onreale Cathedral is probably one of the most consistent and most beautiful work of the Norman Arab Palermo. This church was built in about a century and was not modified, therefore, it still has its original medieval structure.
Monreale Cathedral was built for political reasons, but according to the legend the Norman king William II, called the Good, dreamt of Virgin Mary asking him to build a big church and pointing the construction site. In order to justify the big expense for the construction young William said that the Virgin made him find a large treasure near the building site of the church to cover the costs.
Actually, William II decided to build his Cathedral to stop the growing temporal power of the archbishop of Palermo, Walter. As matter of fact, the latter took advantage of the lack of experience of the young king and became the actual ruler of the territory of Palermo, he even owned a lot of lands. In fact, the king of the Arab Norman Palermo was not William, but rather Walter. Unfortunately for him, the Pope did not like the situation, who often argued with Walter, therefore as soon as William could control his kingdom he immediately started collaborating with the Pope to reduce the power of the archbishop.
The tension between the king and the archbishop of Palermo did not result in conspiracy and homicide, they both decided to build a new Cathedral each to prove their power. Obviously, Walter had asked the king again and again to build a new Cathedral in Palermo, but William did not do it and chose to build his new church in Monreale, regardless of expense. Moreover, in 1183 Pope Lucius III chose Monreale as new diocese, taking away big pieces of the territory from the archbishop of Palermo, Walter, who before that had no opponents in Sicily. Walter did not surrender, but decided to pay for the reconstruction of the old Cathedral of Palermo to make of it a symbol of his power. In conclusion, this contention presented to Norman Arab Palermo the two most beautiful churches of medieval Sicily and the people of the city immediately said that the one, in Monreale, was a triumph of beauty for its inside, whereas the other, in Palermo, was matchless for its outside. So the challenge ended in a draw.
In 1267 Monreale Cathedral was eventually finished and consecrated to the “Birth of Virgin Mary” (S. Maria Nuova).
From an artistic and structural point of view, the building is again a mix of very different styles. In fact, Monreale Cathedral is a Latin cross plan basilica (length almost 335 feet, width about 131 feet), so perfectly suitable for a Catholic rite. Nevertheless, William choice to call Byzantine artists creats a contrast with the structure, because a Latin basilica is decorated inside following the Greek-Byzantine style. More or less the same happened in Cefalù church.
The wonderful Monreale monument is divided in three aisles separated by two rows of columns. All the columns are made of granite, except the first on the right that is made of marble. Here, as well as in other churches of Norman Arab Palermo, columns are a significant artistic element because the do not belong to the medieval structure, but to ancient history, and more precisely, the Roman one. In fact, they were added later, probably taken from other abandoned pagan buildings. The central aisle is huge, three times the width of the side ones. The aisles lead to the three apses of the church, the one in the middle is amazing for its size and magnificence with its short vault covering.
The roof of Monreale Cathedral is a wooden covering supported by the walls. It is one of the few elements of the structure rebuilt in recent times because in 19th century a fire started inside the church. Other elements built after the Norman period are the three chapels: St. Castrense (end of 16th century), the Crucified chapel (17th century) and the most recent St. Benedict (18th century).
The main facade of the Cathedral has a porch (built in 18th century) between two corner towers, one is shorter than the other because it was struck by lightning, destroyed and then rebuilt.
The greates charm of the church of Monreale are the inside mosaics. As already said, they were made by Byzantine artists that for years filled the whole inner surface of the church walls. It was an enormous undertaking whose outcome is absolutely impressive one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. The church of Monreale is so full of wonderful mosaics that Byzantine masters represented on the walls almost all the biblical stories, from Adam and Eve, through Jesus Christ’s life and the beginning of the Church, until the fights for the faith of saints, martyrs and knights. The mosaicsof the Monreale Cathedral express clearly the medieval idea of history: it would be a series of facts leading the human kind to its last day, the Judgment Day. In this golden scene between hundreds of characters and facts, the focus is the huge Christ Pantocrator, actually dominating the whole inner structure. It is in the vault of the apse and is depicted, as well as the one in Cefalù Cathedral, holding the Gospels book open on the page where you can read a quotation from the Gospel of John (John 8:12 ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness’).
Monreale Cathedral is the burial place of important historical people, such as the Norman king William II, who had strongly wanted the church to be built. It is interesting to know that also the body of the king of France Louis IX (Saint), dead in Tunisia during an expedition with his crusaders, rested in Monreale for a while and then it was finally brought to Paris.