Situated 8 km SW of Palermo, the town of Monreale enjoys excellent views down the valley of the 'Conca d' Oro 'to the sea. In the town centre (Piazza Vittorio Emanuele) stands the cathedral, one of the architectural wonders of the Middle Ages, erected between 1172 - 76 by William ll.
The interior is breath - taking - the most extensive area of Christian medieval mosaics in the world - the apex of Sicilian - Norman art. What is fascinating is that, like Cefalù’s Duomo, it was built for political reasons. William II became king at the age of 11 and was tutored by the politically ambitious Archbishop of Palermo Walter of the Mill, an Englishman. Together with the Hungarian kings, the Sicilian Normans had had the unique privilege of being able to appoint their own clergy with no prior approval from the Pope and the Church’s Council (thus effectively acting as popes themselves), this right had been granted by Rome as a protective measure to these two kingdoms on the borders between Christendom and the Muslim world. Walter of the Mill as senior-most representative of the church on the island wanted to wrest this right from the young and inexperienced king, and went about doing so by starting to build (in 1170) the Palermo Cathedral, a building to outdo all Norman churches. William countered by building Monreale, at the time the most splendid of all cathedrals in Europe. In order to get approval for an Archbishop in Monreale (to rival Walter’s title) he tricked Walter into believing that he was only building a Benedictine Monastery. Once it became obvious that a cathedral was being erected, William concocted a story about the Virgin appearing in his dreams and ordering him to build the Cathedral. He is depicted in the mosaics offering a model of the building to the Virgin Mary, and, like his grandfather King Roger II in the Palatine Chapel, had himself depicted being crowned by Christ himself, a true assertion of his divine right to rule. The political need for the building explains the amazing speed at which the project was completed and accounts for the rare uniformity of its architecture and decoration (the mosaics were executed between 1183 and 1190). Politically it was a triumph, but a short lived one as when he died religious focus reverted to the Palermo cathedral. Ultimately by becoming a relative backwater Monreale was left alone when other churches were ‘being Baroqued’ and was thus preserved fairly intact.
A fact that intrigues the English clients is that St. Thomas of Canterbury (a Beckett) is prominently portrayed in the central apse, to the R just below the Apostles. William II had married, aged of 23, Joanna, the 11 years old youngest daughter of Henry II of England (thus becoming brother in law to Richard the Lion Heart, Henry’s son and successor, who at William’s death and with no Norman male heir in Sicily had the audacity to claim it). Thomas a Beckett had been Joanna’s much loved and admired tutor, and following his canonisation in 1173 (just before the mosaics were begun) feeling guilt over his death (it had been her father king Henry who had uttered the words:” Who shall rid me of this troublesome priest” thus sealing Thomas’ fate) had him depicted in Monreale (one of only two known portraits of St Thomas of Canterbury).
In addition one can visit the treasury, a true Baroque treasure house opened 8.30am – 12.30pm, 2.30pm – 5.00pm, climb the tower in the SW corner of the cathedral and visit the Benedictine cloisters (one of the best preserved Medieval cloisters, adorned with 216 Arab style columns each with a different, intricately carved capitol) and formal gardens.
Cathedral - Monday to Saturday 8.30am to 12.30pm / 2.30pm to 5.00pm. Sunday 8.00am to 9-.30am / 2.30pm to 5.00pm (winter 8.30am – 12.30pm and 2.30pm – 5.00pm)
Cloisters - Entrance from the Piazza Gugliemo to the S. of the cathedral opened Mon-Sat 9.00am – 7.00pm; Sun/public holidays 9.00am – 1.00pm.