The cathedral of Monreale (part 2): the interior

The interior of the cathedral of Monreale is dominated by over 6,000 square metres of mosaics. The dominance of these decorations is so immense that visitors are inclined to think that their visit is all about the mosaics. This is certainly untrue. The cathedral has much more in store for art lovers, ranging from floors to ceilings, and from tombs to chapels. Before I dedicate a separate post to the splendour of the mosaics I will therefore use this post to discuss some of the other highlights of the interior.

Interior of the cathedral.

Nave, aisles, transept

Eighteen columns divide the cathedral into a nave and two side aisles. The columns are spolia, i.e. materials taken from ancient Roman buildings and reused here. These buildings presumably stood outside Sicily, so it is likely that the columns were imported from the Italian mainland by ship. All columns are made of granite, except for the first column on the right, which is made of green Cipollino marble. The capitals are spolia as well. They feature pagan figurines such as the ones that we also find in certain churches in Rome, a clear sign of the triumph of Christianity over false religion.

Left aisle of the cathedral.

Cosmatesque floor.

The walls of the aisles are covered in marble and embellished with Cosmatesque decorations. In the transept we moreover find beautiful Cosmatesque floors. The original wooden ceiling was restored on many occasions before it was regretfully lost in a fire in 1811. It follows that the current ceiling is a nineteenth-century creation, but the makers have in fact attempted to replicate the original. In the ceiling we see the Arabic influences which were quite common in the Norman-Sicilian kingdom, especially in and around a culturally still very Arabic city such as Palermo. Examples are the eight-pointed stars on the beams of the nave.

Cosmatesque floor.

View of the ceiling of the cathedral. The mosaics depict soldier saints such as Saints George and Theodore.


Tomb of King William I “the Bad”.

In the right transept the tombs of the Sicilian kings William I and William II, father and son, stand side by side. Some 200 years after his death William I was given the nickname “The Bad”. This was not altogether deserved, and mostly the result of the propaganda of a certain Hugo Falcandus – the name may be a pseudonym – who in his Liber de Regno Sicilie completely destroyed the king’s legacy. William I, who sat on the throne between 1154 and his death in 1166, was indeed not a good king. As a monarch he could not hold a candle to his illustrious father Roger II (1130-1154). But William was unlucky rather than bad. It should be noted that his reign actually got off to a good start. Thanks to his principal minister, the Emir of Emirs Maio of Bari, William managed to fend off a Byzantine attack in Apulia in 1156 and make a peace treaty with the hostile English pope Adrianus IV (1154-1159). But then there was a series of setbacks. In 1160 the Sicilian territories in North Africa were lost and in March of 1161 a coup was launched against King William by his half-brother Simon[1] and his nephew Tancred of Lecce[2]. The coup was ultimately a failure, but it did lead to the death of William’s young son Roger, who was struck by a stray arrow. After this tragic incident, the king constantly felt afraid and insecure.

King William I died in 1166, aged just forty. He was buried in the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, but his son and successor William II (1166-1189) had the body of his father moved to his new cathedral in Monreale. The tomb of the first William is a classical porphyry sarcophagus, in the best tradition of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. The sarcophagus was once covered by a baldachin that was supported by six columns, but unfortunately this has not been preserved. The contrast with the tomb of King William II is huge. After his death at the tender age of 36, the second William had initially been buried in the vicinity of the high altar. Instead of a splendid tomb he had merely been granted a simple wooden coffin.[3] Much later Ludovico de Torres, archbishop of Monreale between 1573 and 1584, felt that this did not do the founder of the cathedral justice by a mile. In 1575 he had the body of the king exhumed and placed in a new sarcophagus made of white marble, decorated with gilded reliefs and provided with long texts in Latin.

Tomb of King William II “the Good”.

King William II of Sicily has become known to posterity as William the Good. The nickname is also mentioned on his tomb (GVLIELMO COGNOMENTO BONO), but it is hardly deserved. William did not want to be a respected diplomat like his grandfather Roger II, but preferred to act the conqueror, much like his great-grandfather Roger I, the founder of Norman power on Sicily. In 1174 he had his fleet attack the city of Alexandria in Egypt, but the attack was a miserable failure. Then in 1185 he launched a war on a much grander scale against the Byzantine Empire. It would be the king’s most disastrous decision ever, as the war ended much like Napoleon’s campaign against Russia. After initial successes the Sicilian army was chased back all the way to Durazzo in present-day Albania, the staging point for the campaign. By the time the king’s men reached that city there was not much left of the once so powerful army.

In several other respects William II was a failure as well. In the 1170s attempts were made to have the king marry a daughter of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. When Manuel refused to send this Maria Komnene to Sicily, a new bride was found in the daughter of Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor. However, William and the girl never married. Ultimately, in 1177, the king was joined in holy matrimony with Joan, the daughter of the English King Henry II. The marriage remained childless, and as a consequence a succession crisis erupted when William died in 1189. Several factions fought each other for control of the kingdom. Five years later, in 1194, the Norman-Sicilian kingdom was history. The new king was a German, Henry VI of Hohenstaufen (1165-1197). He was Holy Roman Emperor and the son of the aforementioned Frederick Barbarossa. In 1186 he had married the much older Constance of Sicily (1154-1198), a posthumous daughter of King Roger II and therefore an aunt of William II. William had given his consent to the marriage, thus creating the risk of the throne falling into German hands if the king remained childless. And that is exactly what happened.

Tomb of Margaret of Navarre.

In the left transept we also find a number of interesting tombs. One of them contains the heart and entrails of the French king Louis IX. He died in 1270 while crusading in Tunisia. The king’s body was taken to the basilica of Saint-Denis near Paris, but his younger brother Charles of Anjou decided to have the heart and entrails taken to the cathedral of Monreale. This Charles was King of Sicily between 1266 and 1282 (and formally until 1285). King Louis IX was canonised by Pope Bonifatius IX (1294-1303) in 1297, which makes him the only French king in history to have reached sainthood. Other tombs in the left transept are those of relatives of King William II: his older brother Roger (who, as was already mentioned, died during the coup of 1161), his younger brother Henry (1160-1172) and his mother Margaret of Navarre (died 1183).

Cappella Roano

Of the many different chapels in the cathedral the Cappella del Santissimo Crocifisso is definitely the most impressive and interesting one. The chapel is also known as the Cappella Roano, after archbishop Giovanni Roano (1673-1703), on whose orders the construction of the chapel started in 1687. The architect involved was the Jesuit Angelo Italia (1628-1700). The Cappella Roano is a typical example of Sicilian Baroque, colourful and extravagant. You either love it or hate it. The official name of the chapel, Cappella del Santissimo Crocifisso, derives from the fifteenth-century crucifix at the back of the chapel. The style of the crucifix is Northern European, and it was possibly commissioned by Ausias Despuig, archbishop of Monreale between 1458 and 1483. The floor of the chapel and the four large marble statues of prophets are truly splendid.

Cappella Roano.


  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 80-81;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 321;
  • Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 27-31, p. 149-154 and p. 167.


[1] A bastard son of William’s father Roger II. Roger had appointed him Prince of Taranto in 1148.

[2] A bastard son of Roger III, Duke of Apulia, the eldest son of Roger II. Roger III died in 1148, about six years before his father.

[3] This was apparently the result of a feud between the archbishops of Monreale and Palermo, as a result of which the tomb intended for William remained in Palermo and was later lost. See John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 321.

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