How a power struggle between the Norman king of Sicily and the English archbishop of Palermo led to the creation of the Norman kingdom’s greatest monument.
by Jeremy Dummett
William II, whom historians later dubbed “the Good”, was the grandson of Roger II, who had established the Norman kingdom of Sicily in 1130. When William became king in 1166, he inherited a wealthy, well-organised kingdom, whose prosperity was based on a multi-cultural society which included Normans, Arabs, Greeks and Jews.
Walter of the Mill, known in Sicily as Gualtiero Offamilio, came to Sicily as tutor to the royal children. He was probably born in England to a French mother. A man of towering ambition, he rose through the ranks of the church to become archbishop of Palermo, after using a mob to ensure his election. He combined this position with that of first minister to the king. Backed by the leading barons and churchmen of Sicily, Walter began to represent a dangerous concentration of power and a potential threat to the stability of the kingdom.
William, who was mild and tolerant by nature, was advised by his vice-chancellor, Matthew of Ajello, a bitter rival of Walter’s. Together they looked for a means of curbing Walter’s power and of reducing his status in the kingdom short of direct confrontation. They hit upon the idea of creating a second archbishopric near the city, and an old Greek church in Monreale, a village five kilometres to the south of Palermo, was chosen as the site.
The founding legend tells a different story. According to this, William was out hunting when he stopped for a rest and fell asleep. Here he had a dream in which the Madonna appeared to him, telling him where treasure was buried, to enable him to build the cathedral in her honour.
Work on the immense Benedictine abbey began in 1174 and was completed in 1183. It was William’s greatest act of patronage and contained a mix of eastern and western styles. It is famous for the extensive mosaic decoration, created by master craftsmen from Byzantium, showing scenes from the Old and New Testaments in brilliant colours. In one mosaic Thomas Becket appears, martyred only a few years previously, possibly included at the request of Joanna, William’s English wife. In another scene, William is shown dedicating a model of the cathedral to the Madonna. The most powerful image is that of Christ Pantocrator (Greek for Almighty) which dominates the central apse.
Next to the cathedral a large set of cloisters was built on William’s orders, using elegant twin columns decorated with fanciful carvings of human heads, animals and birds. In a corner stands an unusual, Muslim-style fountain. The cloisters remain a place of outstanding peace and tranquillity.
To provide revenue for the new cathedral, property was taken from Walter’s portfolio and handed over to the new archbishop of Monreale. Not to be outdone, Walter rebuilt the cathedral in Palermo.
Walter was later involved in arranging a dynastic marriage which proved fatal for the Norman kingdom. He advised William, against the wishes of Matthew of Ajello, to allow the marriage of his aunt, Constance, to Henry, son of the German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. Due to this marriage, after William died childless in 1189, his kingdom passed to Henry. In 1194 Henry invaded Sicily with his German army and claimed the kingdom in a ruthless campaign that brought an end to the Norman Kingdom of Sicily.
It is our good fortune that the cathedral at Monreale is there to be enjoyed today, with the mosaics in remarkably good condition. The cathedral, together with the cloisters, forms one of the outstanding architectural and artistic monuments to have come down to us from the twelfth century. William’s tomb is prominently displayed in the cathedral. The exterior of Palermo’s cathedral, built for Walter by Arab craftsmen, is to be admired for its Islamic style of decoration. Walter’s tomb can be found in the crypt.
John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, 1130-1194 (Faber, London, 1970)
Otto Demus, The Mosaics of Norman Sicily (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1949)