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Inside the Cathedral. The barycenters

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Home arrowInside the Cathedral. The barycenters

The marvellous complexity of the Cathedral of Monreale – a metaphor of the simple multiplicity of glorious eschatology - is manageable only on the condition that its (three) architectonic and (two) artistic barycenters are re-established.

1. The main entrance, from the west.
In the intrados of the central door, the two archangels, Michael and Gabriel, take the tourist and faithful person by the hand and lead him into the transfigured world of liturgical action. Divine perfection is illustrated on the top of the arch with concentric circles, sloping down towards the “black-light” or “bright shadow” which is so often used by ancient eastern and western iconographers*. [We cordially advise against meditating on the meaning of the 4 or 8 pointed stars or on other particular details of a lesser structural value]


2. The (three) architectonic barycenters.
Thanks to the successful research carried out by Architect Vittorio Noto, we now have the reconstruction of the geometrical symmetries that highlighted three barycenters inside the Cathedral.

The first barycenter, A, is located at the centre of the great aisle, at the end of the fourth intrados of the arches of the great columns. Our gaze is naturally attracted upwards, to the right and it encounters two great scenes, on two different registers, taken from the First Alliance and containing intense Easter and baptismal meanings: the beginning of Creation and the Ark of salvation from the Flood. Right underneath these – if we refer to what is documented in the palatine chapel in Palermo  - the baptismal font was positioned along with the Easter candle* [Taking the rules of symmetry into account, which were followed to quite an extent in early-Christian plans, Lamech-Noah and the famous struggle of Jacob with the Angel of the Lord are represented in two different registers in the corner on the left, concluding with the designation of the new theophoric name, “Israel”. The biblical event is clearly associated with the sacrament of Baptism, in which the merciful Omnipotence of the Father is pleased to celebrate the eternal Alliance with the newly adopted children (neophytes)]. 

The second barycenter, B, is identified in the area of the steps that lead into the area dominated by the New Alliance, which comes about in the Gospel or Good news. Framed by the majestic triumphal arches and by the intradoses of the Solea, the scenes of the childhood and the Easter of the Messiah Jesus unfold before our eyes, the King of Israel and good Shepherd of the chosen people [We should recall that the scenes relative to the healings and the messianic “signs” during the course of the so-called public life of the Lord Jesus, are not visible from this barycenter, given that they are situated in the two side naves of the cathedral].
In the choice of figures crowning the Messiah, we cannot fail to recall the great importance of the kings of Davidic and Pre-Davidic genealogy of Jesus, with Obed and Melchizedek to the forefront, at the summit of the first two triumphal arches.  Right at the base of the second triumphal arch we find the two thrones or two “pulpits” of the bishop-abbot, on the right of the King, to the left.
In this second barycenter in particular, we see the centrality given to the royal function in the aforementioned framework of the medieval Roman-Christian “imperium”.

The third barycenter, C, is positioned near the two thrones, which were already mentioned and it overlooks the most sacred area of the Cathedral, which is named in various manners, such as Sanctuary or Hiereion or Sancta sanctorum or Presbytery or central apsidal area.
Three illustrations of Jesus Saviour and Lord represent his messianic and divine action with the utmost of effectiveness: - the Emmanuel with a young and eternal face, - Jesus master, light of the world, “Pantocrator”, - Jesus last judge of history, is shown on the throne of the Etimasia (empty throne).  [We would invite you to notice a particular phenomenon that adapts Byzantine and early-Christian tradition to the probable requirements of the “Norman King” who commissioned the work]: we are referring to the lack of representation of the Easter lamb and the eschatological lamb. We can hypothesise that the designers of the “messages” of Monreale took care to avoid any indication of suffering, which may have been linked to the ministerial function of a Christian King. Moreover, in the vast “encyclopaedia of saints” of the Cathedral of Monreale, we find no visual link to John the Baptist. Even the palatine Chapel in Palermo had represented this prophetic figure, in continuity with the Byzantine and early-Christian tradition].
The central sacred area, a place of celebration of the sacrament of the Eucharist and a place where the Word was proclaimed to the People of God, becomes the true frontal “barycenter” of our cathedral. Every person, whether he is a believer or not, is magnetically attracted by Christ-Light and by His Mother, the ever Virgin Mary, to whom the entire temple is dedicated.
Let’s now consider other barycenters that unwind from the central apse and yet continuously return to the central apse, in a dynamic, living and truly extraordinary cyclical manner.

3. The (five) artistic barycenters
The holy and universal, apostolic and single-multiple church, a pilgrim throughout history, living in charity on the sacred territory of Monreale and Palermo, is “embraced” on several occasions by the “celestial and triumphant Church”.
In fact, let us consider as a sort of authentic, loving and protective embrace by Jesus-Light and Mary, his mother and ours:

  • the two columns of the universal Church, Peter and Paul, for whom the main throne in the two side apses is destined.
  • the series of full figure apostles and evangelists, that decorate an initial register in the central apsidal area;
  • the series of full-figure saintly men and women who ideally embrace the operational heart of the royal Citadel, that is, the court of the King and the community of the monks. It is evident to everyone how this hagiographical sequence ends with the first triumphal arch. [In this sequence, individual importance is given to saints with a very recent biographical event. We are talking about Thomas Becket, martyred in 1172.
  • The further positioning of the numerous “tondos” of angels and saints embraces and acts as a crown to the People of God who are living and suffering in history, experiencing their mission of charity in justice.

We shall conclude this exposure of the “artistic barycenters” by referring to the interesting central vertical axis that crosses the entire Cathedral. We are talking about the summits of the triumphal arches, inaugurated with the tondo of Knowledge by JHVH (in the tympanum of the first triumphal arch), the summits of the intradoses of the first and second triumphal arches, with the tondos of the king Obed and the priest-king Melchizedek and the summit of the fourth triumphal arch, containing the tondo of the Emmanuel, the ultimate object of the Word and the saving action of the aforementioned eternal Knowledge.

In conclusion, the aforementioned barycenters constitute the true “compass” that directs and simplifies the gaze and the spirit of people who, amazed by the magnificence of the mosaics, feel an extraordinary life, a divine and ecclesiastic life vibrating strongly in today’s world.