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The Cathedral of Monreale: Sicily’s Grandest Church

Monreale, Italy

Sicily’s top medieval treasure is the 900-year-old Cathedral of Monreale. Invading Normans asserted their rule by replacing Arab mosques with imposing churches and this was their grandest — wall-papered with exquisite gold-leaf mosaics telling vivid Bible stories.

Complete Video Script

In a small town above Palermo stands one of Sicily’s art treasures — the Cathedral of Monreale. In the 11th century, when the Muslim Arabs were tossed out by the Christian Normans, the Normans made Sicilian civilization grander yet — building monumental Norman churches.

This massive church, so richly ornamented, shows the glory of that age. Ancient columns and capitals — gifted by the pope to bolster his southern border of Christendom — were shipped here all the way from Rome. The church was built to show off the power of the Norman king William II — shown here boldly standing while being crowned by Christ.

The interior is famous for its exquisite 12th-century mosaics. Each panel tells a story from the Bible. There’s Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent…angels climbing Jacob’s ladder…and Noah building his ark, and filling it with animals.

It was designed to function as a Bible storybook. For centuries, early Christians debated whether or not images were appropriate in church. To solve this controversy — called the “Iconoclastic Controversy” — a pope called a convention, the Council of Nicaea, in the eighth century. The result? Images are OK if they teach the Christian message. Here at the Cathedral of Monreale the art is laid out precisely as the council prescribed.