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.
History of Monreale Cathedral
Monreale Cathedral was built from 1174 to 1185. It was commissioned by William II (1154-89), the Norman ruler of Sicily, who wished to demonstrate the magnificence of his kingdom and outdo the splendid Palatine Chapel built by his grandfather, Roger II. The project employed both Sicilian and Byzantine craftsmen, resulting in a magnificent fusion of eastern and western influences.
What to See at Monreale Cathedral
The exterior of Monreale's Duomo is pleasant enough, but gives no indication of the golden splendor within. The west facade has two towers, only one of which was finished. The Neoclassical portico was added in the 18th century. Far more interesting is the exterior of the apse, richly decorated with interlaced arch and circle designs made of marble and tufa. It is well worth walking around back for a clear view from Via Archivescovado.
Monreale boasts two sets of Romanesque bronze doors, of which there are only a handful remaining in Europe. The doors of the main entrance were sculpted and signed in 1185 by Bonanno da Pisa (a.k.a. Bonanno Pisano); they depict 42 reliefs of biblical scenes set within decorative frames. The north doors, completed in 1179 by Barisano da Trani, depict 42 portraits of saints and evangelists. The portico over the north door dates from the 16th century.
The undisputed highlight of Monreale Cathedral is its richly mosaiced interior. Dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, the golden mosaics completely cover the walls of the nave, aisles, transept and apse - amounting to 68,220 square feet in total. The mosaic cycle is second only to the Hagia Sofia in size, and much better preserved. Some of the mosaics were created by craftsmen brought from Venice.
The eye is drawn immediately to the apse, where a magnificent portrait of Christ Pantocrator ("Ruler of All") gestures in blessing and gazes serenely off to one side. The Greek inscription reads, "Jesus Christ, the Pantocrator." Populating the rest of the apse are standing saints and apostles. Old Testament stories are depicted in the nave, while scenes from the life of Christ adorn the aisles and transept.
Contrasting with the rest of the medieval interior, the Cappella del Crocifisso in the north apse has been fully Baroqued. The Cappella di San Benedetto, decorated in the 16th century, contains the porphyry sarcophagus of William I (d. 1166) and marble tomb of William II (d. 1190). The beautifully painted wooden vault, with Latin inscriptions, was added in 1816-37.
The cathedral's treasury contains an impressive collection of sacred art, including vestments, silverware, and goldsmithery from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
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. Mosaicwork appears on some of the columns as well. The craftsmen who worked in the cloister came from all over southern Italy.
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.
Quick Facts on Monreale Cathedral
|Names:||Duomo di Monreale · Monreale Cathedral · Monreale Duomo|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||38.082120° N, 13.292470° E|
|Address:||Piazza Vittorio Emanuele|
|Phone:||Church: 091 640 4413; Cloister: 091 640 4403|
|Hours:||Cathedral: Daily 8am-6pm|
Cloister: Mon-Sat 9am-noon, 5:30-7:30pm; Sun and holidays 9am-1:30pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Monreale Cathedral|
Map of Monreale Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Monreale Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.