Sicily, Monreale, Church of S Maria la Nuova

Also known as Cathedral
Era 12AD
Location Piazza Guglielmo II, 1, 90046 Monreale PA, Italy

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin at Monreale, about nine miles from Palermo, was founded by King William II. Work may have begun in 1172; it certainly had by 1174. Construction finished in the 1170s, though parts of the complex were never completed. Monreale is a huge set of buildings: cathedral church; Cluniac Benedictine monastery; and cloisters. The church itself is vast, 102 metres long and 40 metres wide (in Rome, St Peter’s was 123x66 m and the Lateran 100x55m). It is a Latin basilica with a hint of the Byzantine cross in square church. There are no vaulted spaces, other than the three apses and presbytery, and the cupola over the crossing is a fake, created by heightening the central square and giving it a square lantern. The result is an expanse of flat surfaces everywhere, and very little articulation of the walls.

Mosaics cover the entire surface of the walls of the whole church between the socle and the roof. There are something between 6318 metres2 and 7600 metres2 of mosaic: this is the largest extant ensemble of mosaic decoration in Italy. The mosaics are undated but the presence of two images depicting William II as part of the programme suggests that they were contemporary with the building.

The effect when the worshipper or visitor enters the church is tremendous. The mosaics appear almost like tapestries, hung on the walls with no obvious division, and treated almost as continuous horizontal strips, though with gradations in sizes and colours, and with little sense of vertical axes. Visually, the effect is magnificent: there is a stunning and uninterrupted view down the whole length of the church to the vast, imposing Pantokrator in the conch of the apse, which is at least a quarter of the height of the nave, framed by the arches of the crossing, the presbytery and the apse. Some see the mosaics as overblown and in the wrong sort of building, but they tend to stun the viewer through the sheer mass of colour and gold, a very different sort of effect to the carved stone one expects in a Western cathedral. When I went to see it first, I snobbishly expected not to be impressed. But the scale and the riot of colour is brilliant (in every sense).

There are perhaps five main sections to the decoration. The central sanctuary is one, with its Pantokrator in the conch of the central apse, and Virgin and saints below. The side apses with scenes from the lives of SS Peter and Paul are a second; the central square and transepts with Christological cycle a third. The aisles contain Christ’s miracles and the nave forty-two Old Testament scenes and the life of the Virgin, a prologue to the main event in the sanctuary. The porch originally held the life of the Virgin and scenes from the infancy of Christ. But Marian imagery is also aligned along the central axis of the church and in a series of doors and entrances, as befitted her appellation as the Gateway of Life and Door to Salvation. The biggest challenge was surely finding the scenes to fill all the space: twenty-five Christological scenes feature in the church including some very unusual ones – the Road to Emmaus for example, in four parts. The saints at Monreale are a mixture relevant to the setting: apostles; saints listed in the Gregorian canons of the Mass; early popes (Clement, Sylvester); the patron saints of the French and Sicilian monarchies, Martin and Nicholas; the very recently- canonised (1173) Thomas Becket of England, killed on the orders of King Henry II in 1170. References are made to Western monasticism through Peter and Paul: Monreale was a Cluniac monastery subject to the pope and the church had been built with papal support at a time when Sicilian troops were actively involved in his protection, a very different scenario to that of the pope and Roger II. There are hints of the church as the New Jerusalem.

It is widely accepted that the mosaics were put up as a single campaign, almost certainly over several years. There are no obvious scenes missing, no repetitions and no overlaps, which one might expect if this had been a programme put together by various patrons and artists over a long period of time. Rather, it seems a more homogenous work, possibly conceived by one person in its main outlines and put together by a number of artists and workmen to this plan. But if anything, surely the church was reminiscent of the great Roman basilicas and their walls packed with images, St Peter’s above all.

In terms of ecclesiastical policy, the cathedral may have stood as a challenge to the primacy of the Archbishop of Palermo; certainly the Archbishop began rebuilding his own cathedral at much the same time in the 1170s and 80s and placed mosaics in it, including an image of himself, and certainly even after William’s death, popes gave its Archbishop their support ahead of the Archbishop of Palermo. William II was keen on his foundation, making a series of donations to it throughout the 1170s and 1180s. The church contained a royal throne, implying a regal presence, actual or symbolic, during the celebration of the liturgy. This throne was located close to the presbytery in the crossing, on the liturgical right. Immediately above it is a mosaic panel showing William as ruler, crowned by the Virgin, and facing it was an image of William the patron, offering, on bended knee, his church to Mary. William II also conceived of it as the royal mausoleum of his family, taking the place of both Cefalù and Palermo cathedral, and moved the bodies of his brothers, father and grandfather into it. This increased its standing, at least while the Normans still ruled in Sicily. Monreale was very much a monument of his personal piety and it lost some potency after his death.


The Norman Kingdom, which also included much of southern Italy, was established in 1130 and lasted only until 1194. Previously, between c831 and c1072, after its conquest from the Byzantines, Sicily had been an emirate, an Islamic state, with a ruler based in Palermo. It had been a wealthy state: Palermo, with a population of c150, 000, was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean, and it had been a multi-cultural state: Christian and Jewish communities on the island survived throughout the emirate. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, warring southern Italian rulers, Byzantines and Lombards alike, hired Norman mercenaries to help out in their struggles against each other and against the Moslems. One of the most successful of these was Robert Guiscard. Among his other triumphs in Southern Italy, Robert had taken Sicily from the Arabs after which Pope Nicholas II had created him Duke of Sicily and Robert in turn had handed Sicily to his brother Roger, to rule as Count in 1071. Count Roger (1071-1101) completed the conquest of Sicily by 1091.

It was Roger’s son, Roger II (1105-1130 as count, 1130-1154 as king), who created the Norman kingdom of Sicily and was its first and perhaps most successful king. Roger II was a supporter of the antipope Anacletus, who crowned him on Christmas Day 1130. Roger, with his admiral, George of Antioch, was successful at sea against both the Arabs and Byzantines and succeeded in establishing Sicily as a major force in the Mediterranean, possibly the most important sea-power in the region, though the Venetians might have had a view about that. Roger was succeeded by his son, William I (1154-1166), who maintained the kingdom in the face of internal revolts, and was in turn succeeded by his son, William II (1166-1189), whose reign was commemorated as two decades of peace and prosperity. William left no heirs and the kingdom gradually fell apart and was acquired by the Hohenstaufens and Frederick II in 1194.

Sicily was throughout this period a multiconfessional and multilingual state, occupied by Muslims, Latin and Orthodox Christians, one in which Arabic remained one of the languages of government, though the Norman kings and their churchmen aimed to convert the island to Latin Christianity. What happened in Sicily during this period of the three Norman kings stands in sharp contrast to ‘before’ and ‘after’. This clearly-definable ‘Norman’ period seems to have been when Sicily was at its height in terms of Christian power, prestige and wealth, all on the back of military might. The buildings and works of art associated with the three Norman kings are of an unprecedented scale, magnificence and quality, and served to advertise them as forces to be reckoned with, serious power-players in the region – art as propaganda on a considerable scale.

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