Sicily - Monreale

by Kimp 16. March 2017 03:54

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After the Western Roman Empire, headquartered in Rome, fell in 500 A.D. Sicily became under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, headquartered in Byzantium (Modern day Constantinople), which continued to flourish for about another 1000 years. Around 825 A.D. a new Byzantine governor of Sicily was appointed to Sicily. The new governor wanted to strengthen the Sicilian Navy and he trusted it's command to a Sicilian Admiral named Euphemius. Euphemius was a very wealthy Sicilian land owner, and he was well liked by the Sicilian Population.

Apparently Euphemius had an obsession with a young nun, and word got around that he had abducted her and forced her to marry him. Michael II, the emperor of Byzantine, ordered him to be arrested and put on trail, and if found guilty, his nose was to be cut off. Euphemius, then requested assistance from the Muslim leader Ziyadat Allah I of Ifriqiya (Modern day Tunisia). At that time, Ziyadat Allah I was upset at a local Judge, named Asad ibn al-Furat, whom often critized Ziyadat, for his luxurious and ungodly lifestyle. So Ziyadat appointed Asad, to lead the expidition over Sicily (an Army of 10,000 foot soldiers). Asad on his way to siege Syracuse, was stopped by the government of Syracus, who wanted to offer a payment to not siege Syracuse. While negotiations were taking place, the Army's advance was put on hold. In the meantime Euphemius, who would have lost out in that deal, convinced the Syracuse government not to pay them anything. A plague broke out in the Muslim camp and Asad died of plague. A new Muslim leader was appointed and the siege was started, but by that time a massive Byzantine fleet had showed up. The Army tried to retreat back to Tunisia, but the Byzantine fleet had them cut off, so they burned their ship's and marched in-land towards a city in the center if Sicily, named Castrugiuvanni (now Enna). The council of Castrugiuvanni asked to open negotiations with the Muslim's. Euphemius and this escort'showed up to negotiate on behalf of the Muslim Army. During those talks, Euphemius and his escorts were all killed. The Muslim Army sieges Castrugiuvanni and waits. In the meantime, a great Byzantine Gerneal named Theodotus and his Army was sent to Sicily. They attacked the force besieging Castrugiuvanni and were initially defeated, before mounting a counter-attack that was successful in driving the Muslim Army away.

Eventually the Muslim Army moved to the North West and was able to take the Sicilian Coastal City of Palermo where they home based, and over the course of the next 40 years, expanded their effort to take all of Sicily.

When the Muslim Army gained control of Palermo and overtook the government there, they moved the Arch Bishop of Palermo to a small nondescript chapel in Monreale.

250 years later, the Norman Knights conquered Southern Sicily, then set their sights on Sicily, and over the course of another 40 years,  managed to overtake all of Sicily. The Norman government decided not to change the Byzantine nor Muslim influences that were already in place. They incorporated positions in their government that were represented by both cultures and tried to create an integrated society that included and incorporated all three mindsets.

100 years later, King William II took the throne at the age of 11. The crown was under the guardianship of his mother until he came of age.
The adult King William II liked to party and didn't care much for the military. Instead of fighting, he stayed at home and mastered in diplomacy. The Kings palace was in Palermo, but the valley near Monreale was their favorite hunting grounds.

Cathedral Santa Maria la Nuova

As soon as his mother's guardianship was over (1172), King William II built the Cathedral at Monreale, as a testament of the splendor of his Kingdom of Italy..

The architecture includes characteristic signs of Norman, Byzantine, Muslim architecture. William hired the best Sicilian Byzantine artists to create 120 Mosaic panels inside of the cathedral, each depicting a story from the bible. Four years after the cathedral construction started, 100 Benedictine monks were relocated here and a Benedictine Monastery was added.  The cloister of the monastery is very large and consists of 106 column capitals each sculpted with a picture narrative, depicting a notable story from the bible.

Roman Cathedrals often have a cross shape in the floor plan, with the high alter positioned near the intersection of the cross and a dome high above it. Byzantine Cathedrals are kind of a hybrid between a Roman Cathedral and a mosque, without the cross floor plan and with the high alter positioned inside a nitch at one end, which is topped by a semicircular dome.

The cathedral and monastery were nearly completed in only 17 years, when construction came to a halt.

In the mid 1500's the elaborate mosaic marble floors were installed, along with marble on the lower walls. .

In 1596, the Chapel of saint Castrense, dedicated to the patron saint of Sicily, was added. By that time architectural tastes had changed and it was built in a Renaissance style that was popular at that time. A funny story, it was commissioned by Arch Bishop Ludvico, who wanted to be buried there. But he died on a visit to Rome, and was buried in Rome (Whoop's).  Below the Marble alter there, are the relics of St. Castrense, which were given to King William II.

In 1686, the Chapel of the Crucifix was added. As with the previous chapel, it was created in the popular style of that time (Baroque). It's conceptual design was articulated by Monk Giovanni di Monreale, but it built by famous Jesuit Angelo Italia, who was a very famous Sicilian Architect. This is the finest master masonry work, that I have ever seen. Words can't describe and pictures can't really capture it. This inlaid Sicilian marble work is masterpiece quality. It's simply awe inspiring. centerpiece is a crucifix, that was a gift from William II to the church, in the late 1100's when the cathedral was built.

I did not go inside of the chapel of Saint Benedict, but from the pictures I have seen of it, it looks Baroque as well and was probably built around the same time as the Chapel of the Crucifix. It has a theater like appearance and is very vibrant and colorful.

I also did not go inside of the chapel of Saint Placido (Saint Placidus was a disciple of Saint Benedict), which now houses museum quality religious art. Since he was one of Saint Benedict's students, I believe this was built much later, but from pictures it resembles the later Baroque period. The pictures I have seen of the Art there, look great, I wish I had gone to see it.  

In 1811, a fire destroyed the original carved ceiling, the organs and the high alter and severely damage several of the mosaics. They were all restored/reconstructed trying to reproduce the original. The new alter was built in Rome.


The town of Monreale, is very warm and relaxing in appearance. The valley that the church overlook's is full of Orange, Olive, and Almond trees. A beautiful sight all by itself.

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See you next time !!!




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