You may wish to read an introduction to this section first.
The whole appears a magnificent garden filled with fruit trees of every species and watered by clear fountains and rivulets that form a variety of windings through this delightful plain. From the singularity of this situation, as well as from the richness of the soil, Palermo has had a great many flattering epithets bestowed upon it, particularly by the poets who have denominated it "Conca d'Oro" the Golden Shell, which is at once expressive both of its situation and richness. (..) The town and country round Monreale are greatly indebted to the liberality of Archbishop Testa; and in every corner exhibit marks of his munificence. (..) The valley at the foot of the mountain is rich and beautiful. It appears one continued orange garden for many miles, and exhibits an elegant piece of scenery; perfuming the air at the same time with the most delicious odours. We were so pleased with this little expedition, that notwithstanding the heat of the season, we could not keep in our carriage, but walked almost the whole of it.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
Monreale, though a small place, is dignified with the title of an archiepiscopal city. It is built on the brow of a very high hill; lofty mountains hem it in on every side but the northern, on which a view opens over hanging woods of olive and orange trees to Palermo and the sea, a most extensive and noble scene.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
That of Monreale (..) is the next in dignity in the island, after the cathedral of Palermo. It is nearly of the same size, and the whole is encrusted with mosaic, at an incredible expense. Brydone
Monreale, name of Mons Regalis (Royal Mountain). Hither, says the chronicler Romualdo di Salerno, in the year 1153 (..) King William II reared the great church and convent which were the crowning wonder of Sicilian architecture. The story goes that he was warned in a dream by the Virgin Mary to build a church in her honour on this spot, with a treasure which he should find there. Gravina (Domenico Benedetto Gravina, the author of a book about the Cathedral) suggests that he discovered a hoard hidden by his avaricious father. The work was begun in 1172, and in 1176, though the church was still unfinished, the first monks and the Abbot Theobald from the Benedictine abbey of La Cava were installed in the new convent.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915. The author (1835-1924) of this essay was one of the leading architects of his time. He extensively wrote about Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Fašade of the Cathedral
The church is a basilica, transeptal, and ending in three apses, but there is no dome at the crossing. There are two western towers, standing, like those at Cefalu, in advance of the nave, with an open loggia filling the space between them, above and behind which appears the west wall of the nave, ornamented with interlacing arcading and with a large window. The south-west tower is finished with a rather later storey, and the other was never finished at all, but is semi-ruinous. The present loggia is of Renaissance work, replacing the original structure of pointed arches adorned with mosaic. T. G. Jackson
Cathedral: portal of the fašade (a detail of its decoration is used as background for this page)
The western doorway is rather magnificent with Norman zigzag (aka chevron) and 12th century scroll-work,
but the treatment is much flatter than it would be with us, the orders being very slightly retired within one
another, and a border of mosaic is introduced among
them. The bronze doors of Bonanno of Pisa, which
were made in 1185, are extremely interesting. T. G. Jackson
From the very beginning, i.e. from this portal, the visitor realizes that the design and decoration of the Cathedral is the work of master masons, stonecutters and mosaic makers who had different artistic backgrounds. The simple zigzag moulding of this portal is typical of Norman architecture (see a similar one at Erice), whereas the elaborate design of the side panels recalls classical patterns with acanthus scrolls and mosaics depicting pilasters and capitals.
Cathedral: portal of the fašade: details of the bronze panels depicting the Baptism of Jesus, Adam and Eve, the Fall of Man, the Three Magi, a gryphon and a lion
Borders of scrolls and rosettes divide them into panels. Four
ramping lions occupy the foot, and the forty-six small panels above have figures of prophets and biblical groups, with their titles in Lombardic
lettering. T. G. Jackson
A superb Bronze Door with a beautiful Door case reputed to be Saracenic forms one of the Entrances to the Church and is worthy of observation.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
The bronze panels were made in Pisa and shipped to Monreale. The door is signed Bonanno civis pisanus; the sculptor is known also for a bronze door in the Cathedral of Pisa which he made before that of Monreale. The Maritime Republic of Pisa supported the Normans in their conquest of Sicily and afterwards in the establishment of a Norman kingdom at Mahdia and other ports of Tunisia.
Cathedral: (left) portico of the northern side; (right) detail of its bronze door
Another doorway on the north side, surrounded
by mosaic, under a loggia erected by Cardinal Alessandro
Farnese in the 16th century, contains bronze doors by
Barisano of Trani, which are later and less interesting
than those by Bonanno. T. G. Jackson.
Barisano made this door after that for the Cathedral of his hometown in Apulia, another Norman territory. He was more of a goldsmith than a sculptor and the panels bring to mind Byzantine patterns.
The cathedral exhibits a very disagreeable specimen of the Gothic taste. To increase its ugliness, the injudicious monks
have white-washed the outside. Swinburne
The only part of the exterior which shows much attention to design is the east end, which is covered with an extraordinary, and perhaps extravagant, display of polychrome masonry and interlacing arcades of pointed arches. T. G. Jackson
The decoration of the apses is very similar to that of the Cathedral of Palermo.
