Monreale: the most beautiful church of Sicily

I left Marsala after a very good and very abundant breakfast and started driving my car, direction Palermo I decided to add another cultural pit stop in Monreale, a world famous place for Mosaics.

It took me approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes drive along the highway connecting Trapani to Palermo. I got out in Partinico and drove across the mountains until I reached the village of Monreale, which is located on a hill overlooking the so called “Conca D’Oro”, a valley rich of citrus plants heading to the sea, where Palermo is found.

I knew Monreale for the beauty of its Cathedral but the visit largely exceeded my expectations!!!

I decided to hire a local guide as I knew the place was worth some extra explanations as well as some of those stories you can’t find on books. I managed to find an incredibly talented local guide called Simone Faraone, who made the visit very enjoyable, rich of details whenever necessary as well as he told us stories, legends and anectodes every time our attention was diminishing. Good job Simone!!

The highlight in Monreale is the Cathedral (Duomo di Monreale). I had seen many pictures of it before my visit, both on books as well as on the internet, but believe me: there will never be any picture capable to capture the emotions you feel when you enter this Church. To me it’s one of the most beautiful Churches in the world, definetly the most amazing in Sicily.

Simone told us the story of William II, King of the Normans, whose capital was Palermo. He was pretty often in disagreement with the local bishop, named Walter of the Mill (Gualtiero Offamilio) who acted as a regent while William was too young to rule the kingdom on his own. They both wanted to have more power over the people, thus, with the intention of creating a new Diocese, to pinch some power out of the bishop’s control and to make himself more independent from the bishop’s control, William decided to build a new imposing and impressive Cathedral on the hills of Monreale. His goal was to make a new Archbishopy out of it. He made it!!

Cathedral of Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

The result is that William and Walter started dueling from an artistic point of view. In fact the bishop also started constructing a new cathedral in Palermo. While Monreale is breathtaking in its interiors, Palermo has the most unique Cathedral from the outside. Both are UNESCO protected nowadays, thus if you visit Monreale you cannot skip a visit to Palermo, and vice versa.

Simone also told us the legend of the two architects who built these amazing chruches, both of whom committed suicide after seeing how wonderful the rival’s one was. It’s just a legend but it explains quite well how much monarchs and bishops were dueling and how much such rivalry left us in terms of artistic and cultural heritage.

Cathedral of Monreale. Detail of the facade. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

As William II wanted the curch to be as impressive as possible and to enjoy it while he was still alive, construction works lasted 10 years only, starting from 1174. It is simply impressing to understand how it had been possible to decorate the whole church with golden mosaics in such a short time. I can’t verbalize how impressive the view is as soon as you step into this church. It’s not a question of religion, but a mere artistic thing: there is not a single inch of the inner walls that had not been covered with golden and coloured mosaics depicting the stories of the Bible, both old and new testament. As good as my pictures can be, they can’t convey to you the emotions I felt. Trust me when I say it really is breath-taking.

The central nave. Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Whatever looks like gold here, IS solid gold, including the massive depiction of Christ Pantocrator on the pointed arch of the main nave, which is still one of the biggest representation of Christ in the world after almost 850 years!!!!

Mosaics of the central nave and apse. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

All the main events of the old testaments are diplayed in the form of golden mosaics: on the upper register of the inner walls they span from the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham to the Ark of Noah, from the creations of the light to the earthly paradise and so on, while the new testaments scenes are visible in the lower register. I took very few pictures of the mosaics as I wanted to enjoy them.

God blowing life into Adam. Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Let there be light. Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
The creation of Eve from Adam’s chest. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

The title of each scene is written in Latin above, beside or within the context of the mosaic itself.

The whole decorative programme was meant to convey the messages and the stories of the Bible to the people, large majority of whom was illiterate at that time. It’s the so called “Bible of the poors” which also is the reason why such stories decorate the walls, the apses and the ceilings of several churches in Europe.

Simon took us out of the Cathedral after giving us some free time to enjoy the mosaics on our own and he led us to the Cloister of the Benedictines. Although it is not the biggest cloister you will ever see, its location, close to the Cathedral, and the mosaic decoration of its columns makes it an amazing place to visit.

Columnade at the cloiter of the Benedictines. Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

All the capitals show zoomorphic scenes, except a couple. The most interesting one is a capital that Simon show us, depicting the donation of the Cathedral to the Virgin Mary by William II. The little sculpted scene show William II holding the church into his hands offering it to the Virgin Mary, sat on a throne with little Jesus.

Cloister of the Benedictines. Monreale. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

We concluded out visit on the outside of the Cathedral. I very seldom saw a church so wildly decorated in its exteriors. The decorations here are a different kind of mosaics where gold is not the key but limestone and lava stones!!!! I took several pictures of it, hope you will enjoy same as I did.

Cathedral of Monreale, Apses. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Cathedral of Monreale. Apses. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata
Cathedral of Monreale. Apse. Photo by Matteo Gazzarata

Tips to visit Monreale

  • If you are staying in Palermo you can easily reach Monreale following the signs for it. It takes some 30/40 minutes depending on traffic. If you come from Marsala or Trapani I recommend you to get off the highway in Partinico, then follow the signs pointing to Monreale, it’s some 27 km away and the road is very scenic.
  • Parking: if you go by car be prepared to despair a bit. There is a private parking along Via Palermo called Parking Monreale Duomo, however it has a limited number of slots. The fee is fine, 10 euro the whole day.
  • Where to eat: being a very touristic place you will find several opportunities. Don’t bother too much looking for the perfect place: food in Sicily is good everywhere!!!
  • Visits: There are two separate tickets for the Cathedral and the Cloister of the Benedictines. They sum up to 10 euro per person. These are not included in the price you pay for a guided sightseeing, unless it is clearly specified in the announce you book through. As a local guide I highly recommen Simone Faraone.

4 thoughts on “Monreale: the most beautiful church of Sicily

  1. Pingback: The Arab-Norman heritage of Palermo, Sicily. | Your Travel Recipe

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