1902 Encyclopedia > Montreale, Sicily


MONREALE, a contraction of " monte-reale," was so called from a palace built there by the Norman Roger I., king of Sicily. It is now a town of about 16,300 inhabitants, situated 5 miles inland from Palermo, on the slope of Mount Caputo overlooking the beautiful and very fertile valley called "La Concha d'Oro " (the Golden Shell), famed for its orange, olive, and almond trees, the produce of which is exported in large quantities. 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.[759-1] This, the greatest of all the monuments of the wealth and artistic taste of the Norman kings in northern Sicily, who in 1072 expelled the Mohammedans and established themselves there with Palermo as their capital, 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. It was, and is even now, one of the most magnificent buildings in the world, and Pope Lucius in no way exaggerated its splendour when he said in his bull, "tit simile opus per aliquem regent factum non fuerit a diebus antiquis."

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 very splendid cloister, completed about 1200. This latter is well preserved, and is one of the finest cloisters both for size and beauty of detail that now exists anywhere. It is about 170 feet square, with pointed arches covered with marble inlay, supported on pairs of columns in white marble, 216 in all, which are sumptuously decorated either by rich surface carving or by bands of patterns in gold, silver, and colours, made of glass tesseroe, 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.

== IMAGE ==
Plan of the cathedral on Monreale, as built in the 12th century, omitting later additions.

The chief feature of the place - the church - like the main cloister, is fortunately well preserved. In plan it is a curious mixture of Eastern and Western arrangement (see fig.). 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 and other Eastern countries (see De Vogue, Syrie Centrale). It is, in fact, like two quite different churches put together endwise. The basilican nave is wide, with narrow aisles. Monolithic columns of Oriental granite (except one, which is of cipollino), evidently the spoils of older buildings, on each side support eight pointed arches much stilted. There is no t,-iforium, but a high clerestory with wide two-light windows, xith simple tracery like those in the nave-aisles and throughout the church. 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, constructionally plain, but richly decorated with colour, now mostly restored. At the west end of the nave are two projecting towers, with narthex-entrance between them. A large open atrium, which once existed at the west, is now completely destroyed. 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 inlaid in marble. The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches are magnificently enriched with carving and inlay, a curious combination of three styles - Norman-French, Byzantine, and Arab.

It is, however, the enormous extent (80,630 square feet) and glittering splendour of the glass mosaics covering the interior, which make this church so marvellously splendid (see MOSAIC). With the exception of a high dado, itself very beautiful, made of marble slabs enriched with bands of mosaic, the whole interior surface of the walls, including soffits and jambs of all the arches, is covered with minute mosaic-pictures in brilliant colours on a gold ground. This gorgeous method of decoration takes the place of all purely architectural detail, such as mouldings and panelling. The mosaic covers even the edges of the arches and jambs, which are slightly rounded off, so as to allow them to be covered by the glass tesseral. This device gives apparent softness to all the edges, and greatly enhances the richness of effect produced by the gleaming gold grounds. The only carving inside is on the sculptured caps of the nave arcade, mostly Corinthian in style. The mosaic pictures are arranged in tiers, divided by horizontal and vertical bands of elaborate flowing mosaic ornament. 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 Creek. The subjects arc partly from 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 subjects 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.

No other mosaics perhaps so closely resemble the Monreale ones as those over the nave columns in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. They are alike, not only in design and treatment, but also in the curious mixture of Latin and Greek in the inscriptions (see De Voguë, Eglises de la Terre Sainte, 1860). This similarity is easily accounted for by the fact that these two sets of mosaics, though so far apart, were executed about the same date and under the same conditions, viz., by the bands of Byzantine artists, working for Norman-French kings.

In the central apse at Monreale, behind the high altar, is a fine marble throne for the archbishop. This position of the throne is a survival of the early basilican 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. This position of the throne was frequent_y reproduced in churches which, like this, have the apse at the east. 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 fire, which in 1811 broke out in the choir, injuring some of the mosaics, and destroying all the fine 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.

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 Barisanos 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 Barisanos is probably of about the same time, as other examples of his work with inscribed dates show that he was a contemporary of Bonannus. (See METAL-WORK.) 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 Serradifalco, Duomo di Monreale, &c., 1838 ; Gravina, Duomo di Monreale, the best work on the subject, 1859 sq. ; Testa, Vita del Re Guglielmo II., 1765 ; Tarallo, I Reali Sepolcri di Monreale, 1826 ; Hittorf et Zanth, Architecture de la Sicile, 1835 ; Gally Knight, Saracenic and Norman Remains in Sicily, London, 1840 ; W. Burgos, Notes on Mediaeval Mosaic, 1863 ; M. D. Wyatt, Mosaics of Middle Ages, London, 1849 ; Hessemer, Arabische und Alt-Italienische Bau-Verzierungen, 1853; Garrucci, Arte Cristiana, 1882. (J. H. M.)

The above article was written by: J. Henry Middleton.

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