Monreale, Sicily: travel guide for Monreale cathedral and other highlights

Photo of Monreale (Sicily region)

Visit Monreale

The Sicilian town of Monreale is most visited because of its extensive cathedral complex. The extraordinary buildings of the abbey and monastery contain numerous highlights with more than a hectare (2.5 acres) of mosaics, numerous other artworks and an exceptional cloisters, and is an unmsissable highlight of your visit to north-east Sicily.

We give quite extensive details below about the cathedral and its fascinating history, because knowing this history makes your visit to Monreale much more rewarding.

A little background legend...

King William II reigned in Sicily from 1166. Because of his popularity and generous spirit he gained the nickname of 'William the Good' to distinguish him from his father, 'William the Bad' (1131-1166).

Cathedral facade in MonrealeAccording to a legend about the foundation of the Cathedral of Monreale, after eight years of his reign the young Prince left his palace in Palermo to go hunting from in his hunting reserve at Monreale. Tired from the exhausting hunt he fell asleep in the shade of a carob tree and the Virgin appeared to him in a dream, revealing that at that place there was a hidden treasure and urging him to use the money to build a church.

On waking up William found the treasure and vowed to build a temple to the Virgin in that place, with the name of "Santa Maria la Nuova". He gave the task to benedictine monks brought in from the “Trinità della Cava”.

As a reward for the monks efforts he also had a monastery built adjoining the Church, and enriched them with pensions and privileges.

The legend may not be true, but it is fact that William II "The Good" built a cathedral in Monreale that still amazes us with its magnificence, a building on which he lavished huge amounts of money - and the cathedral of Monreale is still an attraction for tourists from all over the world.

There has been a lot of speculation about the real reasons that led the young king (he was crowned king at age 12 and died at 37) to take on the task, but perhaps the most likely is simply that William II had a very strong desire to copy and surpass his ancestors in magnificence, in particular Roger II (1095-1154), for whom he had a great admiration. See also Monreale history and etymology.

The history of the building of the Benedictine Abbey of Monreale

William II founded the Benedictine Abbey of Monreale in 1174 and in December of that year Alexander III gave it full privileges, which were re-confirmed in 1176 when the monks of the Monastery of Cava, near Salerno, were invited by William II to settle in the new monastery.

The Monastery of Monreale was quickly endowed with many servants, who brought their families to settle here, and in a short time the small village became a town. Many more people arrived from surrounding areas, especially from Bulchar, a Saracen village.

bronze door at Monreale cathedral

There are no surviving documents about the building of the monastery, but according to studies the construction of the cathedral and the monastery began almost simultaneously, with the monastery built over the course of a couple of years.

In 1183 Pope Lucius III gave Monreale the title of Archbishop, and from that time on the Cathedral held the mortal remains of Queen Margaret 0f Navarre (1138-1183), the mother of William II. You can see evidence of this in the mosaic inscriptions under the windows of the left side of the transept.

The cathedral was built very quickly, as evidenced by the words of the Pope, who said "William, the illustrious king of Sicily, built in a short space of time a temple to God worthy of great admiration".

The temple was almost certainly completed around 1185 by Bonanno da Pisa.

In 1189 William II died and was buried in the cathedral. At more or less the same time the bronze door of the nave to the north (by Barisano da Trani) was also completed.

Following the death of Maecenas there was a slowdown in the construction due to a lack of adequate funds, so the ceiling and the floor remained unfinished while the towers to the east and north of the Cathedral were completed.

However, the work continued over the years, and because of the special privileges of Monreale the necessary resources were confirmed by Emperor Henry VI (1165-1197) in 1195 and by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) in 1220.

The cathedral was consecrated in 1267, 17 years after the death of Frederick II, by Rudolph, Bishop of Albano. After its consecration work on Monreale cathedral stopped until the end of 1400 and the cathedral was left in a deplorable state of neglect, although Pope Urban VI (1318-1389) ensured that necessary maintenance work was carried out.

Entering paradise mosaic in Monreale cathedralNew additions were made to the cathedral by Cardinal Giovanni Borgia (1474-1497) in 1492 and then by Ferdinand II the Catholic (1452-1516), who provided new funds that allowed the restoration of the floors, roof and floor mosaics in the front of the "Prothesis"[“Altar”], which was restored in 1518 by Pietro Oddo.

The "Prothesis"was transformed in 1534 to the "Altar of the Sacrament" by Baldassare Massa. In the 16th century more works were carried out by Vincenzo Gagini (1527-1595), and essential renovations were also carried out in the 17th century by Bishop Luigi Alfonso de los Cameros.

During the first half of the 18th century several chapels were built at Monreale Cathedral, among which is the Chapel of the Crucified Saints on the north side.

In the early 19th century, the Cathedral was damaged by lightning which caused the collapse of the spire to the south, while a fire in 1811 destroyed part of the church and caused severe damage to the roof and mosaics.

Restoration works continued through the 19th century and 20th centuries, and today the cathedral can again be seen in all its original beauty, of which the mosaics are the most unusual aspect.

Explore the Cathedral and Monastery at Monreale

The façade of the cathedral consists of two large towers, which is typical of the Romanesque style of northern Italy, while the apses are decorated with decorative pointed arches in the Arab style, with geometric patterns.

The interior of the cathedral is of Basilical shape with three naves separated by columns. The three naves of the churcheach  have their own mosaics, consisting of about 130 artworks and with hundreds of figures covering a total of about 10,000 square meters.

