Sicily’s Duomo di Monreale: Norman Conquest, Fatimid Architecture & Byzantine Mosaics

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The Cultural Fusion Behind Sicily’s Magnificent Duomo di Monreale

The concept of a multi cultural society may seem like a modern-day phenomenon. Yet one of the world’s greatest pieces of architecture, Sicily’s Duomo di Monreale, owes its existence to the 12th-century cultural fusion of Norman ambition, Fatimid architecture and Byzantine mosaics. Almost a millennia ago, Monreale was a sophisticated and prosperous center where a diverse population enjoyed ethnic and religious tolerance—and worked side-by-side to create a monument dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Art historian, Francesca Sommatino reveals the story behind Sicily’s Duomo di Monreale

“Anyone who comes to Palermo without seeing Monreale arrives on a donkey and leaves as an ass,” says an old Sicilian saw, and rightly so. Not only is the Duomo di Monreale a spectacular monument and dazzling display of craftsmanship, it has a compelling and instructive history—which I learned from Francesca Sommatino, an art historian and Undiscovered Sicily tour guide from Palermo.

“The distinction of the Cathedral of Monreale is the set of different cultures that relate to each other,” Francesca explained. “First of all the Church was built under the reign of William II starting from 1172. The Norman kingdom began in 1130 with the Coronation of Roger II of Hauteville.”

Under Norman reign, Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed here peacefully and prosperously, borrowing heavily from each other’s heritage. Nowhere is this legacy of tolerance more evident than the enduring beauty of the cathedral of Monreale, a hillside town about four miles south of Palermo that overlooks groves of almond, olive and orange trees.

“Before the Normans arrived, Sicily was ruled by the Fatimids of North Africa during the IX and X centuries,” Francesca explained.“For the first Normans who began the conquest of the island from east to west, the discovery of the Fatimid culture in the territory was experienced as a resource and not as a threat,” she said. “Many of these people that we call ‘Arabs’ were artists, artisans, engineers, mathematicians, intellectuals; therefore their culture was absorbed and is reflected in the Cathedral’s architecture and its beautiful interior floors in marble with geometric patterns; it is the Byzantine culture that is responsible for the cycle of mosaics that cover the entire walls.”

“The Fatimidi were good artists and intellectuals,” Francesca said. “The best works of art in my country are marble floors with geometric patterns and the Cathedral’s amazing wooden created with muqarnas pattern of the Palatine Chapel, inside the Royal Palace. The Muqarnas motif resembles stalactites and it is adorned with a tempera technique with different kind of subjects like musicians, dancing scenes, animals, and more.”

First row photos: Monreale’s adorned ceiling. Left photo: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons, Right photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, Creative Commons. Second-row image: Statue of William II offering the church to the Virgin Mary. Photo: Meg Pier

King William II epitomized the Norman open-mindedness to the various ethnicities absorbed into his growing kingdom. In building the duomo, he tapped into the architectural traditions of the conquered Arab populace, and incorporated decorative techniques from the Byzantines, with whom the Normans traded on forays into the Eastern Empire.

“Many of these people that we call “Arabs” were artists, artisans, engineers, mathematicians, intellectuals; therefore their culture was absorbed and is reflected in the Cathedral’s architecture and its beautiful interior floors in marble with geometric patterns,” Francesca told me. “It is the Byzantine culture that is responsible for the cycle of mosaics that cover the entire walls.”

“The Normans had already had the opportunity to learn about Byzantine culture in southern Italy and decided to invite mosaic artists directly from Byzantium to Sicily to decorate the interiors of churches,” she continued. “So generally the style with which the architecture of this period is described as Arab-Norman style, but in my opinion it would be better to say Fatimid, Byzantine and Norman styles to include all three of the contributing cultures. It is a Catholic cathedral, commissioned during the Norman Kingdom, but created by Fatimid and Byzantine artists, each bearer of their own culture.”

Yet William wasn’t a saint—it’s said that building the duomo was an attempt to outdo his grandfather Roger II’s grandiose palace “chapel” in Palermo. Another bit of lore says that the cathedral was inspired by a dream, and that the site on which it was built was the Norman king’s royal hunting ground. This legend claims that William, worn out from stalking deer and boar on the reserve, took a snooze, during which a vision of the Madonna directed him to treasure his father had buried. Upon finding it, he used the manna from heaven to fund work on the cathedral, which began in 1174. Today it is considered as the granddaddy of all chaiesa in southern Italy.

Politics and public relations being the age-old arts that they are, William ensured that he would forever go down in history as the benefactor of this massive monument to his faith. He makes two appearances in tile on its walls; in one depiction, he is being crowned by Jesus himself.

I decided to explore the exterior first and embarked on ascending the cathedral’s tiered terraces, which are connected via dimly-lit halls made the height of Medieval man. The claustrophobic corridors made me thankful that the masses of pilgrims who trek here each spring had not yet descended. After a challenging hike upward, I reached the duomo’s highest point, sharing it with a portly Australian woman. She wiped the sweat from her brow and with a grin, good-naturedly lambasted herself for the beer she had at lunch. We exchanged smiles as we took in the view—in one direction was a panorama of the immense volcanic Mount Caputo off to the right, and red-tiled rooftops amid emerald foliage stretching to the sparkling bay of Conca d’Or. Directly below, was the graceful symmetry of the cloister.

