1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Monreale

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MONREALE (contraction of monte-reale, so called from a palace built here by Roger I.), a town of Sicily, in the provinces of Palermo, 5 m. inland (W.S.W.) from it, on the slope of Monte Caputo, overlooking the beautiful and very fertile valley called “ La Conca d'oro ” (the Golden Shell), famed for its orange, olive and almond trees, the produce of which is exported in large quantities. Pop. (1901), 17,379 (town), 23,556 (commune). The town, which for long was a mere village, owed its origin to the founding of a large Benedictine monastery, with its church, the seat of the metropolitan archbishop of Sicily.[1] This, the greatest of all the monuments of the wealth and artistic taste of the Norman kings in northern Sicily, was begun about 1170 by William II., and in 1182 the church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was, by a bull of Pope Lucius III., elevated to the rank of a metropolitan cathedral.

The archiepiscopal palace and monastic buildings on the south side were of great size and magnificence, and were surrounded by a massive precinct wall, crowned at intervals by twelve towers. This has been mostly rebuilt, and but little now remains except ruins of some of the towers, a great part of the monks' dormitory and frater, and the splendid cloister, completed about 1200. This last is well preserved, and is one of the finest cloisters both for size and beauty of detail now extant. It is about 170 ft. square, with pointed arches decorated with diaper work, supported on pairs of columns in white marble, 216 in all, which were alternately plain and decorated by bands of patterns in gold and colours, made of glass tesserae, arranged either spirally or vertically from end to end of each shaft. The marble caps are each richly carved with figures and foliage executed with great skill and wonderful fertility of invention—no two being alike. At one angle, a square pillared projection contains the marble fountain or monks' lavatory, evidently the work of Moslem sculptors.

The church is fortunately well preserved. In plan it is a curious mixture of Eastern and estern arrangement. The nave is like an Italian basilica, while the large triple-apsed choir is like one of the early three-apsed churches, of which so many examples still exist in Syria an other eastern countries. It is, in fact, like two quite different churches put together end wise. The basilica nave is wide, with narrow aisles. Monolithic columns of grey oriental granite (except one, which is of cipollino), evidently the spoils of older buildings, on each side support eight plointed arches. much stilted. The capitals of these (mainly Corinthian) are also of the classical period. There is no triforium, but a high clerestory with wide two-light windows, with simple tracery like those in the nave-aisles and throughout the church, which give sufficient (if anything too much) light. The other half, Eastern in two senses, is both wider and higher than the nave. It also is divided into a central space with two aisles, each of the divisions ending at the east with an apse. The roofs throughout are of open woodwork very low in pitch, construction ally plain, but richly decorated with colour, now mostly restored. At the west end of the nave are two projecting towers, with a narthex-entrance between them. A large open atrium, which once existed at the west, is now completely destroyed, having been replaced by a Renaissance portico. The outside of the church is plain, except the aisle walls and three eastern apses, which are decorated with intersecting pointed arches and other ornaments ihlaid in marble. The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches are magnificently enriched with carving and coloured inlay; a curious combination of three styles—Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab.

It is, however, the enormous extent (70,400 sq. ft.) and glittering splendour of the glass mosaics covering the interior which make this church so splendid. With the exception of a high dado, itself very beautiful, made of marble slabs with bands of mosaic between them, the whole interior surface of the walls, including soflits and jambs of all the arches, is covered with minute mosaic-pictures in brilliant colours on a gold ground. The mosaic pictures are arranged in tiers, divided by horizontal and vertical bands. In parts of the choir there are five of these tiers of subjects or single figures one above another. The half dome of the central apse has a colossal half-length figure of Christ, with a seated Virgin and Child below; the other apses have full-length colossal figures of St Peter and St Paul. Inscriptions on each picture explain the subject or saint represented; these are in Latin, except some few which are in Greek. The subjects in the nave begin with scenes from the Book of Genesis, illustrating the Old Testament types of Christ and His scheme of redemption, with figures of those who prophesied and prepared for His coming. Towards the east are subjects from the New Testament, chiefly representing Christ's miracles and suffering, with apostles, evangelists and other saints. The design, execution and choice of suinjects all appear to be of Byzantine origin, the subjects being selected from the Menologium drawn up by the emperor Basilius Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century.

In the central apse at Monreale, behind the high altar, is a line marble throne for the archbishop. This position of the throne is a survival of the early basilica arrangement, when the apse and altar were at the west end. In that case the celebrant stood behind the altar at mass, and looked over it eastwards towards the people. On the north side, in front of the high altar, is another somewhat similar throne for the use of the king. The tomb of William I., the founder's father—a magnificent porphyry sarcophagus contemporary with the church, under a marble pillared canopy—and the founder William II.'s tomb, erected in 1575, were both shattered by a tire, which in 1811 broke out in the choir, injuring some of the mosaics, and destroying all the line walnut choir-fittings, the organs, and most of the choir roof. The tombs were rebuilt, and the whole of the injured part of the church restored, mostly very clumsily, a few years after the fire. On the north of the choir are the tombs of Margaret, wife of William I., and her two sons Roger and Henry, together with an urn containing the viscera of St Louis of France, who died in 1270. The pavement of the triple choir, though much restored, is a very magnificent specimen of marble and porphyry mosaic in opus alexandrinum, with signs of Arab influence in its main lines. The pavement of the nave, on the other hand, is of the 16th century. Two baroque chapels were added in the 17th and 18th centuries, which are fortunately shut off from the rest, of the church.

Two bronze doors, those on the north and west of the church, are of great interest in the history of art. They are both divided into a number of square panels with subjects and single figures, chiefly from Bible history, cast in relief. That on the north is by Barisanus of Trani in southern Italy, an artist probably of Greek origin. It is inscribed BARISANUS TRAN. ME FECIT. The cathedrals at Trani and Ravello also have bronze doors by the same sculptor. The western door at Monreale, inferior to the northern one both in richness of design and in workmanship, is by Bonannus of Pisa, for the cathedral of which place he cast the still existing bronze door on the south, opposite the leaning tower. The one at Monreale is inscribed A.D. MCLXXXVI IND. III. BONANNUS CIVIS PISANVS ME FECIT. It is superior in execution to the Pisan one. The door by Barisanus is probably of about the same time, as other examples of his work with inscribed dates show that he was a contemporary of Bonannus. The effect of the façade is not improved by the Renaissance portico that has been added to it. The monastic library contains some valuable MSS., especially a number of bilingual documents in Greek and Arabic, the earliest being dated 1144. The archbishop now occupies the eastern part of the monastic buildings, the original palace being destroyed.,

See D. B. Gravina, Il Duomo di Monreale (Palermo, 1859–1865).  (J. H. M.; T. As.) 

  1. An earlier church appears to have existed at Monreale since the 6th century, but no traces of it now remain.