The cathedral of Monreale (part 3): the mosaics

Mosaics in the central apse.

“No one can fail to be impressed by Monreale, ablaze as it is with over an acre and a half of superb mosaics, all completed within five or six years, between 1183 and the end of the decade. It lacks the gemlike perfection of the Palatine Chapel, the Byzantine mystery of the Martorana, or the sheer magic that streams down from the great Pantocrator at Cefalù. Its impact is chiefly due to its size and splendour. But this impact, like the cathedral itself, is colossal. Wandering slowly through the vast length of the building, one might be forgiven for thinking that virtually every Bible story is here illustrated.” – John Julius Norwich[1]

The mosaics in the cathedral of Monreale cover a space of over 6,000 square metres. Hundreds of kilograms of gold were used to make them. Although the size of the project must have been enormous, the mosaicists completed their work in record time. They started in 1183 and had finished the job around 1189 (see the quote from Lord Norwich above) or perhaps a few years after the death of King William II of Sicily – the founder of the cathedral – in 1189.[2] It is clear that several teams of workmen were active in the cathedral, under the direction of the unknown lead architect of Monreale. There are many similarities between the mosaics here and those in the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, completed in 1143. Good examples are the stories from the Old Testament and about the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that this royal chapel was not the source of inspiration for Monreale. Instead, a Byzantine iconographic manual may have been used for the decoration of both buildings.

Mosaics in the cathedral.

Counter-façade

Of course there are also notable differences between the mosaics in the immense cathedral of Monreale and the much smaller chapel in Palermo. On the counter-façade we for instance find several mosaics about the lives of Saints Cassius, Castus and Castrensis. The three saints are probably not widely known, so they require some introduction. Tradition dictates that Cassius and Castus were two bishops who were martyred in the first century, although here in Monreale they have been depicted with a tonsure rather than a mitre. A Roman prefect ordered them to be thrown to the lions, but the big beasts prostrated themselves at their feet like lap cats. Then the men were forcibly led to a temple of the pagan god Apollo to make a sacrifice there. Cassius and Castus started praying piously, causing the statue of the deity to fall to smithereens and the temple to collapse. Several pagans, including the prefect, lost their lives in the rubble. Other pagans subsequently took revenge by murdering Cassius and Castus.

Cassius and Castus destroy a temple of Apollo with their prayers.

Saint Castrensis is equally obscure; his name literally means “of the army camp”. According to tradition he was a bishop of the town of Sessa Aurunca in Campania in the fifth century. In 1177 his remains were translated to Monreale as a gift from the bishop of Capua on the occasion of the wedding of King William II and Joan, the daughter of the English king Henry II. Saint Castrensis was henceforth considered the patron saint of the town and of the archdiocese of Monreale. A chapel in the right aisle is dedicated to him and it is there that his relics are kept. The chapel was commissioned by Ludovico de Torres, who served as archbishop of Monreale between 1588 and 1609. He succeeded his uncle, who had died in 1583 and who was also called Ludovico de Torres. The latter Ludovico was responsible for the sixteenth-century tomb of King William II (see part 2 of this series). The younger Ludovico initially wanted to be buried in “his” chapel of Saint Castrensis, but ultimately found his final resting place in his titular church in Rome.

Miracles of Saint Castrensis.

In the cathedral of Monreale we see how Saint Castrensis exorcises a winged demon from a man and then saves a ship full of people that is harassed by that same demon. Between and below the mosaics about Cassius and Castus on the one hand and Castrensis on the other, we see a mosaic of the Madonna and Child. The Madonna is the Hodegetria (Ὁδηγήτρια), she who points the way. That way is of course Jesus Christ. The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. From the counter-façade of the building she looks at the gigantic Christ Pantokrator in the apse, with an image of the Virgin herself below him (see below).

Madonna Hodegetria.

