Monreale cathedral and cloister

Detail

The Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova and the Benedictine cloister of Monreale are part of the Arab-Norman Palermo route and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and MonrealeUNESCO World Heritage Site.

William the Good, King of Sicily, had the Cathedral built in a short time between 1174 and 1176. It is said that he had dreamed of Our Lady, who revealed the place where great treasure was buried to him, which he was supposed to use for a pious purpose. Much more likely, William was driven by the desire to live up to the achievements of his grandfather Roger, founder of the Cathedral of Cefalù, S. Giovanni degli Eremiti and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. The great church would thus serve to perpetuate his name over the centuries.

Islamic architects associated with Fatimid art we called on to design the church, who transferred and adapted expressive means and spatial solutions typical of the palatial architecture of their country to the Christian building. Although the additions and restorations have not always been beneficial, the cathedral has lasted to the present day with its splendour substantially intact.

The façade is decorated by a blind arch pattern, now partially hidden by a portico, made in the eighteenth century. A large bronze door from 1186 opens up underneath it, which was made by Bonanno Pisano. Along the left side there is another long portico, a sixteenth-century work by Gian Domenico and Fazio Gagini, and finally there are the three large apses that are still intact and feature magnificent limestone and lava stone decoration.

The interior of the cathedral still retains the appearance it had in the twelfth century (apart from the wooden ceiling, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1811). The layout is basilican with a very vast surface: 102 m long by 40 wide. The walls are almost entirely covered with a golden mosaic measuring a total of 6340 square metres. The general level of these decorations, both in terms of design and execution, is surprisingly high.

The execution of the mosaics was entrusted to Byzantine workers and the iconography is actually Greek. However, the relaxed attitudes of the characters, their softly draped robes and the rhythm of their movements reveal a clear evolution of the style compared to that of the Cappella Palatina and the Martorana, one which is typically Italian. In fact, at the end of the twelfth century, Italian artists were considered the best at iconographic art. The mosaic cycle develops the concept of the triumph of Christianity in three different moments, depicting: events prior to the Incarnation (Old Testament); episodes from the life of Jesus (Gospel); events subsequent to the death of Christ and the life of the Apostles (Gospel and Acts of the Apostles). The whole set is dominated by a gigantic Cristo Pantocratore (the right hand alone is two metres long) in the main apse, which represents the summary and purpose of the whole complex figuration.

The Benedictine Cloister, which also dates back to the time of William II, was part of a Benedictine abbey adjacent to the cathedral. It is a square measuring 47 x 47 m, the layout style of which undoubtedly belongs to the Christian area, and whose general tone refers to the spirit and atmosphere of the Muslim arcaded courtyards. The arches that delimit the lush garden are supported by 228 paired columns, all lavishly decorated and with capitals inlaid with plant, animal and fantastical motifs.

The 19th capital of the western line is of particular interest, as William II is depicted offering the cathedral to the Madonna. In the south corner, in a small square enclosure, there is a delightful fountain, whose crystalline water flows from an inlaid column.

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