The recently-restored cloister garden
courtyard of Cefalù
Cathedral is the greatest in Sicily after Monreale's, even if only half
of it remains standing to lift its voice to Heaven.
Cefalù's cathedral is stylistically similar Saint Etienne in Normandy,
featuring early Gothic accents in a solid Romanesque structure whose long,
narrow nave externally is more aesthetic than Monreale's
- especially when viewed from the rocky mountain next to it. The story of
the church's foundation by Roger II following his
shipwreck along Cefalù's coast during a storm in 1131 may well be
imparted with legend, but the date is correct.
Roger's father had sacked the town, then largely Arab,
during the Normans' westward advance along the
island's northern coast in 1063. then in 1131 the newly crowned King of
Sicily appointed a Latin (Catholic) bishop to what had until then been a
Byzantine (Orthodox) community. This was part of a serious attempt to bring
the Latin brand of Christianity to Sicily's Byzantine
northeast, and the establishment of Cefalù as a diocese brought
the Benedictines to the region. With this effort
most of Cefalù's Muslims converted to Catholicism by the end of the
twelfth century, but a small Jewish community flourished
until 1493 in a tiny quarter in the eastern part of town which can still
be identified today.
Cefalù is Sicanian in origin, and a
Sikanian temple, the "Temple of Diana,"
sits atop the mountain overlooking the cathedral and town, which was resettled
by the ancient Greeks at some point during their
expansion into western Sicily and places like Solunto
as Carthaginian influence waned. A few remaining
walls of a medieval fortress are also located at the site - a reminder that
Cefalù was a fortified position from which the coast could be controlled.
While it is true that the earliest castle and walls were constructed in
Byzantine and Arab times, the Normans greatly expanded the complex when
they decided to erect the cathedral and monastery.
King Roger loved Cefalù, and it was here that he wished to be
buried - though his remains ended up in Palermo's cathedral. He had a small
palace, now called the the Osteria Magna, in the town, where there
was also a church dedicated to Saint George (shown), the patron of
knights, long ago deconsecrated and converted to other use, in what is now
Via Vittorio Emanuele, the street which runs along the shore. Both were
constructed during the same period as the cathedral, but more rapidly. Owing
to the time involved in erecting large Gothic cathedrals, the popular mind
imagines these Romanesque ones to have taken generations to complete. In
fact, they were completed within twenty years by large, competent work crews
and dozens of highly skilled artisans.
The style of Cefalù Cathedral is Norman-Byzantine with very few
subtle Arab touches. It predates Monreale Abbey by several decades, and
the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the apse (completed by 1148) rivals
that of the newer church. There is little doubt that some of the same artisans
- both Greek and French - worked on both churches, though some mosaics were
added during the following century. The cathedral's
bizarre windows are a recent addition.
The cathedral is not quite "Romanesque
Gothic," an Italian style that reached its fullness during the
next century. The cloister itself is, with Monreale's, one of the two largest
It is clear that the cloister, with its Provençal nuances, influenced
the style and design of Monreale's. That but half of it survives is owed
to wartime damage during the Summer of 1943. (Cefalù was abandoned
by the retreating Germans and, less honorably, by the Italian troops whose
duty it was to defend their home territory, but the Second
World War in Sicily is an event that never could have been foreseen
or even contemplated by even the most prescient thinkers of the Middle Ages.)
The recently-completed restoration, like many such projects in Sicily,
was undertaken over the course of twenty years - probably longer that it
took the builders to complete the original construction eight centuries
The cloister is impressive for its size (comparable to Monreale's cloister
in this regard), and many of the original capitals of the columns were decorated
with figures from the Bible and popular legend. Shown here is Noah building
Cefalù's cloister is open for two or three hours most mornings
and then for an hour in late afternoon (presently from 3 to 4), and the
price of admission is nominal. Entry is from the left side of the cathedral
(as you face the facade) near the diocesan offices and bishop's residence.
About the Author: Carlo Trabia is an architect who lectures on architectural history.