Monreale is a charming medieval hill town (surprisingly un-walled) which sprawls around its edges into a modern suburb of Palermo. I wandered around its center for an hour or so but the real reason for the visit was the Cathedral – pictured below!
The tile work in in San Cataldo and La Martorana was some preparation for the splendor of the Monreale Duomo but only hinted at the possibilities. The rough guide enthuses “the Norman cathedral at Monreale holds the most impressive and extensive area of Christian medieval mosaic-work in the world, the undisputed apex of Sicilian-Norman art.” I’m not qualified to make comparative statements like that but I will say that it was breathtaking and mesmerizing and I would recommend it to anyone. The history of the church as I understand it was that a strategic retreat from Palermo during a Muslim occupation led the Norman powers to begin a cathedral on the mountain slopes overlooking the city. Once they retook the main city, there was never enough money or importance to re-do the interior of the cathedral and thank goodness for it. The glittering tile mosaics show countless saints and graphically portray biblical stories in serial demonstrating the building, filling and floating of the arc and the casting of Adam and Eve out of Eden, as well as the more traditional stations of the cross. The whole church is overlooked by a huge and vaguely eastern looking (ie more accurate) face of Jesus inscribed onto the central apse.
The detail in the tile work was overwhelming. I walked around the walls snapping each distinct pattern that had sufficient light. This collection is probably less than a quarter of the total patterns.
I also spent several hours meditating and sketching in the adjacent cloister of the former Benadictine monastery. At first blush it is a simple space, a square court screened from the surrounding walkway by double columns. On closer examination the detail work in the columns, the carvings in their bases and capitals and the intermixing of tile and carved marble could have occupied me for much longer than I stayed.