Monreale: Siculo-Byzantine Art's Finest Moment
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No one can discuss Byzantine art in Italy without mentioning the great cathedral on the outskirts of Palermo. It was built at the behest of Norman King William II, beginning in 1174 and continuing for the next twelve years. William, whose dynasty had received its investiture from Rome, wanted to affirm and recognize his own power during his lifetime, and for this he chose the suburb of Monreale, where his complex would not compete with the bishop's cathedral in downtown Palermo.
William was also determined to show the world that the "barbarian" Normans could surpass the beauty, skills and riches of the Byzantines, as seen in the cathedral of Cefalù, the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, St. John Lateran in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and San Vitale in Ravenna. He hired every master who would come to Sicily and it is thought that some parts of the decorations were even made elsewhere for shipment to Monreale. The result is 6340 square meters of mosaics of varying excellence. The inferior portions were probably those executed by local Muslim artists. On the whole, however, the panels depicting the biblical history of the world (on both sides of the nave), as well as the portraits of Christ Pantocrator, and the Virgin Mary with the Heavenly court of angels, prophets and saints, demonstrate expert workmanship and exquisite beauty, and are the largest extant cycle of Byzantine mosaics in Italy.
Considering William's true motives for erecting this cathedral, it is not surprising that it holds the only portrait in the Western World of Christ crowning a king. What might shock some students of 12th-century European history, though, is the inclusion of Thomas á Becket amidst the saints. After all, Thomas was a leading proponent of the church's independence from the state, and only eight years had passed since King William's own father-in-law Henry II, had had the saint put to death.
Miraculously, the cathedral of Monreale has survived almost unchanged for eight centuries. Universally considered to be the finest Norman building in Sicily, it perfectly combines Saracen, Northern, Classical, Byzantine and Arab elements. Its mosaics represent the final output of the generation who worked at Cefalù and the Palatine Chapel. The result is that the Monreale pictures are less stylized, as fluid and expressive as mosaics can ever be. As such they close the era of the Byzantines and open the way for the great fresco artists of the early Renaissance.


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