In Sicilia: Monreale Cathedral

Monreale Cathedral Sanctuary

From time to time, our friend David writes to say, “You MUST.” And so it was, when we decided to visit Palermo, that he wrote, “You MUST go to Monreale.”

Needless to say, before this, I’d not even heard of Monreale—which turns out to be a small town just outside Palermo that happens to have a stupendous Arab-Norman Cathedral.

The cathedral’s story starts in the year 831, when Arabs took control of Palermo, turned its cathedral into a mosque, and banished the Bishop of Palermo into the bargain.

Not wishing to venture too far from his beloved cathedral, the Bishop settled in a small village in the hills overlooking Palermo, the site of modern-day Monreale. There, he built a modest church to keep the flame of local Christian worship alive.

Some 240 year later, in 1072, the Normans drove the Arabs from Sicily, establishing Palermo as their capital. [citation]

Exterior detail

Here’s a bit more potted history to set the stage on what came next:

Following the decisive battle of Palermo . . . the conquerors decided to keep the best of Byzantine and Arab culture, government and law intact, adding their own northwestern European institutions to the mix whenever this was deemed necessary or pragmatic. [citation]

William II, the penultimate Norman king to rule Sicily, was 18 when he acceded to the crown in 1171.

Though William sought to make his realm . . . a European one, he engaged in certain practices . . . unusual for a Christian Norman Knight. Not only did he have many Muslim ministers, astrologers and doctors in his court, William is said to have kept a harem in his palace, and to have spoken, read and written Arabic. [citation]

Construction began on Monreale’s cathedral the following year. “The superstructure took four years to build, reaching completion in 1176. Work on the mosaics and cloister was completed by the time of the young king’s death in 1189.” [citation] The resulting Monreale Cathedral “and its cloister represent the largest concentration of Norman, Arab and Byzantine art in one place.” [citation]


On entering the Cathedral, the vast expanse of golden mosaics is overpowering.

Like other Arab-Norman buildings, this building was built by Muslim and Byzantine artisans working together. In this most spectacular example of the cultural fusion taking place in 12th century Sicily, these artisans created one of the largest displays of mosaic art in the world covering over six thousand square meters. Only the Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, today known as Aya Sophia in Istanbul, had a larger display, now mostly lost. [citation]

I was never sure where to look, or for what. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. I walked and looked and sat, sat and looked and walked, all the while wondering about the people who did this painstaking work, who they were, what they thought, and what they felt.

I’ve not been able to find out anything about the artist-workers. Dante, so far as I know, doesn’t have anything to say about them, but he does have something to say about William II (known as “the Good”). In Paradiso, Canto XX, Dante places William II in the lower arc of the eagle’s brow:

The fourth you see within the lower arc
Was William, for whom that land goes in mourning
That weeps for Charles and Frederick yet alive.

Now he knows how an upright king is loved
In heaven, as he still makes evident
By the effulgent likeness of his glory.

To close, here’s a tantalizing speculation about the Dante-William II connection:

What the eagle says about William II, beyond mantling him in the splendor of a generic love of heaven just for princes, is that he is sorely missed by the territories that “now” languish under the misrule of his tyrannical successors, Charles II of Anjou and Frederick II of Aragon, rulers of Puglia and Sicily, respectively, in Dante’s own time and unrelentingly vituperated by him . . . . [Richard Lansing, The Dante Encyclopedia, p. 885]

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Additional Information

A description of the mosaics is here. A schematic of the mosaics is here. A good collection of labeled images of the mosaics is here.

A splendid Benedictine Cloisters is situated next to the Cathedral. Alas, short holiday opening hours didn’t allow time to visit. In lieu a cyber-tour link of the cloisters is here. (Photographs of the mosaics may be found on the same site.)

 Listening List

Claudio Monteverdi, The Vespers of 1610 (with thanks to David Nice for recommending this selection)

Even today, in an age which has heard Bach’s Mass in B minor, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and the requiems of Berlioz and Verdi, the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 is astonishing for the grandeur of its conception and the opulence of its sound. For its time, it was unprecedented. No other surviving work from that time is written on such a scale, combining the grandest of public music with the most intimate of solo songs; no other such work calls for the many colorful obbligato instruments and uses them in such a daringly modern, virtuosic way.

