Monreale is a town about ten kilometers from Palermo, just over 300 meters above sea level. It would probably be one of the many anonymous places in Italy if it were not that, during the twelfth century, there had not been built one of the most spectacular and fascinating places of worship in all of Sicily and Italy, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova, better known as the Cathedral of Monreale.
According to the legend it would have been even the Madonna in person who, in a premonitory dream, would have suggested its realization to the Norman king William II. The new church would have had to overcome every other known church for magnificence and beauty, including the Palatine Chapel of Palermo to whom Cathedral partly is inspired.
The result is a monumental architecture that can literally take the breath away from the visitor, a fascination enhanced by the exceptional panoramic view from here on the entire Conca d’Oro, the great Sicilian plain (photo 1).
Monreale, UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a place of absolute beauty, one of those places where you can touch all the human greatness, the unequaled art of mosaic, the exceptional Islamic wisdom that here merges with the severe Norman culture.
The entrance of the Cathedral consists of two massive towers that severely delimit the entire facade (photo 2). The entrance consists of a rich bronze door partially hidden by the eighteenth-century portico opened by three arches. The Church is oriented on the west-east axis with a clear symbolic reference: one enters in the Cathedral according to a path that starts from the darkness (the west, geographic point where the sun goes to die) and ends in the east, in the light of God that welcomes you towards the apse of the Church. Unfortunately, access to the Cathedral takes place on the north side, so losing this symbolic meaning.
Next to the Cathedral the beautiful Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II opens, enriched by palm trees, very tall and extremely long-limbed (photo 3).
Entered inside in the Cathedral, you are struck by the grandeur of the church.
The plan of the church has three naves that end in the three apses at the bottom. The central nave is three times the nave aisles. Two rows of nine columns per side divide the central space (photo 4).
The most important aspect of the Cathedral is represented by the spectacular mosaics that almost completely cover the wall surface, an artistic representation of the Old Testament and of the life of Christ expressed in precious mosaic images.
The entire image inside the Cathedral is dominated by the monumental Christ Pantocrator, a typical Byzantine depiction of Jesus, which occupies the apse entirely (photo 6). It is not necessary to be a practicing Christian to be stunned before so much beauty, where the gaze of Christ, whether you want it or not, whether you believe it or not, seeks and reaches you. It is probably the emblem of the Cathedral of Monreale.
On the left aisle you can admire the Chapel of the Crucifix (photo 7), built between 1686 and 1692 by the Archbishop Giovanni Roano to keep the wooden crucifix that, according to an ancient tradition, was a gift from William II. The chapel is a splendid example of Baroque art in Sicily.
From the southern side of the church you can access in the beautiful Benedictine cloister, square in shape (photo 8).
The ogival arches of the portico are supported by over 200 columns, with different stems and capitals, many with mosaic inlays, others carved with arabesques (photo 9).
Usually, the central part of every Benedictine cloister (and not only those) is enriched by the presence of a fountain that normally has the task of embellishing and giving movement to the building. Not in this case. The fountain (photo 10), in fact, rather than being in the center, is relegated to one of the four corners of the cloister. The reason? The fountain is decentralized for a tribute to the manpower of the time – which contributed to the construction of the cloister – made up mostly of workers of Islamic faith. The fountain, in fact, is oriented towards Mecca.
What to eat
From the square in front of the Cathedral, I suggest a short detour. Entering in the narrow Via Guglielmo II the Norman and turning immediately right into Via Salvo d’Acquisto, you come across a small and apparently anonymous ice-cream shop. Stop and try one of the delicious ice creams with brioche, a delicious Sicilian specialty that should not be missing from your trip to Monreale.
For the website of the Cathedral, click here.