The face of Christ Pantocrator in the apse of Monreale cathedral. Photo Antonino Bartuccio4Corners

Monreale cathedral: why Sicily’s ‘multicultural masterpiece’ is a lesson for our times

The dazzling diversity of artistic styles in Sicily’s majestic Monreale cathedral is a powerful argument for religious and cultural tolerance, says Andrew Graham-Dixon

Last autumn I was in Sicily. Mount Etna was smoking ominously, dark plumes rising into a clear blue sky. Climb close to the summit and you fnd yourself in a place that resembles the surface of the moon: barren, strewn with rock and rubble, dark grey as far as the eye can see.

According to geologists, Etna is a composite volcano, also called a stratovolcano, which means that — unlike, say, Vesuvius — it does not erupt from a single central crater but is liable to explode from anywhere on its slopes, throwing out great extrusions of rock with such force that they can easily reach as far as the sea.

The effect is mythologised in The Odyssey. After Odysseus has blinded the monstrous cyclops, Polyphemus, who lives in a cave on Etna, the hero and his men run down to their ship and put out to sea. In his rage, the blinded monster hurls huge boulders down at them, which stir the waves but fail to find their target. Remove the one-eyed giant from the story and you have the earliest known description of polyeruptions from an active stratovolcano — evidence that Homer and the Greeks took the trouble to understand the geology of Sicily, even as they strenuously colonised it.

The Moorish fountain in the cloister of the Benedictine abbey next to Monreale cathedral, from the centre of which sprouts an abstracted stone likeness of a palm tree. Photo Antonino Bartuccio4Corners

The Moorish fountain in the cloister of the Benedictine abbey next to Monreale cathedral, from the centre of which sprouts an abstracted stone likeness of a palm tree. Photo: Antonino Bartuccio/4Corners

Etna might be grim and forbidding — the Greeks thought it was the gateway to hell — but without it Sicily would surely have had a far less interesting and multifaceted history. Once part of Magna Graecia, the island was subsequently conquered by the Romans and later ruled by Arabs, Normans and the Spanish.

Why would so many different peoples have fought so hard and long over this place? The answer is Etna, constantly dusting the land with volcanic ash, and in the process making Sicily the most fertile island in the Mediterranean: the volcano may have threatened death and destruction, but it always brought new life. Palermo’s main fruit and vegetable market, with its polymorphously prodigious displays of produce (including pomegranates the size of pineapples) is living testament to the island’s continuing fertility.

Perhaps it is fitting that the most ubiquitous reminder of the island’s multicultural history should indeed be its food, an indefinable blend of Italian, Arab, Spanish and Greek influence. Sicily is, for example, the only place in the Italian-speaking world to have produced a sweet-and-sour pasta dish, namely pasta con le sarde, which by legend was the first meal prepared for the island’s Arab invaders after they landed on the coast. A confection of sardines, nuts, raisins and a thick sun-dried tomato paste known locally as strattu, it is improbably delicious.

A view towards the altar at Monreale cathedral, Sicily. Photo Antonino Bartuccio4Corners

A view towards the altar at Monreale cathedral, Sicily. Photo: Antonino Bartuccio/4Corners

My favourite building in Sicily could be described as the architectural equivalent of pasta con le sarde. The cathedral of Monreale, built on a hilltop eminence above Palermo, was the brainchild of an early Norman ruler of Sicily, William II. William the Good, as he later came to be known, was only 20 years old when, according to legend, he fell asleep under a carob tree while hunting and was granted a vision of the Virgin Mary, who instructed him to build a church.

And what a church he built. Walk inside this great stone flagship for the magnificence of the island’s Norman rulers, and you feel as if transported to another realm. Above, on all sides, glitters a spectacular and sense-beguiling array of mosaic decorations, covering the entirety of the upper church, from the apse to the back wall, with images depicting Christ, the saints and prophets, and telling stories from Old Testament and New.

A mosaic of William II presenting the church to the Virgin Mary. Photo DeAgostini Picture LibraryScala, Florence

A mosaic of William II presenting the church to the Virgin Mary. Photo: DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence

The figure of Christ Pantocrator, in the curve of the apse, is unavoidably majestic. Wherever the worshipper (or visitor) stands in the church, he or she is held within the ambit of Christ’s solemn and severe gaze: by this means, the abstract idea of divine omniscience is made both apprehensible and troublingly vivid.

