The Cathedral of Monreale, also called Santa Maria la Nuova, is a Sicilian masterpiece built during the Middle Ages. Is one of the best examples of coexistence between Islamic, Byzantine and Romanesque cultures. The church was founded by the Norman king William the II between 1174 and 1189, at the same time with the Abbey, the Royal Palace and the Archbishop’s Palace with which it constitutes a complex, expanded during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The external part of the Cathedral shows its Arab-Norman nature, with arches, windows and coloured marbles which are typical expressions of that kind of architecture. On the left side of the church, in the Town Hall square, there is the side door, located under a nice porch designed by Domenico and Fazio Gagini between 1547 and 1569. Their father, Antonello, was one of the best sculptors of the Sicilian art.
Inside the Cathedral
Entering through the majestic bronze portal, made in 1179 by Barisano from Trani and decorated with saints figures, you can immediately notice the amazing size of this building, 102 meters long and 40 meters large, entirely covered in golden mosaics which cover an astonishing 6340 square meters surface, the second biggest Byzantine mosaic work in the world (the first one is in Saint Sophia, Istanbul). The Cathedral is divided into a nave and two aisles divided by 18 columns (17 in granite and one in a poorer cipolin marble, which reminds the humble human nature) that support the Arab style acute arches and which are said to derive from older pagan temples. The walls, finely decorated with colored marbles in the lowest part, are lined with mosaics on a gold background. This excellent work was made by Sicilian and Venetian craftsmen between the 12th and the 13th century, following the Byzantine tradition. The figures depicted in the mosaics create scenes from the Old and the New Testament, while in the middle apse a giant figure of Christ Pantocrator appears to look directly at you wherever your position is, inside the church. This Christ is so huge that just the blessing fingers of his right hand are almost two meters long. On the left hand ho shows a book with the sentence “I am the Light of the world, and he who follows me does not walk in darkness” written in Greek and in Latin, while the inscription on the side says Jesus Christ Pantocrator, and is written in Greek. On the sides of the aisles there are several baroque chapels and some marble graves. The most important are the sarcophaguses of the Norman kings William I (1166 – in red porphyry) and William II (1189 – in white marble). On the left side of the sanctuary there is the altar of Saint Louis, king of France, where a sarcophagus preserves the heart and the bowels of the saint, died in 1270 in Tunis. Thankful for the honors given to his father’s remains, Phillip III of France donated a Holy Thorn (which is said to be taken from the crown of Christ), now housed in the museum of the Treasure together with gold and silver objects of remarkable religious and artistic value.
The main door of the Cathedral, which is only opened for big occasions, is decorated with bronze leaves, done in 1186 by Bonanno Pisano who signed his work with an inscription in Latin which says “The Pisan citizen Bonanno made me in the year of the Lord 1186”. This portal is hugely decorated with 42 tiles bearing stories from the Bible, from Adam and Eve to the Glory of Christ.
The Benedictine Cloister
On the right of the Cathedral, there is the access to the Benedictine Cloister, the most famous and complete monument of Romanesque sculpture of Sicily. Built at the same time as the Cathedral, this amazing cloister is surrounded by 228 twinned mullions, which are all different between each other. This masterpiece was made by five artists who created every unique column and capital. One or this workers or, more likely, one of their helpers, wrote in Latin on the eighteenth capital of the north side: “I am the marble worker Costantino, a Roman son”. On a corner of this beautiful Cloister there is a fountain, nicely decorated with Arab and Norman designs.