Cathedral cloister and benedictine monastery

1172 - 1176

    Monreale Cathedral, with its cloister and monastery, is one of the greatest architectural marvels of the Middle Ages. Founded by William II in 1172, it was largely completed some four years later, though some of the work dragged on into the 13th century. The cathedral was the focus of the new royal citadel on which the young Siculo-Norman king had set his heart. The plan of the building is of the Latin/Norman type, with the arms of the transept projecting only slightly. The main part of the basilica is divided into three lengthways by columns with capitals, probably plundered from Late-Imperial buildings. (See Cafalý Cathedral and Palatine Chapel). There are no galleries, as is the case with all the Norman churches of Sicily – to avoid sacrificing any of the space that could be decorated with mosaic work. The three-apsed chancel is on a higher level than the nave. At its centre are four large pilasters, but these do not support a cupola structure like that of the Palatine Chapel. The arches create a striking perspective effect, drawing the eye towards the vault of the apse, which is dominated by the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator.

The west doorway, like that of Cefalý Cathedral, is flanked by two bell towers of the Norman type. Externally, the projecting apses are richly decorated with two-tone inlay work to compose intersecting arches and disks featuring Islamic and Norman geometrical designs. The mosaic cycle (c. six thousand square metres) is one of the largest and most valuable of its kind. As well as its great originality, the figurative, theological and cosmological renderings of scenes from the Old and New Testaments are quite exceptional.
The cloister, built on the Cluniac model and supported by pairs of slim columns, demonstrates the skills of Sicilian craftsmen in achieving a synthesis of Byzantine, Arab and Norman sculptural and geometrical motifs.
Also of interest is the partly ruined monastery.

The photographs show the bell towers; decorative features of the apse; a perspective view of the nave; and details of the mosaics and cloister.

Vittorio Noto

D. B. Graviana, "Il Duomo di Monreale", Palermo, 1869
E. Kitzinger, "I mosaici di Monreale", Palermo, 1960
W. Kronig, "Il Duomo di Monreale e l'architettura normanna in Sicilia", Palermo, 1965
Guido Di Stefano, "Monumenti della Sicilia Normanna", Palermo, 1979

Melo Minnella, Palermo / Vittorio Noto