In the late 10th century the vigorous Normans conquered Sicily, an island at the cross-roads of cultures…

Walking in the narrow streets of the Sicilian seaside town of Cefalú just east of Palermo, I had the feeling of entering one of those places where time seemed to slow down all by itself. And not just for an extended lunch break nor simply as an excuse to lazy in the sun on what was an unusually warm, late autumn’s day.

Cefalú is a popular tourist destination so maybe the locals were just enjoying the respite from a long and hectic season. It is perhaps still true that southern Mediterranean rural cultures tend to take things as they come, as opposed to the more linear thinking and action-oriented northern European mindset. Maybe this was part of the exotic attraction of what may have been the promised land for the adventurous Normans coming all the way from the north of France, about a millennia ago.

Cefalú Cathedral in December
Cefalú Cathedral in December

Visionary Normans

When the Normans conquered Sicily in the late 10th century, the island was at the cross-roads of several cultures*, still dominated by the Greek, but at that time mostly under Arab control. Soon however, the Normans firmly governed what was to become the Kingdom of Sicily. Their presence ushered in one of the most prosperous periods in the history of the largest island in the Mediterranean, including southern mainland Italy. The native Greek, Arab and now also the Normans, lived and flourished peacefully together under the visionary Roger II’s benevolent rule.

The crowning of Roger II
The crowning of Roger II

Roger II was a broad-minded man of culture, he disliked war, he supported the arts and was eager to learn from scholars and scientist he had invited to his court in Palermo . He was eventually crowned king by the Pope in December of 1130, some twenty years after a certain King Sigurd Jorsalfare (“the Crusader”) of Norway had visited young Roger at his castle in Palermo, on the pilgrimage way to Jerusalem and Constantinople. Whether an encounter with a royalty from the distant lands of his (Norman) ancestors kindled Roger’s long held dream of one day calling himself king is open to conjecture, but he did consider the title of utmost importance as a way of, symbolically at least, setting himself apart from and above mere dukes and barons of which there were plenty in Italy already.

Succeeding Roger II was William, later given the less than flattering nick-name “the Bad” on account of his fear-inducing demeanour. The Kingdom of Sicily grew temporarily in size under William, but Sicily was always going to be in the firing line of invaders, potential colonizers or internal strife…

The apse in Cefalú Cathedral
The apse in Cefalú Cathedral

Norman structure and Byzantine mosaic art

The overall style of Cefalú Cathedral is essentially Romanesque, sometimes also called the Norman style. Romanesque literally means “of the Roman” and refers to a style of architecture that dominated north-western Europe from the 11th to the 13th century. The term is based on the concept of the architecture of the Roman times, which typically had rounded arches and vaults with a strong sense of proportion and order, somewhat bulky one might say, and in general based on simple geometric designs and patterns.

The cathedral has a fortress-like façade with two imposing towers. The top section with the cone spires were added in the 15th century. The left tower has an octagonal plan and Ghibelline merlons, or swallowtails, symbolizing the royal and the temporal power, while the right tower has a square spire bordered by flame-shaped merlons symbolizing the Papal authority.

In front of the cathedral is a large terrace, originally a cemetery which according to tradition contained earth brought from Jerusalem. The 15th century portico has three arches, the two outer being pointed, supported by four columns.

The exterior Romanesque style continues on the inside. Three isles in a style reminiscent of basilicas are divided by sturdy arches supported by tall corinthian columns of black marble. In abrupt contrast to the bare walls in the nave and isles, the presbytery section is much lighter and very ornate. The walls and ceiling here are covered with biblical figures, corbels, white and pink marble and fresco paintings, all done in a more recent renaissance-inspired style. This beautifully decorated but somewhat bland section is completely overshadowed by the glowing Byzantine mosaic artwork in the apse.

The apse and the side walls are covered with artworks executed in the latter part of the 12th century by mosaic master artist possibly brought by Roger II from Byzantine Constantinople (Istanbul). The dominant feature is typically that of the almighty Christ, his upper body covering the half-dome of the apse set against a luminous golden background, surrounded by images of Virgin Mary, a host of angels, the apostles and the evangelists.

Cefalú Cathedral
Cefalú cathedral interior

World Heritage

The overall impression of the cathedral is one of mild stylistic confusion but the quality of the artwork, and especially the mosaics, combined with the cathedral’s fortress-like appearance and rough Romanesque simplicity certainly make Cefalú Cathedral an interesting study of architectural and artistic techniques of Western (Norman) and Byzantine traditions.

UNESCO’s justification for inscription are based on Criteria (ii) and (iv), which in summary underlines the “fruitful coexistence of people of different origins (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard, and French). This multicultural population “…generated a conscious and unique combination of elements derived from the architectural and artistic techniques of Byzantine, Islamic, and Western traditions”.

Cefalú Cathedral was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2015 as one of nine components in the “Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale” serial World Heritage Site.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Kindle Edition 2015)
All photos by Asgeir Pedersen, Spots France
This is un updated version of the article, first published in December 2015.