Monreale mosaics

The extensive and very beautiful mosaics are the highlight of your visit to Monreale cathedral. The arrangement of the subjects in the mosaics followed the structure and decoration of the Church itself. For example, in the main apse is the giant "Pantokràtor" (literally "The Creator of all things"), surrounded by the Archangels, Cherubim, Seraphim, Prophets, Apostles, Bishops and Saints.

Creation of Adam, mosaic in Monreale cathedralIn the two smaller side apses episodes from the life of Christ are shown (the baptism, the temptations, the court of Pilate, the ascent to Calvary, death, Resurrection), along with the most famous miracles (the story of the loaves and fishes, the healing of the centurion's servant, the rehabilitation of the crooked woman).

The nave is dedicated to the most important events in biblical history with stories from the Old Testament (the creation of the world, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah, Abraham, Lot, the destruction of Sodom, the fight between Jacob and the Angel).

These biblical stories are framed by the faces of hundreds of figures within medallions (angels, saints, doctors of the Church, martyrs, prophets, hermits).

Among these, the face of William II the Good stands out - he is shown twice; once above the royal throne, receiving the crown from Jesus Christ and in another medallion that shows William II offering the Church to the Virgin Mary.

Beside the representations of the King there are also depictions of other contemporary figures, including some that were quite distant from the Norman Court. One striking striking example is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was executed by King Henry II.

These extensive scenes are linked by a glittering mosaic fabric including floral wreaths, geometric compositions, colored stripes and acanthus leaves, creating a very bright background.

Unfortunately the artists of this masterpiece are unknown but we can say that the mosaics reflect the Byzantine and Romanesque style, and also Islamic influences. It is presumed that the work was done by local workers, artists from the east and perhaps even the Venetians. For such a substantial work to be completed in a very short time it seems probable that experienced artists were brought from Constantinople.

The immense building itself was a Norman "imitation" of the early Christian basilicas of Rome.

Why were the mosaics built on such a grand scale?

After admiring the mosaics of Monreale it is worth spending a moment to consider the "meaning"of this immense work created by William II the Good. One historian (P. Delogu) considers the mosaics of William II to be an attempt to provide a new interpretation of the authority of the Royal family, compared with his predecessor Roger II: "The two mosaics of the Cathedral of Monreale, and a capital in the cloister of the same church show...Christ crowning the King".

So the scheme at Monreale was developed to increase Royal grandeur. He is seated on the throne instead of at his feet, with two angels behind him carrying the insignia of the King of Sicily, the banner and the globe. The message is no longer a declaration of the divine origin of royal power, but rather the close association between God and the King and the continued presence of Christ in the King’s actions.

Monreale cathedral cloisters

After admiring the cathedral mosaics you can visit the cloister on the southern side of the church. The Cloister was also built for William II and is a remarkable example of Romanesque architecture.

clister detail at Monreale cathedralSquare in shape and 47 meters per side, the cloisters are surrounded by over 200 small twin columns that support pointed arches. A special column is decorated with gold, mosaics, precious stones and lava while the ornamental belt above the arches is made of lava and limestone.

All the capital stones are carved with subjects drawn from the Medieval “Bestiaries”, with Biblical and Pagan figures, allegories of the months, acanthus leaves, and symbolic elements that are hard to decode.

On one capital the effigy of William II offering the Church to the Virgin can be seen.

Unlike the creators of the Mosaic, we do know at least the names of some of the the creators of the capitals - for example, engraved on a capital on the north side is "Romanus, son of Constantine, a marble worker”.

To the south-west of the cathedral you can also see the so-called “small cloister”, in whose center is a fountain that spurts water into the basin below.

Note: if you are visiting in early November a prestigious cultural event is held in Monreale: the “Week of Sacred Music”, when the cathedral brings together orchestras and choirs from around the world.

Attractions nearby

After exploring the cathedral, we suggest you spend some time exploring the region around Monreale, which is an area of considerable charm.

Going up to “San Martino delle Scale” by the scenic route you can glimpse the so-called Castellaccio, a monastery that has the appearance of a fortress dating back to the 13th century and that the Benedictines of Monreale used as a hospital.

Nearby is the village of San Martino delle Scale where there is another Benedictine monastery, probably founded by Gregory the Great (540-604) in the 6th century, then rebuilt in the 14th century and completed in the late 18th century by Giuseppe Venanzio Marvuglia (1729-1814). The church, with an interesting Renaissance façade, contains some paintings by famous painters such as the Sicilian "Zoppo di Gangi"(1588-1630) and Pietro Novelli (1603-1647), a painter born in Monreale.

Traditions and cusine of Monreale

As you have seen, in the Cathedral of Monreale mosaics are the predominant local art form and the ancient traditions of this technique are still taught today. You can find craftsmen that still produce quality mosaics in many workshops around Monreale.

With regard to other local traditions it should first be said that Monreale and the “Valle del Belice” produce excellent wines at an international level.

It is also possible to find restaurants offering both traditional Sicilian cuisine and also cookery of Arab origins. Among the local specialties are the "fritters"or pancakes made of chickpea flour flavored with parsley and fennel grains, the traditional bread of Monreale, a very popular product throughout the province, and finally the Monreale biscuits, such as the “Reginelle” with the sesame, and the “Algerians” with icing sugar.

Where is Monreale?

The town of Monreale is situated on the south-west slope of Mount Caputo in north-west Sicily, a short distance south-west of Palermo.

See also:

Map of Monreale and places to visit

Monreale places to visit

See more places nearby in the Sicily guide