The cathedral of Monreale (part 1): history and exterior

Cathedral of Monreale.

In true Sicilian style I travelled to the world-famous cathedral of Monreale: on a rattling bus with no number. The bus departed from the Piazza Indipendenza in Palermo, directly behind the Palazzo dei Normanni. The fact that the bus was unnumbered made me a bit insecure, but the grumpy driver assured me that he was going to Murriali. And lo and behold, after about half an hour and a steep climb he safely delivered me and a handful of other tourists to the charming town on the Monte Caputo. The view of the misty Conca d’Oro, the valley in which Palermo is situated, was splendid. I had, however, in the first place come for the cathedral of the town, a genuine wonder of the world and UNESCO world heritage since 2015. As I had arrived very early and the cathedral was just opening its doors, it was still very quiet inside. But when I returned in the nave of the building after a walk on the roofs of the aisles and the apse, the situation had changed dramatically. Hordes of tourists with noisy guides had taken over the cathedral. My advice is therefore simple: make sure you arrive early.

As there is so much to tell about the cathedral of Monreale I will split my post into four separate parts:

  1. History and exterior;
  2. Interior;
  3. Mosaics;
  4. Cloister.

The Conca d’Oro.

The founding of Monreale: legend and reality

King William II offers the cathedral to the Virgin Mary.

The cathedral of Monreale is the most important project of the Norman-Sicilian king William II “the Good”, who reigned between 1166 and 1189. According to tradition the king was hunting outside Palermo around 1174 when he stopped to rest for a while at an old chapel. Suddenly the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream. She told him where his father, King William I “the Bad”, had hidden a treasure and commanded him to dig it up and use it for a sacred purpose. William thereupon decided to build a large church in Monreale dedicated to the Virgin, as well as a convent of Benedictine monks. The project got off to a flying start and work progressed rapidly. Thanks to support from Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), Monreale was granted a special status. The abbot of the convent automatically became a bishop, which meant that the church acquired the status of a cathedral. In 1183, with the construction of the complex still in full swing, Pope Lucius III took the decision to upgrade the diocese of Monreale to an archdiocese. And so the bishop of Monreale became an archbishop, just like his colleague of neighbouring Palermo. Work on the cathedral was then completed in or around 1189, the year in which King William II died. The young king – he was just 36 years old – found his final resting place in the building.

We may obviously dismiss the story of the apparition of the Virgin as pious nonsense. The only part of it that is true, is that the cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Nuova.[1] The element of the treasure no doubt refers to the astronomical sums of money that the king spent on his cathedral and the adjacent convent. For the mosaics alone some 2,200 kilograms of gold was used. But if inspiration from above cannot have been the motive for the construction of the cathedral, then what did motivate King William to launch this project? In this respect, many authors have pointed to the rivalry between the king and the archbishop of Palermo, the Englishman Walter of the Mill. The presence of an Englishman in the Norman-Sicilian kingdom should not come as a surprise. After all, England had been annexed by the Norman duke William the Conqueror in 1066. As a consequence of this much more famous Norman Conquest the English kings, their noblemen and high-ranking church officials were often more French than English. In 1177 King William II of Sicily would marry princess Joan, a daughter of Henry II of England and a sister of Richard the Lionheart. The political ties between Sicily and England were therefore strong. Moreover, as a rich and powerful kingdom, Sicily drew many fortune hunters and adventurers. Walter was far from the only Englishman on the island: his compatriot Richard Palmer was for instance bishop of Syracuse and archbishop of Messina.

Bronze doors of Bonanno Pisano.

Walter of the Mill had originally been hired as a tutor for William and his brothers when they were still children. Simultaneously he had made a career for himself in the Church and had successively been appointed archdeacon of Cefalù and canon of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. In 1168 Walter hit the jackpot when he was appointed archbishop of Palermo. This made the Englishman a formidable figure in the Sicilian kingdom, a figure who had a huge influence on the Norman nobility and who wanted to defend the independence of the Catholic Church on Sicily against both the Pope and the King. From that perspective it can easily be understood why William wanted a new archdiocese so close to that of Walter. In the popes in Rome – who had in the past so often opposed the Norman kings of Sicily – William now found willing allies. Pope Lucius III – a dinosaur who was well into his eighties – gave his consent to the creation of a new archdiocese just a few kilometres outside Palermo. Monreale annexed a couple of churches and parishes from the archdiocese of Palermo, diminishing the power of Walter of the Mill bit by bit. It is often assumed that, in response to all this, Walter started the construction of a grandiose new cathedral in Palermo around 1179.

Some authors have disputed that it was a rivalry with archbishop Walter of the Mill that lay at the core of the founding of the cathedral of Monreale.[2] Admittedly, the Norman kings of Sicily never needed such rivalries to launch the most fabulous religious projects. Just think of the beautiful cathedral of Cefalù, founded in 1131 by William’s grandfather Roger II (1130-1154). But while Cefalù is about 60 kilometres from Palermo as the eagle flies, the distance between Monreale and Palermo is just 6 or 7 kilometres. King William II and his papal allies could have founded a new archdiocese just about anywhere on Sicily, but they deliberately chose Monreale. The person who immediately felt the consequences of this decision was archbishop Walter of the Mill. This makes it highly plausible that the whole project was inspired by the wish to limit Walter’s power.

