On a beautiful sunny morning in January of 2023 I visited the famous cathedral of Cefalù that rises along the north coast of Sicily. The trip by train from Palermo to Cefalù was comfortable and quick, and from the railway station is was just a short walk to the Duomo. The square in front of the cathedral was truly charming. The few people who were present were drinking coffee on the terraces of the local bars, and because it had not yet been Epiphany there was still a Christmas crib on the stairs leading to the cathedral. All in all, the atmosphere in the small town was great. The name “Cefalù” derives from the enormous rock that towers above the cathedral. The Greeks that colonised Sicily in Antiquity apparently felt that the rock resembled a human head and therefore named the settlement at the foot of the rock Kephaloidion, after the Greek word for “head” (κεφαλή). Unfortunately there were a few disadvantages to my choice to visit the cathedral in January. The cloister next to the Duomo was for instance closed, and it was not possible to climb the towers of the cathedral either. I did not care much. The cathedral itself was open to the public and could be visited for free. As it was still very early, I had this beautiful Norman-Romanesque building all to myself.
The foundation legend
The cathedral of Cefalù is closely associated with Roger II, the Norman-Sicilian prince who was Great Count of Sicily between 1105 and 1130 and then King of Sicily from 1130 until his death in 1154. The kingship had not been presented to Roger on a silver platter. It had been granted to him in 1130 by Pope Anacletus II, who in exchange for the royal crown demanded military aid. After all, Anacletus was not the only Pope. Although his opponent Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143) had been expelled from Rome, he had the support of all the major European powers and of the famous preacher Saint Bernardus of Clairvaux. Anacletus – who ended up in the history books as an Antipope – for his part found a strong ally in Roger. The Great Count was not just the ruler of the island of Sicily, but had also recently been recognised as Count of Apulia (including Calabria and large parts of Campania). Almost all of Southern Italy was therefore part of Roger’s realm. When on 25 December 1130 he was anointed in the cathedral of Palermo by a legate of Anacletus, he was one of the most powerful monarchs in all of Europe.
It was not until 1139 that Pope Innocentius II also acknowledged Roger as King of Sicily. Roger had to fight long and hard to get this far, and he was not just up against papal allies such as the German Emperor Lotharius II, but also his own brother-in-law Rainulf of Alife, the husband of his sister Matilda. This long struggle still lay largely in the future when in the summer of 1131 Roger travelled back from Southern Italy to Palermo over sea. With his army and fleet he had forced the city of Amalfi to surrender and was now on his way back to his capital. Then all of a sudden his ships were caught in a heavy storm, which lasted for two full days. On the second day the King made a solemn promise: if he and his crew were to survive the storm, he would build a cathedral dedicated to Christ the Saviour on the spot where they would land safely.
The next day the storm ceased and Roger’s fleet was able to dock in the bay of Cefalù. Almost immediately the King ordered the construction of a chapel dedicated to Saint George, whom he had supposedly seen in a vision during the storm. The Normans on Sicily had always had a special relationship with this soldier saint. In 1063 Roger’s father – who was also called Roger – had fought against the Muslims at Cerami and had won a crushing victory there. According to tradition Saint George had personally joined the ranks of the Normans, who subsequently owed much of their victory to him. After ordering the construction of the chapel, Roger also began building the cathedral he had promised. As the fleet had landed in Cefalù on the day that the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated, the building was dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Saviour. The foundation stone was said to have been laid on 7 June 1131, at Pentecost. Moreover, on 14 September 1131 Anacletus appointed a bishop for Cefalù, one Jocelmo from Bagnara in Calabria.
The story of the founding of the cathedral has often been doubted and dismissed as a legend, in part because local and contemporary sources are silent about it. On the other hand it is certain that King Roger II had a very special bond with the cathedral. He closely followed its construction from a palace in Cefalù (now the Osterio Magno) and wanted to be buried there after his death. To prepare for the future royal funeral two porphyry tombs were made, which were placed opposite each other in the transept of the cathedral. One monument was intended to serve as the final resting place of the King, the other was supposed to remain empty and was meant as a tribute to the De Hauteville family, the Norman clan of which Roger was a scion.
When the King passed away on 26 February 1154, his wish was regretfully ignored. Instead he was buried in the cathedral of Palermo, where one can still admire his tomb. For many decades the canons of Cefalù assumed that the burial in Palermo would prove to be temporal, and that the body of the King would be laid to rest in Cefalù after all. Unfortunately they were disappointed. In 1215 Roger’s grandson Frederick II of Hohenstaufen removed the two porphyry sarcophagi from the cathedral in Cefalù and had them taken to the cathedral of Palermo as well. They can still be admired there and now contain the mortal remains of Frederick II himself and of his father Henry VI, the German husband of Roger’s posthumous daughter Constance.
And so the cathedral of Cefalù never quite became the royal pantheon that Roger had wanted it to become. This is probably related to the fact that its history was somewhat stained. As was already mentioned, Anacletus II ended up as an Antipope, and as a result the diocese of Cefalù that he had founded was initially not recognised by Rome. It was in fact not until 1166 that Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) allowed the ordination of a bishop there, and the formal consecration of the cathedral had to wait until 1267. While Cefalù was seen as a symbol of Roger’s resistance against the Pope in Rome, the cathedral of Palermo had no such problems. Moreover, as a city Palermo was infinitely larger, more prestigious and more important than puny Cefalù. Lastly, it very much looks as if the cathedral was never completed as Roger had intended. No matter how beautiful the mosaics inside the building are, they only cover the apse. In this respect there are marked differences between the cathedral of Cefalù and that of Monreale (built by Roger’s grandson William II “the Good”) or even Roger’s own Cappella Palatina in Palermo, buildings of which not a single wall was left undecorated. It is quite plausible that Roger had wanted similar decorations for his cathedral in Cefalù, but the King did not live long enough to realise them.
