Anyone who has visited Monreale cathedral in Sicily will have had been filled with lasting awe on stepping inside and first glimpsing the fabulous Byzantine mosaics. One is almost stunned to disbelief at how they might have been achieved, let alone conceived or paid for. To visit for the first time is to feel like a child being let loose in a new fun park, not knowing where to begin, trying out everything at once, until finding an order to it, and then finally, retiring, exhausted.
Inevitably, the visitor enjoys reading the scenes from the Old Testament that adorn the clerestory – finding Noah reclining with his cup of wine and Jacob fleeing up his ladder. They will enjoy the scenes from Genesis: the creation of the firmament through to the story of Adam and Eve. The visitor will stand in wonder at size of the Christ Pantocrator, they will identify the archangels Gabriel and Michael, the Madonna and child, the saints Peter and Paul and maybe too they will spot the dove of the Holy Spirit descending to Mary during the Annunciation. They will enjoy identifying all these familiar Bible stories.
The question many visitors raise, when they first enter the church of Monreale is “what is the origin of the Greek Byzantine mosaics?” It is a valid question, but one that will have been partly answered by anyone who has already visited the Palatine Chapel inside the Norman Palace in Palermo.
To begin with, we should remember that the schism between Roman and Eastern churches had only happened around a hundred years earlier. Furthermore, whilst the dogma might have changed, the local beliefs would have altered little in this time. Furthermore, in Sicily, Greek was still a spoken language – particularly in the East of the island. And indeed, there were still several Orthodox foundations functioning in the hills above Messina.
The other point to make is that Byzantine art was still considered the highest form of art at this time. (Though this in itself is interesting to observe in Monreale Cathedral since in some of the later mosaics in the aisles we being to see the incipient ascendency of Italian art.)
Art historians have estimated that the mosaics in Monreale contain something like 2200kg of pure gold and cover something like 6400m2. The numbers themselves are astonishing.
But there is another story told in the cathedral that many visitors will walk away from having missed. It is a darker story, potentially far more intriguing, but almost certainly more profound. Like a good murder mystery, it doesn’t have a straight-forward narrative, but rather is created from numerous clues which the erudite reader is able to identify and piece together in a jigsaw. It is a medieval “whodunnit” of enormous significance. It is a story that tells of an unashamed, almost blasphemous, assertion of temporal power.
And it starts with the very existence of the cathedral itself.
Located high on a hill a few kilometres above the city of Palermo, the sheer grandiloquence of this medieval basilica is a testament to the obvious power that commissioned it. But why did it come to built in such a remote position?
Before we can answer that question though, we need to do some groundwork.
The Norman dynasty in Sicily
In 1174, when work on the cathedral was begun, though tiny compared to its present day size, Palermo was already a thriving medieval city. It was the capital of Norman Sicily, which at that time was arguably the richest kingdom in Europe. The kingdom fielded a powerful navy and commanded one of the largest armies in the Mediterranean after Byzantium itself. Its merchants were doing trade with Constantinople, north Africa, Spain and the cities of the Italian Peninsula. It felt very much the centre of the world – as indeed in some ways it was: in the middle of Mare Nostrum, as the Romans had called the Mediterranean.
The King of all this was William II – at the time one of the most powerful kings in Europe. And yet, he was only the third generation of his family to wear the crown. Five generations before him, the Hauteville family had been landless mercenaries arriving in Southern Italy from Northern France, hiring themselves out as warmongers to the Princes of Salerno. William’s great-grandfather, Count Roger had lived like a bandit in his castle of Scalea in Calabria before landing in Sicily in 1061 and finally toppling Palermo – at that time still an Arab emirate – in 1070. The kingdom of Sicily only came into being with Roger’s eponymously named son being crowned in 1130. When Roger II’s grandson, William II, ascended to the throne in 1166 the kingdom was not even four decades old. And it was less than a century since his great-grandfather had first set foot in the city.
This rise to power, in just four generations, from journeymen butchers to the rulers of the richest Kingdom in Europe was more than just meteoric. In little over a century, the Hautevilles, had risen to be one of the most powerful families in Europe and also rulers over the richest kingdom in the Mediterranean. It was an extraordinary feat.
