The Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily
Perched on the slopes of Monte Caputo, just a few kilometers outside of Palermo, Sicily, is perhaps the finest example of Norman architecture ever constructed in Sicily. If you are planning a visit to Sicily, you will certainly want to include a visit to Monreale to see for yourself the incredible mosaic work that covers over 68,000 square feet of the interior of the Cathedral of Monreale. It is these amazing mosaics that make the Cathedral of Monreale so special and worthy of a visit. Today, the church is a national monument of Italy and one of the most visited sites in Sicily.
Commissioned in 1174 by the Norman ruler of Sicily, William II, the church was not completed until eleven years later in 1185. Built to demonstrate the grandeur and magnificence of his kingdom, the result did not disappoint. Throw in a little family rivalry with William II trying to outdo his grandfather, Roger II, who built the spectacular Cathedral of Cefalu, and you have one of the most spectacular churches in the world.
William II lived just long enough to see his masterpiece completed. He died in 1189 at the age of just 36. The burial tombs of both William II and his father William I are contained within the cathedral.
The cathedral is a mix of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox design and is sometimes referred to as two churches melded into one. The nave, or main body of the church, is similar to an Italian basilica in design yet the triple-apse choir resembles those of the Middle East and Orient.
Monreale is located just a few miles outside of Sicily’s largest city, Palermo. The easiest way to get to Monreale is to hop on one of the city buses that will take you to the Cathedral in approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Most write-ups on Monreale will have you take the bus from Piazza Independenza. We opted instead for the AST bus from just outside the train station. The wonderful folks at the Ambasciatori Hotel warned us that the number 389 bus from Piazza Independenza is notorious for pickpockets.
The bus trip up the hill to Monreale was fairly quick and painless. It was a short five-minute walk to the Cathedral from the AST bus stop. The number 389 bus drops passengers right in front of the church, which is a more convenient drop-off point.
The main attraction here is the cathedral itself and its beautiful mosaics so make sure you don’t rush through. When you consider that in just three short years, local artists and those from Constantinople covered virtually every square inch of the interior with tiny golden mosaics, you will certainly appreciate the magnificence of this achievement. While there is much to see and absorb in the cathedral, your attention will be drawn to the large mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, which rises in the half-dome above the main apse. If you stop and consider the detail work that went into creating this masterpiece you will no doubt leave with a greater appreciation for the craftsman who labored here almost one thousand years ago.
In the close-up photo below you can make out the individual golden pieces that make up the mosaic. It must have taken millions of individual pieces to cover the interior of the cathedral.
While the mosaic of Christ dominates the interior, the rest of the walls in the church are covered with mosaics of apostles, saints, scenes from the life of Christ, and stories from both the Old and New Testament.
The wooden beams of the ceiling, which were replaced in 1811 due to a fire, are painted gold to match the mosaics of the church. Gazing up at the ceiling with its beautifully painted beams is quite an impressive site and adds to the grandeur of the church
Wooden Beam Ceiling
Treasury and Cloister
The treasury of the cathedral also contains a number of impressive items of art from the Renaissance period and is worth a peek.
The cloister, which is the beautiful courtyard, measures a perfect 47 by 47 meters and is surrounded by colonnaded porticoes with pointed arches. There are a total of 228 columns that support the Arab style arches. You can get a great view of the cloister by heading to the rooftop terrace, which offers some spectacular views.
The cathedral has two sets of Romanesque bronze doors. As there are only a few remaining in Europe, they are a rarity. The main entrance doors were hand sculpted by Bonanno da Pisa in 1185 and they contain 42 scenes from the bible. The north doors were finished in 1179 by Barisano da Trani and contain 42 portraits of evangelists and saints.
For a small fee and a little climbing you can ascend to the roof top terrace. While you are here touring the cathedral you might as well make the climb. The view alone of the bay of Conca d’Oro and the city of Palermo below is spectacular and is worth the effort.
While entry into the cathedral itself is free of charge, there is a small charge of two euro for the treasury and the rooftop terrace, and eight euro for the cloister. The fees are small and very reasonable considering you are seeing one of the grandest cathedrals in the world.
View From the Terrace
The cathedral is open Monday to Saturday from 8am to 1pm, and 2:30pm to 6:30pm. On Sunday the hours are 8am to 1pm. I highly recommend a visit to the Cathedral of Monreale if you are in Palermo, in fact it should be one of your priorities while here. Plan on allocating a half day to make the trip up the hill and to tour the site. While here you may also want to spend some time strolling the streets of Monreale before heading back to Palermo. Enjoy your visit to this world famous masterpiece.
Ciao for now.
Other articles on Sicily:
- Top 10 Things to do in Taormina, Sicily
Planning a trip to Taormina? Discover all there is to see and do in this comprehensive guide to the jewel of Sicily. Taormina has something for everyone and is considered one of the most beautiful locations in all of Italy.
- The Valley of the Temples - Agrigento, Sicily
One of Sicily's most famous archaeological sites is without a doubt the Valley of the Temples. Located just outside of Agrigento, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a must see when visiting Sicily.
- A Visit to Siracusa's Island of Ortygia
Enjoy this guide to visiting the historical island of Ortygia. Connected to Siracusa by three bridges, Ortygia is home to some of Sicily's greatest archaeological treasures.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Bill De Giulio