Monreale’s Cloister

“The cloister of the Benedictine monks is magnificent; it was created at the same time with the church and the rest of the monastery,” Francesca said. “This was the space where the monks prayed, contemplated, wrote, and where they dedicated themselves to nature. With regard to the cloister we cannot speak only of Arab and Byzantine craftsmen, but of artists coming from different places like elsewhere in Italy, as well as from Provence.”

The cloister of Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Photo: Meg Pier
Monreale’s cloister capitals have diverse imagery and symbolism. Photo: Allie Caulfield, Creative Commons
Monreale’s cloister capitals have diverse imagery and symbolism. Photo: Allie Caulfield, Creative Commons

“Particularly noteworthy are the 228 columns on which there are as many capitals, all different from one another,” she observed. “Some of these are inspired by the Bible, others by mythology; some reproduce decorative motifs with symbolic values, others used the allegories of the twelve months of the year.

Gingerly making my way back down, I came to a halt behind a British couple, as what little illumination there was in the dim stairway was suddenly extinguished. Above the woman’s head on the wall, a tiny light blinked. “Push the button!” her husband commanded. “You push it!” she retorted, as though doing so might trigger a nuclear meltdown of Monreale. I was skeptical that the switch was relevant to our situation but push it he did, and lo and behold there was light.

Eventually, I found myself alone on a small terrace and paused, taking in the brightly-colored ceramics on an adjacent stairway. Nearby, the dark and light stone of a tower’s exterior was emblazoned with a pattern of circular carvings that seemed luminous in the late afternoon light. Leaning on a railing that separated me from the town several stories below, I spotted a white dove being groomed by a dark pigeon on ledge. The duo seemed fitting mascots for this realm created by William the “Good,” a red-haired Franco whom the Arab chroniclers of the period credited with every human virtue.

Descending the heights, I emerged into the nave, where I availed myself of one of the tall heavy red votive candles being sold for one euro. The keeper of the flame also handed me a thin taper, accompanied by a burst of rapid-fire Italian. I got the gist, and lit my votive with it at one of the many icon stations surrounded by a sea of flickering offerings.

Monreale’s Mosaics, A Technicolor Tapestry of Faith

Then, I raised my bowed head and let it tip all the way back, the better to admire the cathedral’s mosaics, which told the stories of the Bible to the illiterate population of the time. I stood with eyes raised upward, awed at the billions of tiny tiles meticulously mapped out to explode in a huge, technicolor tapestry of faith.

Francesca explained the process involved in creating the stunning mosaics.

“The technique consists in preparing the wall with the chisel on which the mortar will then be placed,” she said. “It was essential to make the surface rough even with the use of chopped straw. Then a preparatory drawing on the wall called sinopia is created. On this is placed the tesserae—mosaic tiles that are nothing more than colored glass paste with enamels or embellished with gold leaf.”

“The cycle of mosaics represents the stories of the Bible, the Old and the New Testament,” Francesca explained. “The main figure is in the central apsidal basin and represents the Christ Pantocreator, which symbolizes the creator of everything. From this image, the stories of the Old Testament of the central nave develop, and the miracles of Jesus in the two aisles.”

Left photo: Mosaic in apse of Monreale Cathedral. Credit: Tango 7174, Wikipedia
Mosaic in apse of Monreale Cathedral. Credit: Tango 7174, Wikipedia
Mosaic in apse of Monreale Cathedral. Credit: Public Domain
Christ Throwing out the Money Changers in Monreale Cathedral. Photo: SNappa2006, Creative Commons
Monreale mosaic biblical scene. Photo: Allie Caulfield, Creative Commons
Biblical scenes made from mosaics adorn the walls at Monreale Photo: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons

“The mosaics depict the story of Jesus, his death, the stories of the apostles and every scene is accompanied by captions written in Latin,” she continued. “The cycle of mosaics in Monreale, one of the largest in Italy, is nothing more than the story of the comic book Bible. If we think of one of the tasks of the Norman rulers was converting the new kingdom to Catholicism after two centuries of Arab presence, so the mosaics were also a way to re-educate the people and to legitimize a new power in the eyes of all.”

“What is most remarkable is that throughout the enormous quantity of mosaics depicted in the church—6,400 square meters of surface—there is one continuous story that is all inter-connected,” Francesca said. “The mosaics are like a book, with each scene representing a different chapter.”

Then, I felt as much as heard the familiar strains of “Here Comes the Bride” being struck on Monreale’s massive organ.

As the chords reverberated throughout the immense chamber, we tourists collectively drew in a breath and turned to watch as a bride and groom begin their long journey down the aisle and a life together on a Monday afternoon in May. Under a canopy of brilliant tiles on a glistening gold background, the couple seemed oblivious to the crowd of sightseers from around the world witnessing their sacrament. Or perhaps here, in Monreale, they take for granted the assemblage of people from far corners under this roof, built by the talents and hands of so many cultures and creeds.

Header photo: Allie Caulfield, Creative Common


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