Nave, aisles, transept

The mosaics in the nave are all based on stories from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Those who have visited the Cappella Palatina will immediately recognise Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Noah’s Ark, the tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorra and many other stories. The mosaics are divided into two registers, the top register in the clerestory and the bottom one above the arcades. All the way at the top we, by the way, see a third register of mosaics, just below the ceiling, which is composed of tondi with busts of angels. When I took stock of all the stories, I had a similar feeling as Lord Norwich (see his quote above), i.e. that virtually every story from the Bible appears on the walls. Upon closer inspection, however, it turns out that this is not entirely true. The stories about, for instance, Moses and Joshua, the exodus from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land are absent here. These stories are in fact featured in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Cain and Abel.

Lot flees from Sodom; his wife is turned into a pillar of salt.

Esau / Isaac blesses Jacob.

Jacob wrestles with the angel (i.e. God) and is called “Israël”.

The mosaics in the aisles and transept are all about the life of Jesus. Here we find the familiar stories from the four Gospels, ranging from the miraculous multiplication and the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Temple to the final days of the Saviour, with his arrest, conviction, crucifixion and resurrection. Here and there we may discern a few modern, hardly medieval-looking faces. These are no doubt the result of later restorations, as regretfully the tesserae that make up mosaics have a tendency to come off after a while, and Monreale is no exception to this rule. See for instance the head of Mary Magdalene in the noli me tangere scene (image below): it is evidently not twelfth-century. And yet the amount of restoration work here seems to have been fairly limited compared to that in the royal chapel of Palermo, where some of the mosaics have truly been ruined.

Raising of Lazarus.

Entry into Jerusalem and Last Supper.

Washing of the feet.

The empty tomb and Noli me tangere.

Christ and Doubting Thomas.

Choir and apses

The immense Christ in the conch of the central apse is impossible to miss, as the face of the Saviour alone is three metres high. Christ is the Pantokrator (Ὁ Παντοκράτωρ), the “Ruler of All Things”. While giving his blessing with his right hand, he is holding a book in his left hand with the text of John 8:12, which reads (in translation): “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness”. The text on the left page is in Latin, that on the right page in Greek. The gesture that Christ makes with his right hand is full of symbolism. The fingers form the Greek letters IC XC (Iesous Christos; Ἰησοῦς Χριστός), the same letters that can be seen on either side of the Saviour’s head. The two crossed fingers (index and middle finger) refer to the two inseparable natures of Christ[3], and the two locks of hair on Christ’s forehead probably do the same. The three other fingers (ring finger, little finger, thumb) refer to the Holy Trinity.

Christ Pantokrator.

Book with the text of John 8:12.

Christ Pantokrator (detail).

Below the Pantokrator the Madonna sits on a throne with the Christ child on her lap. In accordance with Byzantine tradition Christ is depicted as a mini adult here. He is holding a scroll in his left hand, while the Madonna is holding a handkerchief in hers, an imperial attribute. According to the Greek letters surrounding her head, the Madonna is the MP ΘY (Μήτηρ Θεοῦ), the Mother of God. We also read the word πανάχραντο (panachranto), which means “completely free from sin”. The throne is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, dressed as Byzantine emperors. They have a standard (labarum) in their one hand and a globe with a cross (globus cruciger) in the other. Like the Madonna they are wearing the τζαγγία, the imperial red shoes. The archangels are in their turn flanked by several apostles, including in the first place Saints Peter and Paul, and the four evangelists.

Madonna and Child, the archangels Michael and Gabriel, and Saints Peter and Paul.

One level down we see several saints. Unlike those of the Madonna, the archangels, the apostles and the evangelists, the captions here are not in Greek but in Latin. The selection of the saints must have been inspired by personal taste. Saint Benedictus of Nursia, second from the right, was probably chosen because a convent for Benedictine monks was founded next to the cathedral. Saint Nicholas of Bari was likely included because he was one of the most important patron saints of the Norman kingdom.

