Monreale is a small town on a hill south of Palermo. It is a major tourist attraction and UNESCO World Heritage site because of the cathedral and its cloister. The cathedral was built in the 1170s as the abbey church of a newly founded Benedictine convent. The founder is the Norman King William II of Sicily, so royal ambitions are behind this project. The church is one of the most important Norman buildings in Sicily. Its architecture unites elements of Romanesque, Byzantine and Arab-Islamic styles to the mix which is so characteristic for the Norman era in Sicily and Southern Italy. The facades are covered in a pattern of intertwined pointed arches and ornated with stone inlays.
The general structure of the church is Romanesque. The interior follows Byzantine designs and was created by artists from Constantinople together with Sicilian colleagues. The lower parts of the walls and the floor are covered in marble, the upper parts and the vaults in mosaics on gilded ground. The giant Christus Pantokrator, Christ as ruler of the world, in the central apse is the dominating figure. The golden surfaces give the church a mystic light and atmosphere.
The roofs of the cathedral can be climbed. A walkway leads round the whole building. The views from up there over the city of Palermo, the valley and the coast must be fabulous. Unfortunately the tight schedule of our tour forced us to choose either the walk on the roof or seeing the cloister, there was not enough time for both. (Shame on the planners.) I chose the cloister, of course. A quick walk to the cliff behind the cathedral allowed a glimpse of the panoramic view.
The cloister, a remnant of the Benedictine abbey, is of equal artistic value and not to be missed. The wide square inner courtyard is supported by arcades of 26 arches each on all sides. The arches are carried by pairs of columns. Each column is unique. Some are smooth, some sculpted with zigzag patterns, while others have mosaic inlays. The capitals are sculpted in finest stonemasonry and all different. They show biblical characters and religious symbols. So it is worth looking at the details carefully.