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The exonarthex or main western atrium

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Home arrowThe exonarthex or main western atrium

The main square on the western side of the Cathedral was surrounded by a portico, the aim of which was to provide shelter from the inclement weather of the seasons and the excessive heat of the summer sun. The harmony of this aggregative space found its completeness in the exonarthex, a solemn portico, enriched by mosaics which are no longer existent today, the true “atrium” of waiting for the meeting with the King of kings, with the Lord of Lords, Christ of the Father, with the Queen his Mother, Mary, with all the royal Court of the Heavens*. [In the ecclesiastical praxis of the 4th- 6th centuries, the portico in front of the basilica or exonarthex – the first space for walking around within it – was reserved for welcoming the repentant or catechumens. In fact, for different reasons, these two categories of people could not participate in the full celebration of the Mysteries / Sacraments].

Testimonies dating back to the 16th century allow us to establish the exact date of the mosaics of the exonarthex. As soon as they crossed the threshold, the King and the People of God were welcomed by two Archangels, Michael and Gabriel and by two prophets, Isaiah and Balaam. The inscriptions of these two biblical characters anticipated the messianic themes which would then make up the concert of light and colour in the mosaics inside the Cathedral. Isaiah referred to the Davidic origin of Jesus (He shall come out of a shoot from the root of Jesse) and Balaam heralded the splendid light brought to us from the Messiah (The star of Jacob shall rise).
Ten tondos of saints in the lateral intradoses and five tondos of saints in the central intrados crowned scenes dedicated to the earthly adventures of the Mother of the Messiah, Mary, the most humble and glorious Virgin.
On the wall to the right of those entering the Cathedral and on the right side wall, four scenes were proposed:
- the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, with 3 shepherds and angels: Nativitas Jesus Christi,  (Lello 24)
- the adoration by the three wise men;
- the presentation at the temple and the purification of the Mother: Praesentatio Christi in Templo; Positus est in ruinam et signum cui contradicetur (Lello 24);
The left wall presented four more Marian scenes:
- three angels taking care of the infant who has just been born,
- an unknown scene, hypothesised by Lello as being the Assumption, or the transit or Dormitio of the Virgin, with the apostles beside her.
On the left side wall:
- Presentation of Mary at the temple;
- and, as a simple hypothesis, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Porta_bronzea.jpgThe enormous bronze door (7.80 x 3.90) which already led into the Cathedral of Monreale in 1186, was created by Bonanno di Pisa.
Symmetrical, floral and geometrical motifs (the well-known bâton brisé, which is of Norman origin), along with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs act as a frame to no less than forty panels illustrating biblical events, from Genesis to the Gospels, which can be divided up into ten sections. Two larger scenes dominated its two valves: on the left, Mary on the throne (bearing the Latin inscription: Mary has ascended into heaven); on the right, Christ on the throne (with the Latin inscription: I am the Light of the world, literally corresponding to what was then presented by the book open in the left hand of the Christ Pantocrator, in the central apse).  Below is a complete list of the forty biblical scenes drawing inspiration from the great mosaics of the interior;
- 1st section:
1. The creation of Adam
2. The creation of Eve
3. Heaven
4. Sin
- 2nd section:
5. Punishment
6.  Eve’s work
7. Eve generates Cain and Abel
8. Cane and Abel
- 3rd section:
9. The killing of Abel
10. The Ark
11. Noah’s vine
12. The angels visit Abraham
- 4th section:
13. Abraham’s sacrifice
14. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
15. Moses, Aaron
16. Malachi and Balaam
- 5th section:
17. Hosea and Isaiah
18. Micheas and Joel
19. Daniel and Amos
20. Ezekiel and Zechariah
- 6th section:
21. The annunciation to Mary
22. The visit to Elizabeth
23. The nativity of Jesus
24. The wise men
- 7th section:
25. Herod
26. The escape from Egypt
27. The presentation at the temple*
28. Baptism in the River Jordan
- 8th Section
29. The temptations in the desert
30. The resurrection of Lazarus
31. Entry to Jerusalem
32. The transfiguration*
- 9th section:
33. The Easter Supper
34. Gethsemane and Judas
35. The Crucifixion
36. Victory over death
- 10th section
37. Burial
38. The Resurrection and Mary of Magdalene
39. The manifestation at Emmaus
40. The Ascension
The area at the bottom, on the left and on the right, contains the most well-known Norman symbols:  the gryphon (from the Anglo-Norman area) and the lion (from the Sicilian-Norman area).  (Ferina 113).

The bronze door in the northern atrium, made by Barisano da Trani (1179), dates back to a few years previously.
Less elaborate than that of Bonnanno di Pisa, the work is articulated around 28 panels, arranged in a symmetrical manner over the two valves.