Cloister seen from the roof of the southern aisle
On the south side of the nave is the great cloister,
which is singularly well preserved. The arcades are
pointed and stilted, and rest on coupled columns of
marble, except at the corners of the square, where is
a pier composed of four columns grouped together.
These angle groups have the shafts richly sculptured
with arabesques: the other colonnettes are alternately
plain and decorated with mosaic inlay. (..) The Sicilian pointed arch, with its high stilt, and rather
obtuse curve, is oriental, and has nothing to do with
that of Northern Gothic, but comes from the Saracen
school in Egypt, where it had already been known and
used for many centuries (you may wish to see the porticoes of the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia). T. G. Jackson
In recent years the cloister was partitioned into four gardens: Garden of Eden with a wild fig tree, Garden of Song of Songs with a wild pomegranate tree, Garden of the Gospel with a wild olive tree and Garden of the Apocalypse with a date palm.
Cloister: (left) detail showing that the size of the capitals does not match that of the arch they support; (right) some decorated columns
There is a perplexing inequality in the work of this
cloister. The arches are stilted and pointed, and on the
outside are inlaid with intarsia of basalt, and surmounted
by a band of the same work under the eaves. (..) The
work is like that of the campanile of La Martorana, which
was built in 1143, and is roughly executed in a rather
coarse stone like that used in the cloister of the Eremiti.
But the abacus of the coupled colonnettes does not take
the inner order, which hangs in air unsupported, and would
fall were it not worked in the solid of the outer order.
The colonnettes and their capitals, unlike the arches they
carry, are of the finest 12th century work, exquisitely
wrought in marble; the alternate shafts are inlaid with
glass mosaic, like those at the Lateran and S. Paolo
in Rome, and the capitals are magnificently finished, some with foliage, others with figure subjects. (..)
The only explanation I can offer is that the arches were
prepared by native Sicilians, the same who built the
Duomo itself, which is inlaid in the same way, and that
the capitals and colonnettes were imported from Italy
and worked away from the building without sufficient
communication with the local men. T. G. Jackson
All art historians agree that the decoration of the cloister was made by different sculptors, but opinions about their places of origin vary greatly.
Cloister: (left) enclosure in the south-west corner; (right) its fountain; (inset) detail of the spouts
the south-west corner of the cloister a square enclosure
is formed by breaking out three arches each way to
enclose a small court in which is a beautiful fountain,
discharging little streams into a basin from small (human and) lions'
heads. This gives a distinctly oriental touch to the
whole. T. G. Jackson
The design of the fountain with its chevron pattern is so different from that of the columns and capitals that it most likely was made by someone who was not otherwise involved in the decoration of the cloister.
Cloister: columns of the enclosure which are decorated with zodiacal signs: Pisces and Gemini
The subjects depicted on the capitals and on a few columns were picked from illustrated medieval books: religious or historical events, months of the year and zodiacal signs together with a large number of animals, both real or imaginary ones. They are not grouped in an orderly manner and the subject of some capitals is still debated. There are many acanthus scrolls, but also reliefs depicting celandine flowers which were used as a medicament. The Benedictine monks most likely grew officinal (medicinal) plants in the cloister.
Capital depicting the Fall and Expulsion from Eden. You may wish to see the same subject in a medieval relief at Taormina
The sculpture is superior to anything else of the kind that I saw in Sicily. (..) these splendid capitals are equal to the finest examples of 12th or early 13th century work I have ever seen. T. G. Jackson
Capital depicting scenes from the life of Samson: (left) the Philistines blind Samson; (right) Samson pulls a column of a Philistine temple
Some of the capitals show heroes of the Bible in an unusual attire, e.g. the Philistines in the capital shown above. The words "pona anima mea" are perhaps meant to say "Moriatur anima mea cum Philisthim" (Let me die with the Philistines). Samson was regarded as a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You may wish to see the XIIth century capitals in the Benedictine cloister of S. Sofia at Benevento.
Capital portraying Constantius Chlorus and St. Helena, parents of Emperor Constantine and above it "Hic Dominus magnus leo Cristus cernitur agnus" (Here the Lord, the great lion Christ, is seen as a lamb)
(left) S. Castrense; (centre) S. Maria Odigitria; (right) S. Maria del Collegio
The Archbishops of Monreale could rely on substantial revenues from the estates belonging to the Cathedral and they promoted the construction of a number of mainly XVIIIth century churches and other religious buildings along the main street of the town. Monreale is still an archiepiscopal see.
Move to see the interior of the Cathedral.
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - Other Monuments
Palermo - Gates and City Layout
Palermo - Norman-Arab Monuments
Palermo - Martorana and Cappella Palatina
Palermo - Medieval Palaces
Palermo - Cathedral
Palermo - Churches of the Main Religious Orders
Palermo - Other Churches
Palermo - Oratories
Palermo - Palaces of the Noble Families
Palermo - Public Buildings and Fountains
Palermo - Museums
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale