History lesson duly despatched in Part the First, I can go straight to the statistics having noted that more beautiful or intimate cloisters exist down the hill in Palermo, not least the one in the church of La Magione and the lived-in one of Sant'Agostino. But the heaven here is in the detail, as well as the devil and sundry underworldly creatures. There are 228 marble columns, many of them inlaid with glass tesserae, in the vast cloister (47m long on each side) which is all that remains of the original 12th century monastery at Monreale. Multiply that (mostly) by two, as double columns support four-sided capitals, to get the number of different carved scenes on the capitals and you have some sense of the colossal work of craftsmanship that went on here in a very short space of time up to about 1200.
Most of our time was spent on the east side, where the late afternoon March sun still shone the brightest.
While J put his feet up and took in the rays, I went from pillar to pillar cooing over the sheer variety and range of execution of the subject matter. Literature seems, in my perusal, to be flimsy on chapter and verse: the Monreale book I was planning on buying deals only with the mosaics inside the Duomo. There's a plan of the cloister with some (why not all?) of the details here, which tells me I missed a significant narrative of Norman coronation in the south-eastern corner, but the following should make some amends.
Let's start with the beasties, including harpies with monks' heads,
lions devouring man and beast,
men slaying dragons and serpents,
mermaids among evangelists
and other thingies from the bestiary I'd hesitate to name.
Some of the Biblical scenes look almost Roman in their sculptural quality, like the Massacre of the Innocents.
Many are charmingly naive: Adam, Eve and the Serpent,
scenes from the life of John the Baptist
and what I assume to be Old Testament cultivation
The list-obsessed part of my brain rebels at not having a full guide. If anyone knows where I can find one detailing each and every one of these carvings, please let me know. In the meantime, that leaves me only two more Sicilian retrospectives to go. This could last all year...