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Posts Tagged ‘monreale’

April 29 and 10, 2008

The (beautiful) mosaics at the Villa Casale were Roman, secular, and pastel. The (beautiful) mosaics at Monreale were Byzantine, Christian, and vibrant with color and gold. I loved them both, and I recommend seeing them both. However, it is easier to get to Monreale if you aren’t driving and don’t want to take a tour. The villa is somewhat isolated, while Monreale is just a short bus ride from Palermo. I visited Monreale twice, once with the tour group on the way to Cefalu, and once on my own when I returned to Palermo at the end of my trip. And while the mosaics are a sufficient reason for a return visit, Monreale also has a cloister full of fascinating columns and capitals. The tour visited in the morning, competing with crowds from three cruise ships, so I chose go back in the afternoon. It didn’t help much.


Monreale was commissioned by the Norman King William II, in 1174. At first sight it might seem overkill to build a massive cathedral so close to Palermo, where one was already under construction, begun in 1168. However, just as the Norman King Henry II in England was attempting to reduce the power of the church in opposition to that “troublesome priest” Thomas a Becket, William was contending with the archbishop building Palermo’s cathedral. William seems to have done better than Henry, and unlike Becket the cardinal escaped martyrdom. I find it interesting that we have Norman kings at both the northern and southern peripheries of Europe at the same time, although since the Normans were originally Vikings, perhaps it is not so strange. The Normans had wrested control of Sicily from the Moors (the same Moors then occupying the Iberian peninsula), and for a time Sicily was a flourishing example of multiculturalism. (But not for long.)


Monreale is definitely one of those places where pictures are more evocative than words (although my photos of the mosaics did not turn out well). However, I will mention that the entire interior is covered with Byzantine-style mosaics, 6,340 square meters of them, with a background of gold. Forty-two separate scenes depict key episodes from the Bible, culminating in a huge Christ Pantocrator above the main altar. Outside, the cloister is bordered by 228 slender, paired columns, all different, all with intriguing capitals carved with scenes from Sicilian history, and many with mosaic inlay. An Arab fountain is tucked into one corner.

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