Palermo Cathedral

The facade of Palermo Cathedral
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Palermo Cathedral is the largest Norman cathedral in Sicily, built in 1184 by Gualtiero Offamilio. As a result of numerous modifications over the centuries, only a few parts of the original building remain, but enough to give us an idea of its splendour. Inside are many noteworthy works of art, including the urn of Santa Rosalia, paintings by Pietro Novelli, Antonio Manno and Giuseppe Velasquez, and a wooden chancel from 1466. Palermo Cathedral has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015 as part of the ‘Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale’ itinerary.

Visiting Palermo Cathedral

Visits to Palermo Cathedral include a section with free admission and one with a charge, called the ‘Area Monumentale’. The purchase of a separate ticket allows access to the following areas: the Rooftops, the Royal Tombs, the Bishops’ Crypt, the Apses, the Cathedral Treasury, the Undercroft and the Benefactors’ Crypt.

Worth knowing: A visit to the Cathedral Rooftops is a unique experience and gives you the chance to enjoy one of the best views of Palermo. Night visits are also possible. However, the visit is not recommended for people with heart problems or who suffer from claustrophobia, psychophysical disabilities or anxiety attacks.

History of Palermo Cathedral

The area where Palermo Cathedral now stands has always been a sacred place for the inhabitants of the area. In early Christian times, there was a sanctuary here and in the 4th century a basilica, which was destroyed in 452 during the Vandal invasion. It was rebuilt between 590 and 604 but, following the Muslim conquest of Sicily, the building was turned into a mosque. After the Arabs’ defeat, it became a Catholic place of worship again and was enlarged to include two additional chapels. In 1169, however, an earthquake severely damaged the basilica, which was later rebuilt during the reign of William II. Over the course of several centuries, Palermo Cathedral underwent several changes but always maintained its structure. The bell towers on the four corner towers and the decoration of the main façade date from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. In the 15th century, however, the portico representing the current entrance was added. In the years between 1781 and 1801, the layout of the church changed again when the aisles were widened and the interior of the church was redesigned in a neoclassical style. Stuccoes, marble and frescoes that decorated the chapels were destroyed and the wooden ceilings were replaced with masonry.

Exterior of Palermo Cathedral

Nowadays, the entrance to the Cathedral is through the southern façade, on the side overlooking Via Vittorio Emanuele. The large open space separating the church from the street is surrounded by a balustrade with statues of saints. It was built in the 17th century to replace the fence created by Vincenzo Gagini in 1575 and subsequently destroyed. The entrance to the church is fronted by a Catalan-Gothic portico dating from 1429. Pre-existing structures were used to create it and inscriptions from the Quran are still visible on one of its columns. One of the few surviving parts of the original Norman church can be seen on the eastern elevation by the apse. These are traditional Fatimid patterns inlaid in lava stone which incorporate some of the motifs typical of Fatimid textile art in their alternating geometric, floral and animal motifs. Moving to the eastern elevation of the Cathedral, you can admire the so-called ‘Loggia dell’Incoronazione‘ (Coronation Porch). These are the remains of a late 16th-century building overlooked by the church and where, according to tradition, sovereigns would show themselves to the people immediately after the coronation ceremony.

The interior of Palermo Cathedral: architecture and artwork

After various modifications over the centuries, Palermo Cathedral today has a Latin cross plan with three naves separated by pillars. There are a great many works of art inside. There are two marble holy water fonts at the entrance to the nave. The first is attributed to Domenico Gagini and the second to Giuseppe Spatafora and Antonio Ferraro. Facing one another in the transept are the Cappella del Sacramento (Chapel of the Sacrament) and the Cappella di Santa Rosalia (Chapel of Santa Rosalia). The former is decorated with a splendid lapis lazuli ciborium designed by Cosimo Fanzago and dating from 1663. The second houses a silver urn containing the relics of Palermo’s patron saint. This masterpiece, designed by Mariano Smiriglio, was created in 1631 by local silversmiths. The transept also contains a statue of Christ crucified in limewood on an agate cross. At its foot, there are two statues of the Madonna and Mary Magdalene by Gaspare Serpotta and one of St John by Gaspare Guercio.

The Sundial

On the nave floor is a sundial built by the Theatine astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. This piece was commissioned by Archbishop Filippo Lopez y Royo to provide residents with an accurate and simple means of measuring time. At midday, the light enters through a hole in the dome at the top, called a gnomon, and strikes the sundial at the point where the sign of the zodiac corresponding to the current month is indicated. A marble plaque inscribed in Latin is set in a pillar at the foot of the gnomon. It specifies the date of completion, the latitude of the site and the height of the gnomon.

The Royal Tombs

To the left of the entrance to the church, we find the Royal Tombs. The first bay contains the tombs of Henry VI of Swabia and his wife, Constance of Hauteville, while embedded in the wall is a Roman sarcophagus holding the remains of Constance of Aragon. In the second bay are the tombs of Roger II of Sicily, Frederick II of Swabia and William of Aragon.

Interesting fact: In 1998, there was a survey of the interior of Frederick II’s sarcophagus. Inside, in addition to the body of Peter of Aragon, a female skeleton was found, whose identity is unknown.

The two sarcophagi of Frederick II and Henry VI were commissioned by Roger II and destined for Cefalù Cathedral. It was the king himself who wanted the church built as a mausoleum for the royal family. After his death, however, his body was buried in Palermo Cathedral in a very simple tomb. In 1215, Frederick II had the two sarcophagi moved from Cefalù to Palermo Cathedral so that they could be used for himself and his father Henry VI.

Treasures of Palermo Cathedral and the Bishops’ and Benefactors’ Crypts

The Sacristy of the Canons houses the artefacts that make up the ‘Treasures of Palermo Cathedral’. The collection includes sacred vestments, frontals, monstrances and chalices made between the 16th and 18th centuries. The centrepiece of the collection is Constance of Aragon’s gold tiara, a masterpiece of medieval jewellery. The crown was found inside Constance’s sarcophagus together with three rings and fragments of fabric from her clothes. A few steps lead from the first room of the Treasury to the Crypt. Here there are the sarcophagi of 23 of Palermo’s archbishops, including that of the cathedral’s founder, Gualtiero Offamilio. The crypt also contains a magnificent Roman sarcophagus depicting a couple and a Norman sarcophagus in red porphyry. Just below the Cappella della Madonna della Lettera (Chapel of Our Lady of the Letter), next to the ticket office at the entrance to the Cathedral, is the crypt of the Father Benefactors.

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