister is to the right of the facade. The cloister, made in the 12th century, is almost intact, and was included in a no more extant Benedictine abbey. It is a square courtyard with sides measuring 47 mt each, surrounded by 228 twin columns joined by sexti-acute arches which create a covered walkway all around the garden; the columns are decorated with mosaic tiles and, with a great variety of motifs including arabesques, knights, saints and Bible scenes, gargoyles. In the southern corner a 3-sided enclosure includes a small fountain in the form of a palm-tree. To the northern side is the ancient wall of the cathedral, with a portal and windows, all decorated with white stone and lava tiles. An archway to the right leads to the wonderful Belvedere, where is also an art gallery, the Galleria Civica "Giuseppe Sciantino" with contemporary and modern works of art.

The inside with the central nave The mosaic in the apse

The inside with the central nave [left] --- The mosaic in the apse, detail [right]
the Mosaic with Adam and Eve William crowned

the Genesis cycle, Adam and Eve [left] --- William crowned [right]
the Gardens in the cloister The fountain - Monreale Cathedral

the Gardens in the cloister [left] --- The fountain in the cloister [right]

A Map of the Cathedral

Suggested links

Beautiful photographs online and seminal article: The mosaics of the Monreale Cathedral