After King Roger’s death in 1154 several changes were made to the cathedral. The façade of the building, with entwined arches and a double blind colonnade, for instance dates from 1240. The portico with three arches below it is even younger: it was added to the cathedral in 1471. The cathedral was built on a slope, so visitors have to climb a set of stairs to get to the building. They will pass through a gate that has been decorated with statues from the Baroque era. We see a Pope and a Bishop, but unfortunately I have not been able to establish the identity of the two men. The front side of the cathedral is of unmatched beauty, and it hardly came as a surprise to me that it was used as a backdrop for the latest Indiana Jones movie. On the other hand, it was rather surprising that the movie sets the cathedral in Syracuse.
Things to see
In 2015 the cathedral of Cefalù was designated UNESCO world heritage. The decision to include it in the list of world heritage was in my opinion entirely justified, as it is a most impressive building. The two towers of the Duomo closely resemble one another, although they are not entirely similar (“fraternal rather than identical”). If you study the upper parts of the towers, you will notice a number of differences with regard to the windows, battlements and spires (additions from the fifteenth century). It is very much worth the effort to climb the rock behind the cathedral and admire the building from above. One will notice that the transept and choir of the building are much higher than the nave, which is characteristic of Norman-Romanesque architecture. From above one can also see the cloister next to the cathedral. As I already mentioned above, I was unable to visit this part of the complex, but the cloister is said to be very beautiful.
The interior of the Duomo is fairly plain and simple. The columns in the building are spolia, that is reused building materials from Antiquity. They divide the building into a nave and two aisles, with the right aisle unfortunately inaccessible during my visit (although I got the impression there was not much to see there anyway). It can be quite dark inside the cathedral, but fortunately there is a machine near the choir that allows visitors to turn on the lights. They can choose to either illuminate a statue of the Madonna and Child from the studio of Antonello Gagini (1478-1536) or the mosaics in the apse. Unless you have an inexhaustible supply of coins, I would really recommend to go for the mosaics.
The Byzantine mosaics in the apse were made by Greek craftsmen from Constantinople. According to the Latin text below the mosaics they were completed ANNO AB INCARNATIONE D(OMI)NI MILLESIMO CENTISIMO XLVIII, which is the year 1148. At the top, in the conch of the apse, we see an immense Christ Pantokrator, “Ruler of All”. John Julius Norwich, the great British writer and popular historian who died in 2018, was deeply impressed by the mosaic. He called it “the greatest advertisement for Christianity that I know anywhere on earth” and “the most sublime representation of the Redeemer in all Christian art”.
Lord Norwich was right, for the mosaic is truly splendid. With his left hand Christ is holding an opened Bible with the text of John 8:12 on the two visible pages, in Greek on the left and in Latin on the right. He uses his right hand to give his blessing, but there is more symbolism to the gesture than meets the eye. The fingers also combine to form the Greek letters IC XC (Iesous Christos; Ἰησοῦς Χριστός), the very same letters that can be seen on either side of the head of the Saviour. The two crossed fingers (index and middle finger) moreover refer to the two inseparable natures of Christ, and the two locks of hair on Christ’s forehead probably do the same. The three other fingers (ring finger, little finger and thumb) refer to the Holy Trinity.
One level down we see the Virgin Mary, depicted as the Madonna orans. The Greek letters around her head indicate that she is the MP ΘY, the Μήτηρ Θεοῦ or Mother of God. The Virgin is flanked by the archangels Raphael, Michael, Gabriel and Uriel, dressed as Byzantine emperors. The archangels are holding staffs (labarum) and globes with crosses (globus cruciger), and are wearing the τζαγγία, the imperial red shoes. The names of the archangels are written in Greek, and so are the names of Saints Peter and Paul and of the four evangelists who are depicted in the next register. The evangelists are of course Mark, Matthew, John and Luke. What is interesting is that John is explicitly called Ιω(άννης) ο Θεολόγος, “John the Theologian”.
Six apostles are depicted in the lowest register, and they are Philip, James and Andrew (on the left) and Simon, Bartholomew and Thomas (on the right). Once again their names are written in Greek. Judging by the Latin text below the apostles all these mosaics were supposedly completed by 1148, but the mosaics of the vault are younger. These mosaics feature cherubim, seraphim and other angels, and presumably date from the thirteenth century. The choir walls are also partially covered in mosaics that were made after 1148. These consist of prophets and saints, but as visitors are not allowed to enter the choir, the visibility of the mosaics is quite poor. I also got the impression that they were covered with washi paper, so perhaps they are currently being restored. One last interesting object in the cathedral is the wooden crucifix above the high altar. It dates from ca. 1468 and was painted by Guglielmo da Pesaro (1430-1487).
- Capitool travel guide Sicily (2019), p. 94;
- Cattedrale di Cefalù » Storia (cattedraledicefalu.com);
- John Julius Norwich, Sicily, chapter 4;
- John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 10-15 and p. 160-161.
 John Julius Norwich, The Kingdom in the Sun, p. 13.
 John Julius Norwich, Sicily, p. x and p. 79.
 The 451 Council of Chalcedon declared that Christ is one person with two indivisible natures, one divine and one human. It furthermore declared that he is “one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man”.