Lower register, second from the left: Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

The most surprising figure we see is accompanied by the text SCS THOMAS CANTVR. He is Saint Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 by supporters of King Henry II, his rival in a heated political and religious conflict. As was already mentioned, King William II of Sicily married Henry’s daughter Joan in 1177. In the meantime Becket had been canonised in 1173 by Pope Alexander III. That he was included among the saints is, on the one hand, a little odd, given that he was the nemesis of his father-in-law. That nemesis was, however, now a martyr who was venerated throughout the Christian world. Becket had moreover been canonised by a pope that William wanted to please (Alexander had already blocked a previous marriage of his). It is not inconceivable that it was Joan herself who pleaded with her husband to include her compatriot Thomas Becket. She personally seems to have admired him.[4] However this all may be, here in Monreale we have one of the oldest depictions of the murdered archbishop.

William II “the Good” crowned by Jesus Christ.

King William II is depicted twice in a mosaic in the choir. In the first mosaic he receives his royal crown from Jesus Christ. Christ is seated on his throne and towers high above William. With his right hand he presses the crown on the king’s head, and with his left hand he is holding a book with – again – the text of John 8:12, with the (abridged) text now only in Latin. Young William is dressed as a Byzantine emperor. The mosaic closely resembles – and was no doubt inspired by – the mosaic of the coronation of William’s grandfather Roger II (1130-1154) in the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (La Martorana) in Palermo. But while Roger was identified in Greek as ΡΟΓΕΡΙΟΣ ΡΗΞ (Rogerios Rex), William is REX GVILIELMVS S[E]C[VN]D[VS] in Latin. The other Latin text reads MANVS ENI[M] MEA AVXILIABITVR EI (“my hand supports him”), a text that comes from the Book of Psalms.

In the second mosaic King William II can be seen offering a scale model of the cathedral to the Virgin Mary, to whom the cathedral is dedicated (see the image in part 1 of this series). The Virgin sits on a throne and is again labelled as MP ΘY, while William is again REX GVILIELMVS S[E]C[VN]D[VS]. The Hand of God reaches out from heaven above to bless the project. It must be said that the scale model does not look anything like the real cathedral of Monreale. The portrait of the king, on the other hand, is presumably quite realistic. William is a slender man in his twenties or thirties with clear brown eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. Long after his death he acquired the nickname “The Good”, but as I have explained elsewhere, this was hardly deserved. His death in 1189 at the tender age of 36 plunged his kingdom into a chaos from which it would not rise again.

Crucifixion of Saint Peter.

The left apse is dedicated to Saint Paul the Apostle, the one on the right to his colleague Saint Peter. Remarkably, in the Cappella Palatina in Palermo it is the other way round. A large mosaic of Saint Paul adorns the left apse. The caption reads PREDICATOR VERITATIS ET DOCTOR GENTIVM, “preacher of truth and teachers of the peoples (i.e. non-Jews)”. On the vault above him Jesus Christ has been depicted giving his blessing. Saint Peter’s Latin caption reads SANCTVS PETRVS PRINCEPS APOSTOLORVM CVI TRADITE SVNT CLAVES REGNI CELORVM, “Saint Peter, first among the apostles, to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were delivered”. Above him we see Immanuel, a reference to Isaiah 7:14, where we read “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Christians saw this prophecy as foretelling the birth of Christ (based on Matthew 1:22-23).

Saint Paul flees from Damascus / Saint Paul with Timothy and Silas.

The mosaics on the walls of both apses feature stories from the lives of the two apostles. The two men travel the world and preach the new religion, sometimes alone, sometimes together. Ultimately they both end up in Rome, where they are martyred. As he is a Roman citizen, Paul is beheaded by the sword. Peter, on the other hand, is crucified upside down.

Saints Peter and Paul let Simon Magus crash.

Sources

  • Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 80-81;
  • John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
  • John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 318-321;
  • Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 32-147.

Notes

[1] John Julius Norwich, Sicily, p. 102-103.

[2] Lisa Sciortino, Monreale. The cathedral, the mosaics, the cloister, p. 32.

[3] The 451 Council of Chalcedon declared that Christ is one person with two indivisible natures, one divine and one human. It furthermore declared that he is “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man”.

[4] John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 320.

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