I took an excursion that visited the duomos of Palermo and Monreale while Mr. McB chose to explore the city on his own.
There was a general strike in Palermo and our tour guide was very keen to get us on the bus, to the cathedral in Palermo, and on our way before the inevitable traffic jams clogged up the route to Monreale. She was also very annoyed when people were looking out the windows at the teenagers who were gathering in the streets since she felt that we couldn’t look at them and listen to her at the same time. At one point she told us that she would not speak again until all eyes were on her. I understand that her job isn’t easy but I don’t think any of us deserved to be treated like children. She presented a lot of information but didn’t seem to be terribly personable. She said we were the last tour of the season so maybe her frustration was caused by fatigue and the inconvenience caused by the strike.
On the way to the church, we passed the quattro canti or four corners. This monument features statues representing a season, king of Sicily, and former patron saint of Palermo. There are 12 statues in total. Below you’ll see winter, King Philip III, and St. Agatha. You’ll also see the tiniest delivery truck which is ideal for navigating little Sicilian streets and alleys.
Our driver had to do some creative motoring just to get to the duomo. We parked around the corner and were greeted by the two corner towers that are part of the church. The towers were built in the 14th and 15th centuries but given a facelift in the late 1700’s.
Around the corner, we spotted the church itself. This large cathedral was built in 1184 on the site of a former mosque which was built on the site of a former basilica. Like the towers, the church had a number of renovations and is a mix of architectural styles.
The ship of salvation is used as part of the parade held on Saint Rosalia’s feast day. In life, Rosalia was a beautiful aristocrat who refused a marriage proposal, became a hermit, and devoted her life to serving God. She died in a cave at Mount Pellegrino. Centuries later when the plaque hit Palermo, a soap maker visited Mount Pellegrino, found Rosalia’s remains and had a vision that she would bring an end to the plaque if he would return her remains to Palermo for a proper burial. After some initial resistance, the church agreed. Following the funeral procession and burial, the spread of the plaque ceased. After saving Palermo, Rosalia replaced those four saints that grace the quattro canti as the city’s patron.
The inside of the cathedral of Palermo is very lovely and ornate. The guide discussed some of what we were seeing but everything was hurried a little because we needed to get on the road and she thought that Palermo’s cathedral was rubbish compared to what we would see in Monreale.
I wish I knew what this blue thing was but again, our guide wasn’t really helpful when it came to talking about things in this church. I tried research this but cannot find an answer. If you know, please leave me a comment.
These zodiac signs are part of the church’s heliometer. There is a tiny hole in the ceiling that allows the sun’s ray to illuminate the appropriate sign at noon. It may seem like an odd thing to see in a church but the purpose was to standardize the measure of time and dates. This was especially important when calculating the dates of Lent and Easter.
This tomb belongs to Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi. Father Puglisi ministered in Brancaccio, a rough area of Palermo and was an outspoken opponent of the mafia. In response to his opposition, two powerful mafia bosses ordered a hit on the priest who was gunned down outside his church in 1993. The 56-year-old became a martyr of the Catholic church and was beatified in May 2013. More than 50,000 people attended the ceremony.
This is one part of the cathedral where our guide took more time to talk. She spoke of the good works of this man and the tragedy of his death. On my last visit to Sicily, I took the “Godfather” tour and saw the very romanticized side of the Mafia mystique. This was a stark reminder of what the mob really is.
After walking back to the bus, we started the trip to Monreale located on the slope of Monte Caputo. After reaching the parking area, we walked up the steps to reach the cathedral. There is a taxi option for those who cannot navigate the steps. The cabs cost roughly $5 and can take up to five people.
After ascending the steps, we saw the cathedral from the outside. Our guide was very quick to tell us that we should not judge the church by its exterior.
The Muslims took control of Palermo in 831. During this time they built a mosque on the site of the duomo (see above) and banished the Bishop. After reclaiming Palermo about 240 years later, William II thought it would be a good idea to build a church to show how thankful the Normans were to be delivered from occupation. Monreale’s duomo began in 1174 and according to our guide took 17 years to complete. Other sources state that the church was finished in 1182 or 1185. The important take away is that the construction work went very quickly because the church was built by a collaborative of Islamic, Byzantine, and Norman craftsmen. Each group brought their own touch to the church resulting in a very unique blend of architectural styles.
We gathered under the portico where the guide tried to prepare us for what we were going to see inside the duomo. The church features 68,000 square feet of mosaics featuring more than 400 kilos of gold.
Mosques do not include human imagery and do not depict Allah in human form. You can see the contribution of the Islamic artisans in the image above. There are geometric shapes and a row of stylized palm trees which represent paradise.
New testament stories and Islamic palm trees
Monreale was truly amazing. I’ve seen lovely mosaics before but they were nothing like what I saw in this church. The fusion of the styles and the sheer number of scenes was very striking. I admit to a little sensory overload just trying to take it all in. I was able to pick out most of the Bible stories. Some of the other scenes are symbolic and relate more to Catholic saints or the Norman kings.
We were given about 45 minutes to explore Monreale one our own. We were there on a Friday which seemed to be a pretty busy market day.
Before heading back to the bus, I followed the guide’s advice and stopped in at Panifico in the square across from the duomo and picked up a bag of almond cookies that would sustain us during our big Roman adventure the next day.
Before writing about Rome, I still need to cover the rest of the day in Palermo. Look for another post in the days to come.