History is written by the victors, as they say. And the cathedral at Monreale was a way of writing that history – it was the justification for what the Norman Kings had become and how they identified themselves.
History is written on the walls
Despite its majestic manifestation, the initial impetus to build a new cathedral appears to have come from a simple irritation. William was becoming increasingly vexed by the Archbishop of Palermo, Walter Ophamil. The bishop had been William’s tutor and constant companion in the Norman court but around 1170, for whatever reason, the relationship soured.
In the medieval hierarchy though, the Archbishop was more powerful than the King and William was therefore helpless to do anything about it. It seemed he was the ruler of everything – except over the Archbishop himself.
But William had a plan: he would build a new cathedral, create a new diocese and instate his own Archbishop.
The justification for him being able to do this came from an event eighty years before, at the time when there were two popes feuding against each other. William’s grandfather Roger II, had had the good fortune to back the eventual winner: Antipope Anacletus and in doing so he was rewarded with important concession: that the Norman Kings in Sicily be authorised to appoint their own bishops and archbishops. 1
The only obstacle was convincing the people of Palermo of the need for a new cathedral. But luckily for William, the answer came to him from heaven.
Monte-reale means “royal mountain” and in the twelfth century, the surrounding area was a thick oak forest where the Norman king and his retinue would go to hunt deer and wild boar. William was out hunting on the Monte Reale when, tired of his exertions, he got down from his steed and lay against a rock in the shade of a carob tree to sleep. In his dreams, the Virgin appeared to him and told him that when he awoke he was to dig beneath the rock and he would find a large cache of gold. And he was to use this gold to build a great cathedral that he would then dedicate to her.
The great quantities of gold were indeed forthcoming – though whether from the coffers of the Norman Palace or from soil beneath the carob tree is undocumented. Nevertheless, in fulfilment of his dream, the first foundations of the new cathedral were dug in 1174.
Completion of the cathedral
William was to die in 1189, and by then, we know that most of the cathedral was complete. In medieval times, such urgency to complete a building of such scale was unprecedented.
For all the fineness of the mosaics however, on closer inspection, it is evident that the cathedral was thrown together in a hurry. Whilst the apse of the East end is perhaps the finest in Sicily, the masonry of the towers at the West end is not much more than rubble. The towers are asymmetric and squat. There is little of the impressive Romanesque of Northern Europe church architecture. Inside, the columns of the nave, whilst massive, have clearly been recycled from elsewhere, and none of the capitals fit squarely upon them. There is a lot about the cathedral that testifies to a botched job.
What was William trying to achieve?
At the same time as the builders of Monreale were throwing together their masonry, William was sending a vast Norman army to attack Constantinople. His army (of allegedly 80,000 men and 5,000 knights) had already defeated Thessaloniki in 1178 and had faced up to the Byzantine army on the banks of the river Strymon (on what is not the border between Greece and Bulgaria).
William clearly had ideas that he would be the next ruler of Byzantium. And in the interior of Monreale there are a number of clues that lead us to suspect so.
To start with, in the pavement, there is the common Sicilian pattern of a circle of marble or porphyry surrounded by geometric designs. Similar variations of this were a common Norman symbol and we see it replicated many times through Sicily: in the cathedral in Cefalù, the cathedral in Siracusa, as well as in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The variation on this design is the circle surrounded by four smaller circles, enlaced by endless braid. This is the design that we frequently find on the side of the throne.
The stone in the centre of this roundel is usually porphyry. Its name derives from the Greek word “πορφύρα” meaning “purple”, and hence it was the stone of royalty. It could only be sourced for one place in the world – a quarry in Egypt that was already exhausted by the time of the Normans. As John Julius Norwich points out, the design is based on the single roundel in the floor of the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, where it had an important significance: quite simply, it was the place where the Emperor sat.
Not mere Kings then, but Emperors. These Norman kings were aligning themselves with the Emperors of Byzantium.
