William’s Brain

by wjw on July 30, 2023

Monreale Cathedral— more formally Cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova di Monreale; Duomo di Monreale— is a look into the mind of King William the Good, who built the place. I can see why a life of war and conquest didn’t suit him. This colossal building is a fantasia, a kind of theme park tour of William’s brain.

Supposedly, while on a hunting trip, William II fell asleep under a carob tree, and had a dream in which the Virgin suggested he build a church on the site. Knowing that suggestions from the Mother of Christ are more akin to commands, William removed the carob tree in preparation for building, and then discovered a giant hoard of gold tangled in the tree’s roots, which hoard was used to built the largest Norman church in the world.

Monreale is still in the Palermo metropolitan area, and of course Palermo has its own cathedral (described in an earlier post). I’m guessing William wanted his own damn church with his own damn archbishop, whether his was next door to another cathedral or not, and he did a deal with the Pope to make that happen. He got a proper cathedral with a proper archbishop, not a co-cathedral like the Maltese.

As the name means “Royal Mountain,” you might guess it’s on a height, which meant I had to climb a long stone stair to get to the top. (In the rain.) My knee was much improved from a few days earlier, and I was worried I’d re-injure it, but in the event the knee held up well.

Most Norman churches don’t look like much from the outside, resembling forts if anything, but Monreale has had almost nine hundred years of improvements since then, so now it’s got a nice Renaissance portico and an arched entryway that doesn’t look like it was original to the building.

Inside, we step immediately into William’s brain. “I want to stick a Latin/Norman nave onto a Syrian/Byzantine three-lobed choir, and I’m a king who knows the Virgin personally, so that’s what I’m getting!” And that’s what we see.

William also put that miraculous gold to good use. The cathedral is gold mosaic from the nave all the way to Christ Pantokrator in the apse. Starting at just above the reach of a visitor (to keep him from filching the gold, methinks), the walls of the cathedral are all gold mosaic, as are the arches, the space above the arches, the clerestory, and much of the ceiling. 6500 square meters of gold mosaic! It’s Fantasyland!

It was a pity it was a cloudy day, otherwise the place would have just blazed.

The mosaics tell Bible stories, from Adam and Eve through to the suffering of Christ. Most for them are charming, with Noah bobbing around in his boat and Adam and Eve contemplating the Tree of Knowledge.

Attached to the cathedral is a monastery featuring a large cloister, which was useful for keeping the rain off. The cloister is supported by 216 double columns, each pair unique, each carved and with a carved capital.

The capitals feature weaving vines, folk and Biblical tales, and other things less decipherable. I wish I’d had more time just to stare at them.

Going down the long stone stair was more painful than going up, and I figured my knee was telling me that I needed to go to Le Bougainville‘s bar, put my feet up, and order a cocktail, which is just what I did.

Later, when we were back at sea, the skipper came on the loudspeaker and said that there was a big storm on the way, and he was going to try to outrun it. He said it would probably catch up to the boat about 2:30 in the morning, and we should be prepared for a bit of pitching and rolling.

In fact I woke at 2:30, with rain drumming on the balcony door and the boat lurching around in the waves. I confirmed the accuracy of the captain’s prediction, then went back to sleep. When I woke in the morning, the storm had passed, but it was still raining.

Still raining.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.