Main apse of Monreale Cathedral with Christ Pantocrator

The Cathedral of Monreale on the Royal Hill

In the small town of Monreale, only 5 kilometres from Palermo, 300 metres above sea level on the royal hill "Monte Reale", awaits you, the Cathedral of Monreale. It is the largest church in Sicily and, because of its imposing interior and cloister, one of the main sights of Palermo.

by: Eugenio Rusignuolo | 02 Sep 2021

History of the Monreale Cathedral

The Arab-Norman cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova- dedicated to the Virgin Mary - is located just five kilometres from Palermo in Monreale. In 1174, the Norman King William commissioned the construction of this massive building. He claimed that the Madonna herself appeared in his dream and asked him to build her a temple.

Originally, the cathedral was part of a complex of buildings consisting of a royal palace, a Benedictine monastery and the church itself. Of the complex, the church and the cloister of the monastery have been preserved.

View of the exterior facade of Monreale Cathedral
View of the exterior facade of Monreale Cathedral
Photo: © efesenko –

The entrance gate of Bonanno Pisano

Already at the entrance, a detail worth seeing awaits visitors. Here they pass through the gate of the cathedral, which was built between 1185 and 1186 and was the work of Bonanno Pisano the same Italian sculptor and architect who had laid the foundation stone of the Leaning Tower of Pisa a few years earlier. In addition to scenes from the Bible, Pisano immortalised his signature "Bonannus civis pisanus me fecit" (in english "Bonanno, citizen of Pisa, made me") on the gate.

The Byzantine gold-ground mosaics inside

But the cathedral's full beauty unfolds inside the church. Here, Byzantine gold-ground mosaics cover the entire interior walls of the church, right into every corner and over an area of 6,340 m². It thus contains the largest unified Byzantine mosaic cycle known anywhere.

The cycle depicts various stories from the Old and New Testaments. Without exaggerating, no one can escape the breathtaking sight of the golden mosaics. The figure of Christ as Pantocrator (ruler of the world) is located in the apse of the cathedral and dominates the central interior.

In addition, Monreale Cathedral houses several historical treasures that give visitors an insight into Palermo's culture and history:

  • the high altar of the Valdians
  • the sarcophagus of the Norman kings - William I and William II
  • the 20th century organ
  • the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix - where the entire cathedral treasure is kept.

Interior of Monreale Cathedral
The mosaic image of Jesus Christ above the altar dominates the interior.
Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash

The cloister

Besides the impressive mosaics inside, the cathedral is famous for its cloister. This is the only remaining part of the former Benedictine monastery. The roofed cloister encloses the square and unroofed cloister courtyard with an area of 47 x 47 metres. The 26 pointed-arched acades on each side of the cloister are particularly impressive.

Each arcade is supported by individually ornamented, gold-backed double columns decorated with mosaics and precious stones. In total, the corridor consists of 228 pairs of double columns and no two are alike. With such artistic diversity, it takes a while to grasp the wonder of this Romanesque architecture. In our opinion, the entrance fee for the cloister is well spent.

Cloister of the former Benedictine monastery
In the cloister of the former Benedictine monastery, visitors can admire the unique columns and the inner courtyard.
Photo: © Jerzy Strzelecki, Monreale4(js), Filter by RM, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Fountain at the cloister in Monreale Cathedral
Fountain at the cloister in Monreale Cathedral. Photo: © cge2010 –
View of Palermo from the Royal Hill in Monreale
The town of Monreale offers a wide view over Palermo and the Mediterranean Sea. Because of the beautiful view, the Norman kings retreated here in earlier times.
Photo: © banepetkovichekart –

Opening hours, entrance fees & directions

Opening hours, entrance fees & directions
Further information such as opening hours or current prices can be found on the official website:
The hourly bus line 389P takes you from Piazza Indipendenza (at the Norman Palace) to Monreale (journey time: approx. 30 minutes).
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View of Palermo from the roof of the cathedral