It’s been a busy few days. Yesterday we were in Agrigento, Selinunte, and finally Mazara. Today we’re back in Palermo, which amounted to a long, long drive. The gamer-geek part of me wants to turn western Sicily into a role-playing game. Between Selinunte, Akragas, Mozia, Trapani, Panormus/Palermo, Segesta (which we didn’t see this trip) and Heraclea Minoa, there’s a pretty good locale either for an ancient history game, or for a modern Unknown Armies kind of game, with secret societies and the Mafia duking it out for control of the past, present and future. It’s pretty cool.
We came to Palermo through the mountains above the Concha D’Oro, the Golden Basin, which is the huge agricultural region in the half-circle of mountains south of Palermo. It’s rugged country, but also fertile to match its steepness, and it made Palermo into the capital of the Norman kingdom of Sicily and the most valuable province on the island. We came in the back way, over a narrow mountain pass from Castellam di Mare and Partinico. This way brought us over some of the steepest mountains I’d ever crossed. As Dad said, “ruins the transmission on the way up, and the brakes on the way down.”
We came this way because we wanted to see Monreale. Our cab driver last Friday, Antonio, wanted to take us there. Part of it no doubt was the one-way 60-euro cab fare to visit a Cathedral the Norman king William II built there in the 1170s. But he called it “the most interesting church in Sicily.” Of course, he called everything the most interesting thing. The most interesting church, the most interesting palace, the most interesting port, the most interesting street, the most interesting market.
In Monreale’s case, he was right. The outside of the church is nothing special. However, to the right of the church’s main doors of bronze is a cloister, with twenty-six arches on each side, and more than four hundred individual columns. Each column is limestone, and inlaid with elaborate Byzantine patterns in gold, black and red stone. Each capital is carved with a scene from the Bible or the lives of the saints, or a moment from the Norman conquest of Sicily. The center of the cloister has palm trees, figs, dates, olives and almonds growing in it, the five trees that are the source of Sicily’s wealth. Awe-inspiring.
After the cloister, we went into the Cathedral, proper.
All I can say is, wow.
It takes a little while for our eyes to adjust. There’s a kind of radiant darkness inside the cathedral, and Antonio was not lying. It’s a jewel box in here. The walls are utterly covered with mosaics on a background of golden tiles, and the walls tell the story of Genesis and the Gospels. Here are the miracles of Christ, Noah’s Ark, Jacob wrestling the angel, all rendered in detail that is both lifelike and medieval, wondrously active while at the same time symbolic. I can recognize maybe 85 of the hundred or so scenes instantly, without reading the Latin labels beside them. Christ driving the descrators from the temple. Ham covering his father’s nakedness. The transfiguration. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt.Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed. God making the world in seven days. It’s all here, all rendered in figure that are twice life size. It’s awesome.
Afterward, Dad will say to me, “I’ve been in a lot of churches. Monreale was the most beautiful.” I have to agree. There’s nothing else to say. He’s totally right.