Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale

Amongst the most significant monumental beauties in the whole of western Sicily are the Arab-Norman route covering Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale which represent the most profound narration regarding the aesthetic and cultural union of two peoples of inestimable wealth. The arrival of the Normans in Sicily did not manage to eradicate the two and a half centuries of Arab dominion and its splendid monuments: They decided to glorify and emulate the magnificent artistry of the Arab influence, occupying themselves with improving and modifying it with a sense of admiration and respect that have ensured that the vestiges of that flourishing period of history will remain everlasting. The incoming royals endeavoured to create their own architectural style which would embrace the various cultures and styles that were already in existence on the island such as the Romanesque, Byzantine and Arab influences and managed to achieve a level of syncretism of exceptional universal value which was able to create unique combinations of admirable artistic value.

The area covering “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale” was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2015 and contributed, through these works of superlative artistic and architectural value in the naming of Palermo as the World Capital of Culture 2018. The array of buildings incorporates nine monumental exemplars of Arab-Norman architecture, seven of which are located in the city of Palermo with the other two being situated in Cefalù and Monreale respectively.

  • The Royal Norman Palace was built in the oldest part of Palermo on the site of an ancient Punic settlement. It is recognised as the oldest royal residence in Europe and now houses the seat of the Sicilian Regional Assembly.
  • The Palatine Chapel is located inside the Royal Palace. It was built in 1132 and consecrated in 1140 as the royal family’s church. It was described by Guy de Maupassant as the most beautiful church in the world.
  • The cathedral church of the Holy Virgin of Palermo was founded around 1170 as a commission by the arch-bishop Gualtiero Offamilio. This is a truly great masterpiece of Sicilian art and inside is the sarcophagus with the remains of Frederick II.
  • The church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti is one of the most fascinating ecclesiastical buildings in the city. This is a Romanesque church whose exterior is reminiscent of an eastern building, particularly because of the exotic charms of its red painted domes.
  • This feature of red domes also adorns the exterior of the Church of San Cataldo which was built in 1154 during the reign of William the 1st as the chapel of his sumptuous palace, which, sadly, no longer exists.
  • Together with the church of San Cataldo, in the Piazza Bellini, stands the church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, which is also known as the Martorana Church and is famed for its magnificence and for the brilliance of its mosaic decorations. The church takes its name from the great Admiral of the kingdom, George of Antioch at whose behest the church was built between 1143 and 1185.
  • The Zisa Palace was started in 1165, also during the reign of William the 1st, as the royal family’s summer home. Originally surrounded by gardens, hunting pavilions and artificial lakes, it was decorated by artisans of Muslim origin.
  • The Admiral’s Bridge which can be seen from the Corso dei Mille in Palermo, was built around 1131 at the request of George of Antioch as a link to the gardens on the other side of the River Oreto. This was the setting, in 1860, of the skirmish between Garibaldi’s troops and those of the Bourbons.
  • The Cathedral of Monreale which was built between 1172 and 1176 and commissioned by William II, represents, after the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the largest example of Byzantine mosaic work in the world.
  • The conception and birth of the Cathedral of Cefalù, one of the most esteemed monumental churches from the Arab-Norman era, resulted in the construction of one of the world’s most beautiful churches and is linked to a particular history of mystery and devotion.


What are the main characteristics of the Arab-Norman style?

  • Byzantine influences emerge above all in the architecture, with a predilection for designs with a square basilica and a central Greek cross that is covered by a barrel-vaulted ceiling. But, these same influences are also visible in the mosaics which depicted people and various decorative motifs: the most common being the depiction of Christ Pantokrator, (the Almighty).
  • The Romanesque element is evidenced by the use of a plain Latin cross and massive towers on the façade of the building.
  • And finally, the Arabic characteristics are evident above all from the use of pointed arches and mainly because of the use of distinctive Moorish arches. In addition to this, the Arabic aspect is emphasised by the absence of any figurative sculptures, any adornment is left to geometry and the decorations.


The Cathedral of Cefalù

Built in 1131 at the behest of Ruggero II d’Altavilla, legend has it that the Cathedral, or the Basilica Cathedral of the Transfiguration as it is otherwise known, would rise up after one of Ruggero’s devotions to the Most Holy Saviour during a terrible storm. Actually, he had made a vow to The Lord to erect a church on the spot at which he landed, safe and sound, along with his retinue and their belongings. When he eventually arrived in Cefalù, he kept his promise and commissioned the construction of a shrine to the glory of God the Saviour and to Saints Peter and Paul. In reality, it is far more likely that the building was constructed for defensive purposes given its fortress-like appearance and was only consecrated as a church later on.

The matrix stands on a large terraced courtyard in which this imposing edifice stands and is embellished by a large marble portal. The two towers that frame the facade represent respectively, the power or the Church and temporal power. The interior is adorned with gold mosaics in the apses which also decorate about half of the side walls. The famous figure of Christ Pantokrator decorates the centre of the main apse whilst on the lower tiers and on the lateral panels, there are representations of The Virgin praying and other religious figures including the Archangels, the apostles and various saints and prophets.

The Arab-Norman circuit of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale form a precious part of history that is included in the list of World Heritage Sites and provides ample evidence of Sicily’s grandiose cultural eclecticism.

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