The town of Monreale is a hill town situated on the south-west slope of Mount Caputo in north-west Sicily, a short distance south-west of Palermo.
The Sicilian town of Monreale is most visited because of its extensive 12th century 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.
Explore the Cathedral and Monastery at Monreale
Monreale cathedral is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in existence and is one of the key sights of Sicily. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of a group of nine buildings comprising 'Arab-Norman Palermo and the churches of Cefalù and 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 church each have their own fabulous mosaics, consisting of about 130 artworks and with hundreds of figures covering a total of about 10,000 square meters.
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.
In 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.
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.
Square 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.
Monreale is a very pleasant town and as you wander around you often get great views over Palermo, the coast and the fertile Conca d'Ora valley with its groves of olive, orange and almond trees.
Monreale does get busy with day-trippers from Palermo but if you stay overnight or into the evening it becomes much quieter and there are a reasonable number of restaurants scattered around the narrow sloping streets of the town.
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).
According 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 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 andetymology.
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 sesame seeds and the “Algerians” with icing sugar.
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.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Sicily guide.