The second clue is evident if you sit in the nave and face the chancel. At the far end of the chancel, just in front of the apse, are two thrones – one on each side and facing each other. The left hand one is higher than the right. In medieval times, it would have been usual for the bishop to occupy the higher one. But here in Monreale, as evident by the mosaic design above it depicting William’s coronation, the higher of the two thrones was intended for the king.
That mosaic gives us a further example: William is being crowned, not by the pope or by the bishop, but by Christ himself. He is dressed in the robes of a Byzantine Emperor. Furthermore, he is not kneeling in adulation before Christ, but standing, and slightly bowing his head. By comparison, Christ is seated. The two figures are of similar size. In Byzantine tradition, Christ would have been the larger, in representation of his greater importance.
What clearer statement could there be that here was King William being given the divine right to rule?
The portrait of St Thomas à Becket in Monreale
There is one further reminder to the power of King William. In the apse, just beneath the portrait of the Madonna, on the level of the small window, is a sequence of depictions of martyrs. Around the head of the second to the right of the window it is possible to make out a name: SCS Thomas Cantab. This is one of the earliest portraits of Archbishop Thomas à Becket of Canterbury. What is it doing here in the cathedral of Monreale? Actually the explanation is quite simple.
Probably brokered by the Archbishop of Palermo, William had married Joan, the daughter of Plantagenet King Henry II of England. The English princess had been just 12 years old when she arrived in Sicily after a voyage in which she had almost drowned. William would therefore have been all too familiar with the story of how Henry had ordered the murder of Archbishop Becket.
Some suggest that the portrait was on the request of Joan, as some kind of atonement for her father’s actions. Others are less understanding, they maintain that the portrait is a clear message to the newly instated Archbishop of Monreale. The message is something along this lines of: “You do as I say. And if you step out of line, just remember what happened to Archbishop Thomas a Becket…”. It is an aggressive statement made in an arrogant assertion of power.
In the Sicilian Norman hierarchy, the king was in direct descendent from God. And no one else was more powerful.
There is an important side note to all this – an event that happened seventy years previously.
After the death of William’s great grandfather Count Roger in 1101, his widow Adeleide del Vasto, sailed to Jerusalem where she was married to the King of Jerusalem, the heirless King Baldwin. The marriage was later annulled on account of Baldwin already being married to an Armenian princess and Adeleide was sent back to Sicily. But the Norman kings never forgave the kingdom of Jerusalem for the affront to Adeleide.
It is hard not to see this journey of Adeleide’s as a ruthless power-dash and an attempt to secure the crown of Jerusalem for her son and the future kings of Sicily. It is tempting to think that this ambition never entirely evaporated from the Hauteville family.
Such is the justification of the Norman Kings – they were asserting their divine right to rule – a right that, they believed, (or at least wanted others to believe) had been given to them by Christ himself. And in doing so, they were positioning themselves as the most powerful rulers in Christendom – more powerful even than the the Emperors of Byzantium and the Kings of Jerusalem. As the Sicilian Normans saw it, God had intended them to be rulers of not just Sicily, but of the whole world.
William II might have built one of the greatest cathedrals in Southern Europe, but he made three fundamental errors in his life: the first two of which he might have been forgiven. Firstly, he died young, at the age of only 46. Secondly, he died without leaving an heir. But thirdly, and most unforgivably, he had allowed one of his old aunts, Constance, to be married to the son of the Holy Roman Emperor… and thus giving away the line of the Sicilian throne.
In a timely reminder that nothing lasts forever, in just over a decade after the completion of Monreale cathedral, the Norman Kingdom in Sicily was to come to an end.
William’s legacy, is undoubtedly the cathedral at Monreale. But whilst most visitors see it as one of the finest Christian buildings in Europe (as indeed it is), there is also a subtext written into its fabric: it is the divine justification for the temporal power of the Norman dynasty.
Which, ironically, was barely to outlast the completion of the building itself.
Esplora Travel visit Monreale Cathedral on their small group Sicily tour.
1 There is an interesting footnote here for those of who travel through Calabria. The main reason for this happy fortune was the proximity of a Carthusian monastery at Serra San Bruno to the Norman feudal seat of Miletus. Saint Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order was the confessor to Count Roger and his direct line to the church. [return to text]