The full program notes from which the above excerpt is taken may be found here.


Voices: 2 sopranos, alto, 3 tenors, 2 basses; 2 mixed choruses (SATTB)
Orchestra: 2 flutes, 2 tenor recorders, 3 cornettos, 3 trombones, bass trombone
strings*, continuo (organ and other instruments)
*2 violini da brazzo (violins), 3 viuole da brazzo (violas),
bass viuola da brazzo (cello), contrabasso da gamba (double bass)


I. Domine ad adiuvandum me festina
II. Dixit dominus
III. Nigra sum
IV. Laudate pueri dominum
V. Pulchra es amica mea
VI. Laetatus sum
VII. Duo Seraphim clamabant
VIII. Nisi dominus
IX. Audi coelum
X. Lauda Jerusalem dominum
XI. Sonata sopra ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’
XII. Ave maris stella
XIII. Magnificat (I)
XIV. Magnificat (II)

The source for the instrumentation and movements information is here.

On YouTube here.  (John Eliot Gardiner/The Monteverdi Choir/The English Baroque Soloists/The London Oratory Juniors Choir; performed at the Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1990)

On Spotify here. (Harry Christopher/The Sixteen)

Bonus Track: Demonstration of Byzantine mosaic-making


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.



17 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Monreale Cathedral

  1. larrymuffin

    Indeed this church is stupendous and so worth a visit. I was quite surprised to discover Normans in Sicily on my first visit to the island. I had never heard of them and at first I confused William II the Good with the other William the Conqueror. All sorted out now.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: “All sorted out now.” I love this, as there is thus hope for me, as well, amazed and fascinated to learn about the cross-currents of Sicilian history, about which I knew nothing. One reads a lot about Venice and the Islamic world (there was a magnificent exhibit at the Met Museum a while back we were lucky enough to see:, but I’d neither read nor seen anything about Sicily.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Laurent: I haven’t got my hands on it yet, and am glad to be reminded of it. (I started in on another book, by Donald Matthews, but the library’s copy was so marked up I gave up on it.)

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – what an amazing post – and yes your friend David was absolutely correct to ‘demand’ that you visit – and then you post for us … wonderful. I didn’t know anything about the Cathedral … Sicily I’ve always wanted to go to … now Palermo and Monreale Cathedral call loudly … thank you so much – I’ll b back to look at some of the links … cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: Agree about David, who has been a marvelous guide to new discoveries. I hope you will get to Sicily. I know you’ll make the most of it!

  3. shoreacres

    I started with the video about the mosaic techniques, since it seemed most accessible. It certainly is a far cry from the dried bean pictures we made in grade school — and yet, many of the steps are related. I was completely taken with the stone on which the tesserae are cut. His ability to judge size by feel did remind me of many conversations I’ve had with people who ask, for example, “How do you know how much solvent to add to the varnish.” I don’t mean at all to be snarky when I say, “I add it until it’s just right.”

    I had no idea about Monreale. I did find your comments about Dante intriguing. The friend from Sicily to whom I sent your other posts knows her Dante. I’ll be curious to see if she has something to add to that part of the discussion.

    Otherwise? It’s gorgeous, and I’m so glad you shared it with us. I can only imagine what it was like to be surrounded by such beauty. It seems to me you could sit in the same place for hours, and still not be done with the looking.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I enjoyed learning where you chose the start–with the person making mosaics. I found that intriguing, also. I’ll be interested to know, if your friend responds, what further insights she may have to add on the Dante reference. I certainly know next to nothing about all of this–the quotation is something i happened upon by accident. Last, not least, yes, indeed, at Monreale, one could simply sit in place for hours. I walked and sat, but it amounted to the same thing. I was fascinated by the depictions of biblical scenes. One of my favorites (because of the light, I couldn’t get a decent photograph) was the creation of sun and moon. This doesn’t do it justice either, but to give the idea: I was struck, on another day (coming “soon” to your local blog . . .), by the rendering of the same scene in the Capella Palatina mosaics. It made me wonder whether there might have been shared conventions for 12th C biblical depictions of such scenes.