Exterior

We do not know the name of the architect of the cathedral and the convent. What we do know is that several teams of craftsmen were active in Monreale. Some of them were from the kingdom of Sicily itself, others came from abroad. One of the latter was Bonanno Pisano, who was responsible for the bronze doors of the main entrance of the cathedral. As his name indicates, Bonanno Pisano was from the city of Pisa in Tuscany. He had made a name for himself by crafting a set of doors for the cathedral of that city. The Pisan doors have fortunately been preserved, in spite of a fire in 1595. King William II summoned the sculptor to Sicily, where Bonanno completed a set of doors for the main entrance, nicknamed the Porta del Paradiso, in 1186. On the doors we see 40 different scenes from the Old and New Testament. Unfortunately the gates in front of the cathedral façade are usually closed, and I saw no way to exit the building through the main entrance either. I therefore had to content myself with admiring the scenes from a distance.

A lion and griffin on the bronze doors of Bonanno Pisano.

Last Supper on the doors of Bonanno Pisano.

Apse of the cathedral.

The cathedral of King William II has been remodelled through the centuries. This is especially true as regards the exterior, which rapidly becomes clear if we walk around the building. Let us start at the front, which faces the Piazza Guglielmo II, named after King William. The marble portico between the two towers was only added in 1770. The portico is a work by the sculptor Ignazio Marabitti (1719-1797). It consists of four columns and three arches, and is made of white and grey marble. The eighteenth-century portico replaced an earlier portico – probably the original one from the twelfth century – that was beyond repair. The two massive towers are not of equal height. Neither of the two has ever been completed, which is no doubt related to King William’s premature death. The tower on the right originally had a spire, but this was destroyed by a lightning strike in 1807. The tower on the left is basically no more than a stub. In the sixteenth century it was converted into a bell-tower.

Attached to the northern flank of the cathedral we find a second portico. This portico is much longer and consists of eleven arches supported by twelve columns. It was built between 1547 and 1569 on the orders of cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589). He was a son of Pier Luigi Farnese, the first Duke of Parma and Piacenza, and a grandson of Pope Paulus III (1534-1549), who was also called Alessandro Farnese. In 1536 the Pope appointed fifteen-year-old Alessandro archbishop of Monreale, an office he would hold until 1573. The portico was designed by the obscure architect Biagio Timpanella and built by the much more famous Giovanni Domenico Gagini (1503-1560) and his half-brothers Fazio Gagini (1520-1567) and Vincenzo Gagini (1527-1595). The men were scions of a family of sculptors that was originally from Bissone in present-day Switzerland. Inside the portico visitors will find the box office where they can buy tickets for the complex.

Doors of Barisano da Trani.

After buying tickets, visitors can enter the cathedral through a side entrance. It has beautiful bronze doors, which many visitors sadly ignore. The doors are the work of Barisano da Trani (Barisanus of Trani) and they are slightly younger[3] than the doors of Bonanno Pisano. Barisano was from a town in Apulia, Southern Italy, which was also part of the kingdom of Sicily. Until 1130 Sicily had merely been a county, of which the Count was formally a vassal of the Duke of Apulia and Calabria (who was himself a vassal of the Pope in Rome). But in 1127-1128 Great Count Roger II of Sicily had annexed the territories of his late cousin William of Apulia. His claims to these territories were ultimately acknowledged by Pope Honorius II (1124-1130), and in 1130 Roger II received a royal crown thanks to the help of Antipope Anacletus II (1130-1138). In the latter year Roger finally became King of Sicily, with Sicily comprising not just the island, but also much of Southern Italy. Trani, Barisano’s hometown, was therefore part of Roger’s kingdom and that of his grandson William II. For the cathedral of the latter he made bronze doors that feature 28 religious scenes.

In the Via Arcivescovado behind the cathedral one can take a look at the mighty apses of the building (see the image above). These apses have retained their Norman-Sicilian appearance, and it is hard to deny the Arabic influences in the beautiful decorations. Limestone and lava stone were both used for the construction of the rear of the cathedral. The southern flank of the cathedral can only be seen from the cloister.

South side of the cathedral and cloister.

Sources

  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 80-81;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 313-317;
  • Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 12-25.

Notes

[1] “Nuova” (new), because it was pretended that the cathedral was a continuation of the originally Greek chapel of Hagia Kyriake, the chapel where the king had rested. Hagia Kyriake had reportedly been the official seat of the Greek metropolitan during the Arabic occupation of Palermo (831-1072). See John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 315.

[2] See for instance Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 12.

[3] According to Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 19. However, Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 80 and John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 317 state that the doors are slightly older than those of Bonanno and date from 1179. The year 1179 probably refers to the doors of the Duomo of Ravello, also by Barisano da Trani.

2 Comments:

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