Overlooking Palermo, the town of Monreale, from the Latin “Mons Regalis” (literally ‘Royal Mountain’), straddles a slope of Mount Caputo about eight kilometers south of Palermo’s cathedral.
Set at about three hundred metres above sea level, the town overlooks the “Conca d’Oro,” as the valley beyond Palermo is known. No extended visit of Palermo is truly complete without a visit to Monreale. The focal point of the town is its cathedral, an amalgamation of Arab, Byzantine and Norman artistic styles framed by traditional Romanesque architecture, representing the best of twelfth-century culture. The mosaics covering the cathedral walls are one of the world’s largest displays of this art, surpassed only by Istanbul’s Basilica of Saint Sofia, once an Orthodox church. (Unfortunately, many of those beautiful mosaics were destroyed or whitewashed when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.)
Monreale’s mosaics cover over six thousand square metres of the church’s’s interior, an area larger than those of the splendid church of Saint Mark in Venice.
The mosaics of “Santa Maria la Nuova” (Saint Mary the New), the official name of Monreale Cathedral, are far more extensive than those of the cathedral of Cefalù, and while the mosaics of the Palatine chapel in Palermo’s Norman Palace are of equally exquisite craftsmanship, the latter leave many with the impression of a complex work of art in a restrictive space.
It is tempting to identify each element of the abbey complex with a specific culture and tradition, though in truth these overlap considerably. The mosaics are a strongly Byzantine element, while certain structural details, such as the geometric inlay of the apse exteriors, are Arab and actually Islamic. The cloister, on the other hand, reflects a mixture of influences.
Attached to the cathedral, the Benedictine cloister courtyard consists of 228 columns (paired, with four on each corner), some inlayed with Byzantine-style mosaic work, each supporting an ornately carved capital.
The capitals themselves depict scenes in Sicily’s Norman history, complete with knights and kings. The style of the Norman knight figures evokes that of the knights depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry, a chronicle of the Battle of Hastings. Historians have determined the date of the introduction of heraldry (coats of arms) in Sicily by the shields of the Monreale knight figures, which lack any heraldic decoration. The capitals strongly reflect the Provencal styles of the twelfth century, and at least three of what are thought to have been five master sculptors were probably from that region.