Monreale: between norman and arab styles

12/04/2021 By News Comments Off

Overlooking Palermo and the Tyrrhenian Sea, the hilltop town of Monreale is home to one of Sicily’s most precious cultural treasures, the Cathedral of Monreale.

According to the legend, King William II, known as the Good, while resting under a carob tree seized by fatigue, had in his dream the apparition of the Virgin Mary who revealed to him the presence of a leaving (in Sicilian: ‘a truvatura) with a treasure right under the tree in which he was laying. The task assigned to him by the Virgin Mary was precisely to dig, unearthing that priceless treasure, and build a monument in her honour.

The sovereign, once awake, decided to follow the instructions that were revealed to him and he ordered to uproot the tree and the treasure was promptly found.

This cathedral incorporates Norman, Byzantine and classical elements, and is considered the greatest masterpiece of Norman architecture in Sicily, as well as one of the most impressive architectural legacies of the Italian Middle Ages.

Local and Venetian masters were called to create the mosaics, but the influence of Byzantine art is felt everywhere thanks to its stylized forms. Completed in 1184 after only 10 years of work, the mosaics depict 42 biblical episodes from creation to the Assumption of the Virgin.

There are no words to describe so much beauty: to fully understand it you have to see with your own eyes the Ark of Noah in the midst of the waves, or the Christ healing a leper depicted with lots of buboes. The story of Adam and Eve is also portrayed in a masterly way, with Eve sitting frowning on a rock after being expelled from the earthly Paradise and Adam working in the background. The great mosaic of Christ Pantocrator that adorns the apse is simply sublime. Binoculars facilitate the observation of the mosaics, which however are equally magnificent to the naked eye.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the entrance to the cloister, a pleasant testimony of William’s passion for Arab art. This quiet courtyard is in fact a triumph of oriental architecture, with elegant arches supported by slender columns in turn decorated with magnificent mosaic motifs. The capitals are different from each other and constitute an extraordinary example of the heights that sculptural art reached in medieval Sicily. The capital of the nineteenth column on the western side of the arcade portrays William offering the cathedral to the Virgin Mary.

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