If you don’t want your jaw to smack painfully against the ground, you’d do well to wear a tight chin strap when visiting the Cathedral of Monreale. During our tour, my mouth was wide open, rivulets of drool escaping my gaping jowl. But I didn’t care, and I doubt anyone was paying attention. To be inside the Monreale’s cathedral and concentrate on anything other than its shimmering beauty is nearly impossible.
Construction on the Duomo began in 1174 under the Norman King William II (making it 830 years old: the jaw begins to drop already and we haven’t even stepped inside!) The Normans inherited rule of Sicily from the Moors, who had themselves followed a 500-year period of Byzantine preeminence. William’s Cathedral combines the architectural style of all three dynasties. The Arab influences are impossible to overlook, with complicated geometrical patterns interlaced across the floors and exterior walls. And the interior mosaics are Byzantine in design and execution.
Those mosaics. Either double-check your chin strap or prepare your drool rag, and step inside the church. Every available inch of wall is covered with golden mosaics glowing with life. The tiles are made of colored glass and each is slanted at a slightly different angle, which allows the pictures to capture and reflect the light regardless of the direction it’s shining. The effect is incredible.
Starting at a massive depiction of Jesus above the altar, the mosaics relate the story of the Bible in cyclical rings around the ceiling. In the highest cycle, we start at Creation and, in a clock-wise direction, are taken through the Old Testament right up to the Passion. Each scene is large and beautifully detailed, from Cain and Abel, to Abraham and Isaac, to Sodom and Gomorrah (a personal fav).
Even without the mosaics, the church is a marvel. Huge granite columns line the central nave, and the wooden roofs of the side naves are gorgeous. The Cappella del Crocifisso, to the left of the central altar, is a masterpiece of marble design, with an eccentric 15th century sculpture of the crucifix as its centerpiece. Instead of to a cross, Jesus is nailed to a large tree with myriad branches sprouting off left and right, symbolizing his familial ties to humanity.
You can also access the roof of the Cathedral, which offers views over the valley of Palermo and the Mediterranean. We spent a long time up here; we’re not at all religious, but it was impossible not to reflect on the glory of man’s works, which we’d just seen their best, in comparison to those of nature, laid out spectacularly below us.
The Cathedral is free to visit in principal, though little “extras” add up. The audioguide for €5 is almost indispensable, providing an exhaustive and well-told explanation of everything noteworthy. Entrance to the Chapel of the Crucifix costs a couple euros, as does access to the roof, but they’re both well worth it.
A trip to Monreale’s Cathedral is an absolute must-do, even if you’re just spending a couple days in Palermo. It must be among the world’s most impressive churches.