The Most Beautiful Church in the World: Sicily’s Cathedral of Monreale

Sacred art like it remains, even centuries later, one of the most powerful and effective apologetics for the faith.

The Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily
The Cathedral of Monreale in Palermo, Sicily (photo: SatyaPrem / Pixabay / CC0)

Pope Benedict XVI has often said that the most effective apologetics for Christianity are the lives of the saints and the art that the Church has grown in her womb. For that reason, the Church must always take both seriously: forming disciples to be saints and creating a culture in which beauty is cultivated and appreciated.  

When and where the Church has thrived, both have normally come together, like the masterpieces in human life as well as in music, art and architecture that have come in monasteries or in Catholic countries in their zealous zenith. When the Church has grown lukewarm or cold, mediocrity can quickly set in with regard to expectations both for human virtue as well as for artistic expression. Beauty in life and art inspire; blandness or ugliness depress and deflate. 

One of the most important means, therefore, of calling people to transcendence, to lifting up their hearts to the Lord, to tasting and seeing the possibility of eternal human excellence, is through beauty in sacred art.  

I remember the time when this insight first captured me. 

I was deep in the bowels of Widener Library at Harvard, the largest academic library in the world and third largest in the U.S., after the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Several floors underground doing research for a paper, I accidentally — or, more precisely, providentially — found a section with histories and guidebooks of the world’s great cathedrals and churches. 

Partially out of undergraduate procrastination, but mostly out of fascination, I spent several hours browsing through the photos of great sanctuaries in the United States, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. It soon became a personal priority to visit many of those sacred edifices to which I was introduced that afternoon, initiating an adventure that has not ceased. 

One of my prized possessions is a collection of guidebooks from across the globe of the great churches I have visited, something that allows me frequently to make virtual pilgrimages to those sites and to be repeatedly inspired by the munificent faith that has built and preserved them. 

As a priest, I have tried to try to infect others with this same passion for sacred beauty, especially found in the great Churches, since I think that beauty is more accessible to everyone and more readily life-changing than listening to polyphonic masterpieces or visiting museums housing religious art. 

During my years as a seminarian in Rome, I had the awesome privilege to serve as a guide to St. Peter’s and several other great basilicas, introducing tens of thousands of pilgrims to the faith and truths underneath the beauty. 

After ordination, I have led dozens of pilgrimages to the great churches of the world — in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Southern Germany, Malta, Prague, Mexico, Quebec and beyond. 

As a parish priest in Massachusetts, in addition to welcoming many visitors to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, the most beautiful church in New England, where I was pastor for seven years, I have loved to take people on pilgrimage to the extraordinary churches throughout the New England: Holy Cross Cathedral and the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, St. Anne’s in Fall River, St. John’s in Clinton, Massachusetts, Sts. Peter and Paul in Providence and in Lewiston, Maine, Immaculate Conception and St. Anne in Waterbury, Connecticut, St. John’s Basilica in Stamford, Connecticut, and others.

I have also guided many walking tours, during my years serving the Church at the United Nations, to the most beautiful churches in Manhattan and to those in the other boroughs. I have transported various carloads across the Hudson to Sacred Heart Cathedral Basilica in Newark, New Jersey, what I call “the second most beautiful Church in the country,” predictably and intentionally enticing my co-travelers to ask what’s at the top of the list. That, for me, is clearly the “new” St. Louis Cathedral in St. Louis, a treasure few in the Northeast have ever had the privilege to see. 

It's been great, too, to accompany various groups to the world’s most beautiful church dedicated to Our Lady, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C., as well as to some of the other extraordinary churches throughout the country, like the Cathedral Basilica of St. Paul in St. Paul and St. Agnes in Minneapolis, the Cathedral Basilica of St. John in Savannah, Georgia, and the plethora of extraordinary churches made great by the faith, hard work and generosity of Catholic immigrants in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and such cities. 

Recently, however, I had the joy to accompany a group of pilgrims to the most beautiful Church in the world. 

I was serving as a chaplain for a pilgrimage to Malta and Sicily for the Napa Institute and during our 10 days together had visited some incredible churches, like the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. I told the members of my group that those churches were just like an appetizer to the incredible feast for our eyes and souls that would come later, when we would visit the Cathedral of Monreale, just outside of Palermo. 

A few of the pilgrims joked that nothing could live up to the astronomical hyperbole I was employing, but, after visiting it themselves on May 10, they thought that my words had somehow even fallen short. 

Similarly, my words here, or even visiting the cathedral virtually on the internet, will not do it justice; like the difference between watching a movie on an old TV set and seeing it in an IMAX theater, to grasp what sets Monreale apart, to appreciate it adequately, one must stand within it, enveloped by its beauty. 

Built mostly by the Norman King William II in the late-12th century, it has 68,243 square feet of gold mosaics, with two and a half tons (4,850 pounds) of gold used. That in and of itself communicates a powerful impression of God’s resplendence, but it’s what the mosaics depict that overwhelms more. 

In the apse, there is an extraordinary image of Christ the Pantocrator (the omnipotent Lord of All) blessing us, with an open book preaching to us the message, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Around the nave, there are 42 huge mosaic scenes from the Book of Genesis, detailing the days of Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, reminding us of whence we came and preparing us for the “even more wondrous” gift of redemption. 

There are also 54 scenes of Christ’s life and miracles, 44 images of saints and angels, 10 images of the prophets, two series of five images of the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul, an image of our Lady (to whom the cathedral is dedicated) holding the baby Jesus and two mosaics about the crowning of William II by Christ and another of William II presenting the cathedral to Our Lady.

The overall impression left is to be encircled by the glory of creation and the redemption, of God’s holiness and holy ones, and reminded of our place in that greatest and most important drama of all. 

I could also describe the ornamental floors, rich decorative capitals, the incredible wooden vault, the Renaissance side chapels, the exterior walls featuring the fusion of the best of Norman, Byzantine and Arabic styles in the exterior, the state-of-the-art sound system (since it is still very much used for worship), the tomb of St. Louis IX, and much more in the 334-by-131-foot temple dedicated to, and reflective of, God’s glory. But you really do have to see it to believe it. 

It has been called the “most beautiful Credo in the world.” 

Seeing this visio divina — the visual depiction of Sacred Scripture from the beginning of Genesis through the end of Revelation in the new heaven and new earth — you will be brought to stronger faith. 

Sacred art like it remains, even centuries later, one of the most powerful and effective apologetics for the faith.