Monreale’s vast patchwork of mosaics, which extends to a mind-boggling 6,000 square metres, is marked by a great variety of styles and approaches. Many of the stories of the Old and New Testament are told with a rough and rugged immediacy that seems almost crude by comparison with the work elsewhere. The figures of saints at the altar end of the church — which include Thomas Becket, at the time a very recent martyr from faraway England — are so solemn and statuesque that they would not look out of place in a Byzantine cathedral.

‘What I love best is the cathedral’s mixture of profusion and confusion’ — Andrew Graham-Dixon

Some experts have detected in the later mosaics of Monreale (the scheme was not completed until the 1260s, some 90 years after the cornerstone was laid) the hands of the same travelling Venetian master-mosaicists who decorated the apse of St Peter’s in Rome during the middle years of the 13th century.

As a result of the different inclinations and skills of the various teams of craftsmen who worked at Monreale over the generations, the mosaics as a whole oscillate uneasily between effects of extreme realism — the stench of Lazarus, rising from the dead, vividly conveyed by the body language of a reeling witness — and an equally remote transcendence.

A mosaic depicting the resurrection of Lazarus includes such realistic touches as onlookers attempting to block the stench of the decomposing corpse from their noses. Photo Norman Hunter Rose, Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem

A mosaic depicting the resurrection of Lazarus includes such realistic touches as onlookers attempting to block the stench of the decomposing corpse from their noses. Photo: Norman Hunter Rose, Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem

I think what I love best about Monreale is its mixture of profusion and confusion. This is manifest at the level of its design, which suggests that the planners were unsure about whether to create a Roman Catholic cathedral or an Eastern Orthodox one.

The nave is modelled on an Italian basilica, but the triple apses of the choir were inspired by the churches of the East. The Great Schism that split the church in two had occurred little more than a century before the foundation stone of Monreale was laid, so perhaps William the Good and his advisers did not truly believe that it would prove permanent.

The mosaic of the counter-façade in the cathedral. Photo Antonino Bartuccio4Corners

The mosaic of the counter-façade in the cathedral. Photo: Antonino Bartuccio/4Corners

The result is a church in which Orthodox and Catholic (and perhaps even any broad-minded Protestant) might feel very much at home. This sort of confusion can be rather helpful, in my opinion: a way to remind people of different denominations of just how much they truly have in common.

The stylistic confusion of Monreale does not end there. Before the Norman conquest of Sicily, the island had been ruled by a dynasty of Muslim Arabs, whose legacy was clearly respected by William the Good. His court workshops were said to have been staffed by a great number of Arab craftsmen, skilled themselves in stone carving and mosaic decoration; and William himself even took on the Arab title of a caliph alongside that of king, styling himself ‘al-Musta’izz bi-llah’ (He Who Seeks Exaltation in God).

The cathedral of Monreale gives physical expression to its founder’s sense of tolerance. The exterior elevations, where dizzying patterns are formed from blind ogival arches made of brick and limestone the colour of desert sand, evoke the architecture of Arab North Africa. The interior, too, is marked by Arab influence, and was surely worked on by Arab craftsmen: the doors and arches are decorated with a multitude of complex geometric forms picked out in mosaics of gold and many colours, reflecting the ancient Islamic habit of exalting God by non-figurative means.

The cathedral cloister. Photo Antonino Bartuccio4Corners

The cathedral cloister. Photo: Antonino Bartuccio/4Corners

The confluence of styles, civilisations and faith systems that makes Monreale unique extends beyond the cathedral itself to the beautifully peaceful cloister next door — once the cloister of a Benedictine monastery, which was also part of William the Good’s grand scheme. 

Here we find innumerable columns decorated with mosaic in the Arabic style, but with carved capitals telling Bible stories or exhibiting fantastic creatures, all done in the Romanesque style, probably by artists brought in from southern France. There is even a lovely little Moorish fountain, from the centre of which sprouts an abstracted stone likeness of a palm tree — the great symbol of homesickness for displaced Arabs.

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Monreale is the epitome of a multicultural masterpiece. It was built in Sicily, for the Normans, who were themselves christianised Vikings from France who had travelled south. It was worked on by artists from the Greek East, by Arabs, by men from Tuscany and Puglia, by native Sicilians, by sculptors from Provence and no doubt others about whom we know nothing.

At a time when so many people seem to yearn for separateness and self-containment — building walls or closing borders, Brexiting and the like — Monreale seems to me a rather important reminder of all that human beings can create when they think in a gentler and more inclusive way.