Legend has it that the idea for this cathedral came to William II in a dream when, during a hunting expedition, he fell asleep under a carob tree. In his slumber, the Virgin Mary appeared to him, indicating where a treasure chest was located—and with this loot he was to build a church in her honor. Legends aside, William’s ambition to leave his mark was the force behind the last—and the greatest—of Sicily’s Arab-Norman cathedrals with Byzantine interiors. Best of all, the cathedral in Monreale never underwent any of the “improvements” that were applied to the cathedral of Palermo, so its original beauty was preserved.
For the most part, the exterior of the building is nothing remarkable. But inside, mosaics comprise 130 individual scenes depicting biblical and religious events, covering some 6,400 sq. m (68,889 sq. ft.), and utilizing some 2,200 kg (4,850 lb.) of gold. The shop in the arcade outside the entrance sells a plan of the mosaics with a legend detailing what’s what, a mandatory aid to enjoying the spectacle; binoculars are also handy.
Episodes from the Old Testament are in the central nave (a particularly charming scene shows Noah’s Ark riding the waves) while the side aisles illustrate scenes from the New Testament. Christ Pantocrator, the Great Ruler, looks over it all from the central apse; actually, he gazes off to one side, toward scenes from his life. Just below is a mosaic of the Teokotos (Mother of God) with the Christ child on her lap, bathed in light from the window above the main entrance. Among the angels and saints flanking Teokotos is Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on the orders of William’s father-in-law, Henry II (he is the second from the right). William II is buried here and honored with a mosaic showing him being crowned by Christ. The heart of St. Louis, or Louis IX, a 13th-century king of France, rests in the urn in which it was placed when the king died during a crusade in Tunisia; the urn was transported to Sicily, at the time ruled by Louis’s younger brother, Charles of Anjou.
The cloisters adjacent to the cathedral are an Arabesque fantasy, surrounded by 228 columns topped with capitals carved with scenes from Sicily’s Norman history. A splendid fountain in the shape of a palm tree adds to the romance of the place.