Cathedral of Cefalù

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The Cathedral of Cefalù is the most famous and extraordinary monument of this beautiful seaside town. Since 2015 it is part of the UNESCO serial site: Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. In addition to the mosaics of the apse, the interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù contains some extraordinary works of art. There is also the Norman cloister, one of the best examples of medieval European art.

History of the Cathedral of Cefalù

The construction of the Cathedral of Cefalù began in 1131 during the reign of Roger II. The official inauguration of the church was in 1267, but construction work would continue throughout the 15th century. The roof of the nave was built around 1170 and restored in 1263 after being damaged by fire. Around 1240, restoration work began, which resulted in some radical changes to the church. Among the most important were the lowering of the ceiling and the partial rotation of the transept. The work on the façade and the external decoration of the apses also date from this period. In 1473, the three-arched portico, designed by Ambrogio da Como, was added between the two towers of the church.

The Cathedral of Cefalù and the legend of Roger II of Altavilla

The construction of the Cathedral of Cefalù is linked to several legends. According to the most famous one, King Roger II, while sailing from Salerno to Palermo, found himself in the middle of a storm. The monarch made a vow, promising the Lord that if he was saved, he would have a temple built. The ship finally managed to land in Cefalù, on the spot where the church would later be built. In fact, Roger II had this imposing sanctuary built to be the mausoleum of his family. Inside the cathedral there were two porphyry sarcophagi, made by the sovereign himself for himself and his wife. In 1225, however, King Frederick had them transferred to the Cathedral of Palermo.

Exterior architecture of the Cathedral of Cefalù

Exterior of the cathedral of cefalù
Exterior of the Cathedral of Cefalù

The Cathedral of Cefalù can be reached by climbing a series of steps leading to the cemetery, which was originally used as a cemetery. Once you have walked all the way up the short driveway, you will reach the cemetery and the ancient Porta Regum (Gate of the Kings). This is a beautiful portal with five richly carved concentric rings and very fine marble friezes decorating both the jambs and the archivolt. The façade of the Cathedral of Cefalù is dominated by two large square-based towers. Although they seem to be identical, in reality they have different decorations. The left one culminates in a spire with an octagonal base and has Ghibelline battlements. The one on the right, on the other hand, has a cusp with a square base and the battlements are in the form of stylized flames. The former symbolizes the temporal power of the crown, while the latter symbolizes the spiritual power of the Church.

Cefalù Cathedral: interior and artwork

Interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù
The interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù

The interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù has a basilica plan. It has three naves divided by sixteen granite columns supporting high double pointed arches. Crossing the entrance, on the left, there is a splendid Madonna with Child, attributed to the sculptor Domenico Gagini. In the right aisle there is a Romanesque baptismal font decorated with four carved lions. The apse is embellished with splendid mosaics in the Arab-Norman style and a large two-sided wooden cross painted in the 15th century by Guglielmo da Pesaro. In the nave, on the other hand, we find splendid Baroque stuccoes made in 1650 by Scipione Livolsi. The most recent works of art added to the interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù are the high altar of the presbytery and a cycle of stained glass windows. The first, made of bronze and gold foil, was created in 1992 by the Milanese artist Virginio Ciminaghi. The second, on the other hand, is the work of Palermo artist Michele Canzonieri, who created 32 different stained glass windows between 1984 and 2003.

Interesting fact: Michele Canzonieri is one of the artists who created an “art room” inside the art hotel “Atelier sul Mare” in Tusa. The room is called “Shadow Line”.

The mosaics of Cefalù Cathedral and the Christ Pantocrator

The mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the cathedral of Cefalù
The mosaics of the Christ Pantocrator

The most interesting decorative element of the interior is the mosaic decoration of the choir. The mosaics of Cefalù Cathedral cover an area of about 650 meters and were made by Byzantine artisans between the reign of Roger II (1145 – 1154) and the reign of William I (1154 – 1166). Christ Pantocrator, typical of Byzantine iconography, occupies the entire space of the apsidal basin. He has typical Sicilian features: blond hair like the Normans, but thick black beard and eyebrows like the Arabs, straight nose and thin lips like the Greeks. In the lower register, the Madonna is depicted between the four archangels in prayer. In the second and third registers, on either side of the central window, are the Apostles and Evangelists. On the walls, there are prophets and saints. Finally, in the transept, there are four cherubim and four seraphim.

Funeral monuments and sepulchres in Cefalù Cathedral

Like the Cathedral of Palermo, the interior of the Cathedral of Cefalù contains several funerary monuments and sepulchres. At the end of the right nave there is the early Christian sarcophagus containing the remains of Euphemia of Aragon. On the left side of the transept is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Its altar, made entirely of silver, was made between 1764 and 1779 by master silversmiths from Palermo. On the wall opposite the chapel, however, there is the monument dedicated to Bishop Giovanni Sergius, sculpted in the 19th century by Leonardo Pennino.

The cloister of the Cathedral of Cefalù

Cloister capital of the cathedral of Cefalù
One of the capitals of the cloister of Cefalù Cathedral

The northern nave of the church leads to the cloister of the Cathedral of Cefalù. It is one of the three remaining Norman cloisters in Sicily, along with those of Monreale and Lipari, and the oldest. The cloister, built at the same time as the Cathedral, has a square plan and is characterized by the presence of paired columns with carved capitals. In 1809, a fire completely destroyed the eastern side and part of the western and southern flanks. The elements that are still visible, however, make it possible to appreciate the beauty of one of the best examples of medieval European art. The sculptural apparatus is entirely inspired by stories from the Old and New Testaments, and the cloister itself represents the figure of heavenly paradise on earth. Each of its four sides represents one of the four books of the Bible. The original surviving capitals are the tenth in the south wing and the fourteenth, representing Noah’s Ark, and then the fourth in the west wing with representations of animals.

Visiting Cefalù Cathedral: times and costs

The visit to the Cathedral of Cefalù is completely free. From May to October it is also possible to visit the cloister, the cathedral towers and the other rooms of the church. There are currently three different itineraries: green, blue and red. The green route costs 6 euros per person and includes visits to Sacristy, Cathedral Treasury, Sansoni Hall, Bishop’s Chapel and Canonical Cloister. The blue itinerary costs 7 euros per person and includes access to: Cathedral Towers, Southern Roofs, Mosaics. Finally, the Red Itinerary costs 10 euros per person and is the most complete. It gives access to: Towers, South Side Roofs, Mosaics, Sacristy, Cathedral Treasury, Sansoni Hall, Bishop’s Chapel and Canonical Cloister.

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