Monreale Cathedral
the context 2

The construction of Monreale Cathedral: between myth and history

Over the centuries, a number of hypotheses have emerged regarding the foundation of the Cathedral of Monreale. The most widely known of these is that William II , overcome by tiredness during a hunting trip inside the Royal Park created by Roger II , dozed off under the fronds of a majestic carob tree and witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary in a dream.
After having revealed to him the secret of a “ truvature “, she told him that he should build a temple there, dedicated to her.

Troubadour painting
The famous legend of the “Truvatura”, is represented in a painting by Giuseppe Velasco. According to this legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to William II in a dream and said: “In the place where you are sleeping is hidden the greatest treasure in the world: dig it up and build a temple in my honour.” Having spoken these words, she disappeared, but the king immediately ordered the carob tree where he was resting to be dug up and uprooted. A priceless treasure of gold coins was brought to light, immediately destined for the construction of the Monreale Cathedral. The painting, an oil-on-canvas measuring 351x503cm, is dated between 1797 and 1798 and is rich in detail. The piece is rich in characters. In fact, it features numerous figures all concentrated and intent on recovering the treasure that the Virgin promised William in a dream. The purely historical narrative is concise and dynamic, thanks to the inclusion of numerous secondary figures and horses. Each character is represented in movement, some kneeling, some digging, while the scene, on several levels and composed on several diagonals, is unified by the use of warm, bright colours. The almost suffused landscape is bathed in a golden light. There is still a sketch of the work in the Pinacoteca Zelantea in Acireale and a 19th-century copy by Giuseppe Vaccaro in the Museo Civico in Caltagirone.

The episode, linked to the dream, was artistically recounted in a painting by Gioacchino Martorana , currently kept in the Diocesan Museum of Monreale. The story of the discovery of treasure was represented in the large painting by Giuseppe Velasco , which adorns the staircase of the former Benedictine convent complex.

Painting of William's dream
The painting ‘William’s Dream’, dated between 1768 and 1769, is a work of art by Gioacchino Martorana. The painter, a pupil of Marco Benefial in Rome, is an exponent of 18th-century classicist and rococo painting. The work, composed on diagonal lines, is a dynamic altarpiece with bright, vivid colours. At the top, surrounded by putti and angels and supported by clouds, is the Virgin, wrapped in a blue mantle. The sovereign rests on a rock, blissful in his dream, with his crown lying gently at his side. The narrative of the Dream is striking, made even more exciting by the spatial placement of numerous symbols: a bow, arrows and two cherubs playing while collecting treasure coins. The artwork tells the story of the famous legend of ‘Truvatura’. According to this legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to William II in a dream and said: “In the place where you are sleeping is hidden the greatest treasure in the world: dig it up and build a temple in my honour.” Having spoken these words, she disappeared, but the king immediately ordered the carob tree where he was resting to be dug up and uprooted. A priceless treasure of gold coins was brought to light, immediately destined for the construction of the Monreale Cathedral.

The construction of the Monreale Cathedral, which was characterised by a multifaceted stylistic syncretism, not only underlined the clear intention to promote political harmony between different civilisations, but also reflected the profound religious nature of the Norman sovereign. He succeeded in consolidating the influence of Western Christianity by engaging in a fruitful and calm dialogue with the Byzantine-Oriental and Muslim-Arab cultures from the year of his coronation in 1172.
Alongside the Cathedral, surrounded by a flourishing natural setting, work began on the foundation of the Royal Palace in the same year, followed in 1176 by the construction of the Benedictine Monastery adjacent to it. The construction of the entire Benedictine complex of Monreale also reflects the self-celebratory intent of William II, who aimed to compete with Archbishop Gualtiero ’s reconstruction of Palermo Cathedral in terms of magnificence..
However, while both advocated for the strengthening of Western Latin historical and religious traditions in Sicily, they had different goals. Through the golden mosaics decorating the interior of the Monreale Cathedral, the Norman king manifested the importance of an intimate dialogue between the work of art and the observer, with the precious pictorial cycles taken from the stories of the Holy Scriptures. On the contrary, the Archbishop of Palermo focused on the external beauty of the Cathedral, as a symbol of the power of the spirit, manifested through a rich architectural palimpsest.

The rediscovered chapel

Cefalù: settlement evidence through time

Thirteenth-century iconography decorates the nave’s wooden ceiling, designed with new solutions

A chapel by an unknown designer based on repeated symmetries

Tempus fugit: a strategic project implemented in a short period of time

Mosaic decoration

The cultural substrate through time

A controversial interpretation

The mosaics of the presbytery

The southern portico

A remarkable ceiling

The Gualtiero Cathedral

Layers of different cultures decorate the external apses

A space between the visible and the invisible

The towers and the western facade

The mosaics of the apses

Two initially similar towers, varied over time

Transformations over the centuries

A new Cathedral

Squaring the circle

Roger II’s strategic design

The construction of Monreale Cathedral: between myth and history

The medieval city amidst monasticism and feudal aristocracy

The transformations of the hall through the centuries

A cloister of accentuated stylistic variety

Porphyry sarcophagi: royalty and power

The beginning of the construction site

The Great Presbytery: a unique space for the cathedral

The original design

The Virgin Hodegetria

Survey of the royal tombs

Palermo: the happiest city

The chapel of the crucifix: an artistic casket based on a previous model

Interior decorations

A Northern population

A tree full of life

The dialogue between the architectures of the monumental complex

The stone bible

The towers facing the facade used as bell towers

The side Portico: a combination of elegance and lightness of form

The Bible carved in stone

The chapel of St. Benedict

Roger II of hauteville: a sovereign protected by God

The side aisles

The balance between architecture and light

The Chapel of the Kings

Under the crosses of the Bema

The area of the Sanctuary

Gardens and architecture as a backdrop to the city of Palermo

The cemetery of kings

From the main gate to the aisles: an invitation to a journey of faith

The plasticism of the main portico and Bonanno Pisano’s Monumental Bronze Door

The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

The Great Restoration

Characteristics of religious architecture in the romanesque period

The Cathedral over the centuries

From the Mosque to the Cathedral

The king’s mark

The paradisiacal “Conca d’oro” that embraces Palermo: a name with countless faces through time

A compositional design that combines nordic examples with new artistic languages, over the centuries

A palimpsest of history

The Cefalù cathedral: a construction yard undergoing a change between a surge of faith and control over the territory

Norman religious architecture with islamic influences in Sicily

The chorus: beating heart of the cathedral

Worship services

Beyond the harmony of proportions

Artistic elements in Peter’s ship

A mixture of styles pervades the floor decorations

Ecclesia munita

The decorated facade

The senses tell Context 1

The chystro: a place between earth and sky

A polysemy of high-level artistic forms and content

The links between the hauteville family and the monastic orders in Sicily

The architectural modifications ti the cathedral building after the death of Roger II and the transformations of the cloister

Biblical themes enlivened by the dazzling light of the stained – glass windows overlooking the naves

The liturgical spaces of the protesis and the diaconicon

The columns of the nave: the meticulous study of the overall order

The marble portal: an intimate dialogue between complex ornamental aspects and formal structure

The chapel of san Castrense: an important renaissance work

The Kings’ Cathedrals

The lost chapel

The longest aisle