  4. Maria

    Hi. Your post on the history of the Monreale Cathedral, the explanations, the history, the photos are beautifully presented. I have been to Monreale and seen the “City of the Golden Temple”, its beauty is etched in my mind and heart. There isn’t much I can add to your post as you did a complete and splendid job in presenting the Church’s breathtaking beauty and her display of cultures and talents, a real feast for the eyes and mind.
    As I write this little comment, I am thinking that we could learn from the history of this Church. Above all we could learn some social and human skills of getting along with other cultures in a positive and mutually beneficial way!
    I was born in Sicily but have lived in the USA most of my life. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty found on this wonderful island! Please keep on writing your intelligent and informative posts. By the way, it was Shoreacres who made me aware of your site.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Maria: How lovely of you to visit, and with such kind and thoughtful comments. There is so much more I would like to know about the church, and particularly the artists and craftspeople who came together to create these splendid mosaics. You are so right in stating how much “we could learn from the history of this Church. Above all we could learn some social and human skills of getting along with other cultures in a positive and mutually beneficial way.” Thank you for writing.

  5. David N

    Wonderful job you’ve done here. I meant to pursue more about Monreale, and indeed about the Normans in history, but there are so many paths one can pursue after visiting Palermo – una vita non basta – and I can only hope we return and visit what we missed, namely the Moorish-inspired wonders still surviving in the suburbs like La Zisa (Mary Taylor Simeti writes evocatively about them). I also thought Monreale made a superb contrast to the more intimate chapel in the palace in town (which you have also written about so eloquently). Couldn’t say which I preferred. The cloisters are also a wonder of the world with all those capital carvings.

    I know the word ‘must’ should never be used to princes such as yourselves, but you know what I meant. I spent a lunch yesterday telling (namedrop, though it won’t mean much over the pond, perhaps) Ian and Victoria Hislop, great theatregoers, that they MUST see Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies on the last chance today, even if it meant cancelling everything. They thought they could make it from 4pm to 10pm as required, and I’m impatient to know if they did and what they thought. I didn’t disappoint you re Harriet Walter and Co’s Tempest, did I? Was hoping to read more about it here, but Sicily always has to come first..

    As for Monteverdi, it was written for St Mark’s Venice, of course. But I didn’t find mysefl half as struck by the impact of that – probably because it was tourist-packed and Monreale when we went had only a few visitors..

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You MUST rest assured that your “musts” have provided both of us with enormous pleasure. Was the first perhaps that I “must” visit Ainola? Whether or not, I would not have known, but for your wonderful blog posts on your own visit, how essential that visit was. Completely unforgettable. As for Harriet Walter’s The Tempest, it was stupendous–and in that case, I wouldn’t have known it was on had it not been for you. As to The Tempest, our only regret, and it’s significant, is that we weren’t able to get to all three on offer in Brooklyn. The Monteverdi, BTW, for which you are also to be thanked, was actually new to me, and gorgeous. Though it was, indeed, written for St. Mark’s in Venice, it is nonetheless a beautiful accompaniment to the experience of Monreale. So, thank you, thank you, once again for all!

      1. David N

        That observation about the astonishment Monteverdi’s Vespers still yields rings true. Believe it or not, though I’d long loved that JEG recording, I didn’t get to hear it live until a year or so ago, in Winchester Cathedral in a magnificent performance from The Sixteen. The inventiveness constantly takes the breath away. I’m less a fan of Monteverdi’s two later operas, but Orfeo, which of course uses the same Toccata, is another wellspring of invention (and nice and short!)

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Well, I’ll have you know that the choice of The Sixteen version wasn’t accidental. In coursing around for which version to post, I tried out one recommended by in a brief search, thought it on the dry side, so “googled” specifically to see if you’d written about it, and lo, came across your review of the performance you’ve described here. How I would have loved to hear that performance! And I must thank you again for introducing us, along with so much else, to this work, which we BOTH enjoy immensely.

  6. Steve Schwartzman

    All this was new to me, too. I listened to the first half-hour of the Monteverdi: what a great beginning and what a great piece in general. Too bad a work like this rarely makes it into the modern repertoire.

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