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The cathedral church of Monreale

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Home arrowThe cathedral church of Monreale

Brief introduction
The cathedral of Monreale, which was built after the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and after the cathedral of Cefalù, represents an arrival point in a century characterised by continental insular Norman constructions.
In it, we find a syncretic blend of building experience, which began in Cluny in the 10th century and proceeded with the building of the abbey church of Bernay and then the Trinité, St. Nicolas and St. Etienne in Caen, conjugating this architecture in Mileto with that of the abbey church of Montecassino while experiencing new types of architecture, impregnated with Sicilian regionalism and new Norman experimentalism, in the cathedrals of Catania and Messina (see Lessay Normandy – Manche)

Chiesa_Cattedrale_Monreale.jpgWhen observed from the outside, we see that the cathedral of King William II is articulated around three main volumes, which are characteristic of the Latin cross plan that we normally find in western churches:
The longitudinal basilican body with three naves, the transept and the triapsidal area.  There is an addition to these volumes on the west side: two bell towers that close in on the pillared entrance portico (exonarthex) surmounted by a triangular tympanum, in compliance with the typical layout of the churches of Normandy.  The surfaces of the exonarthex were decorated with scenes inspired by the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
porta_ingresso.jpgThe great entrance door which is decorated with bronze panels, is the work of Bonanno da Pisa and was positioned in 1185.
At the junction between the transept and the central nave, above the other bodies of the building, we see:  the square of the crossing tower, containing the solea, which is not surmounted by a dome, but rather by a double pitch roof, like the roof of the central nave beneath. The latter is seen with the ridge, in the lower center line of the central window of the solea.
The interior of the basilican body, as we already mentioned, is divided up into three naves by two rows consisting of nine reclaimed columns surmounted by capitals of obvious classical origin. Each of the side naves is as wide as one third of the central one. In turn, the capitals are linked to the overlying dosserets by means of abacuses in a typically Norman form. The abacuses all have different widths, obviously in order to connect the various heights of the columns, in order to put all the surfaces for the pointed arches on the same level.
The particular geometrical form of the latter collaborates in the centring of the weights of the structures on the axis of the columns, in such a way as to ensure that they do not have to carry acentric loads that would compromise their stability. An expedient technique that contributes to making the interior structures more agile and more resistant, this is a characteristic of the Byzantine-Islamic architecture of that period and it was later adopted, with certain variations, in Gothic cathedrals. The arches push well beyond the usual Norman levels, characterised by ambulatories above the side naves and double or triple lancet windows, all traces of which disappear in Monreale, to give space to the vast mosaic covered surfaces (over six thousand metres squared) which cover the structures, causing them to disappear with their reflected light.  Observers therefore have the impression that the cathedral was built with light, rather than with stone.
Navata_centrale.jpgThe central nave has a wooden double pitched roof, while the side naves have a single pitch roof. The roofs were rebuilt approximately thirty years after the devastating fire that destroyed a large part of the presbytery in 1811.
The precious decorations on the trusses and ceilings, which were probably rebuilt on the basis of the previous medieval designs, are in perfect harmony with the mosaics on the walls.
The perspective, which was designed from the double theory of the columns of the central nave, extends with the structures that it crosses in the presbytery, tidying every mosaic or architectural element, from an optical point of view, into a single convergence towards Christ Pantocrator, genially and harmoniously proportioned within the curved apsidal basin with a stereoscopic effect.
In every single detail, the architecture and iconographical plan are composed according to a single pre-established plan.
Access to the presbytery is through the arches, which determine its various sectors. From the point of view of its size, the presbyterial area can be compared with the abbey church of Montecassino, with slight protrusions with respect to the body of the basilica, unlike the Norman transepts with wings that are quite pronounced transversally with respect to the heads of the side naves.
However, at least on the inside, this layout is restored by the introduction of a pillared quadriporticus (a typically Byzantine element) which divides the presbytery into a double transept with evident internal wings:
The first of these intercepts the central nave, determining the raised square of the solea where the altar is located; the second contains the central and side apses in internal alignment, according to the Norman-Cluniac outline. The areas of the prothesis and diaconicon are formed in the same manner, like independent chapels, according to the typologies of the small single room churches of Normandy (see Tollevast). On the outside, in plan view, the three apses have the customary jagged form (à échelons), with the center section emphasised. Certain substantial differences with the contemporary Byzantine and Norman components are however noteworthy. Though it does harp back to the centric Byzantine tetra-style module, the crossing tower at the joint between the transept and the extension of the nave is not surmounted by a dome but rather, closed with a double-pitched roof. The apsidal zones are covered with cross vaults, with the exception of the apsidal basin, which is not perforated by the customary three windows (occasionally circular, as in certain churches in Normandy), to give more internal space to the immense figure of the Pantocrator.
The geometrical relations between the various planning components are dictated by rigorous proportional criteria and by a metric system, the unit of measurement of which was the Islamic cubit.
Like the great Christian basilican constructions, the Cathedral was preceded by a great rectangular enclosure with a garden and central well to be used by the pilgrims, it was called: Paradise, closed by side porticos ending with the narthex. Access was through the entrance door used in the western perimeter and defended by walls and towers.