Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



December 2010

"These mosaics were like a comic book for the people who came into the cathedral! This is where they learned stories from the Bible."


Guide at the Cathedral at Monreale, October 31, 2010.

Monreale, Sicily

Dear Reader,

I have never been shy about saying that one of my life's ambitions is to see every art museum in the world. Some people think that's nuts, but today I can happily add one more iconic art locale to my journal: the Monreale Cathedral, about 5 miles outside of Palermo.

How did it make it to my list of "must sees"? Whenever I read about ANY PLACE, my radar seeks these words: art museum, wonders of the art world, destination for art lovers. If the article or book convinces me that the place is trip-worthy, I grab my pen and add it to my already bulging lineup.

Admittedly, my first impulse to visit Sicily was to set foot in the village that was my grandparents' birthplace. Who knew that I would actually meet my second cousins and experience one of the most thrilling days of my life? But, that's another story. Who knew that Mt. Etna would be so impressive? But, that's another story. Who knew that Monreale would fulfill every aspect of this art lover's dream? That is this story.

What is Monreale and why is it a destination for so many artists and art historians? Think Byzantine mosaics and be prepared to use the words "glittering," "shimmering," and "mesmerizing" without embarrassment. Are there other Byzantine mosaics I remember? Yes, those in Rome's Basilica of Saint Praxedes stunned me because I could stand in a tiny side chapel and be nose-to-nose with their beauty. Yes, in Istanbul, the Museum of Chora's mosaics and frescoes were intimately accessible.

Monreale earns its "cathedral" status due to its size, and its sheer immensity is overwhelming. Almost every inch is covered with mosaics: ceilings, walls, columns, floors. The occasional glowing wood carving is almost a relief.

The challenge of appreciating Monreale Cathedral was to take in the parts and not to be intimidated by the whole. That thought helped me to appreciate why it worked so well as an educational tool for illiterate worshipers. People could read it "like a comic book" and learn the Bible's stories.

This made me think about the Sistine Chapel, which tells stories just as grand or iconic, and whose walls and ceiling are peppered with saints, deities and powerful church dignitaries. Religious scholars have written about each character in the religious dramas and portraits that Michelangelo painted there. Monreale Cathedral, on the other hand, was made so the common people could experience a share of awe-inspiring beauty and visual texts.

I offer you some information and advice about visiting Monreale Cathedral, followed by one picture that is worth a thousand words:

---The cathedral was built in 1172 by William II with a monastery next to it. Make time to see all of it, even if you have to stand in line.

---Notice the 1179 bronze door by Barisano da Trani, if you can hold off for a few minutes longer before going inside.

---Once inside, just pick a spot and keep looking. Pick another spot and keep looking. Stretch your neck, which should be hurting by now. Pick another spot…

---Take in the mosaic cycle, 12th and 13th century works that cover the nave and aisles. These are the "comic book" pages of scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

---Of course, look at the Christ portrait in the middle apse.

---I fell in love with the stylized palm trees that lined the aisles. Wondrous patterns! I'll bet that they mean something more than "I am beautiful. Look at me."

---The cloister has more mosaics, if you haven't had your fill. You won't, I hope.