Overall view from the south
The other extremity of Il Cassaro joins a large square before the cathedral, a Gothic edifice, built in 1185 by archbishop Walter, which now threatens ruin; its architecture is not the most pleasing of that style, for at the time of the erection of this church it had not attained the elegant lightness and delicacy of ornament, which soon after distinguished it, and produced considerable beauty, notwithstanding a total deviation from all the chaste proportions of the Grecian art. The whole pile is in a tottering condition, and calls for speedy assistance; a plan has been drawn for rebuilding great part of it by the King's architect, who proposes to raise a cupola, and refit it entirely in the modern taste.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies. 1777-1780
The plan for the redesign of the Cathedral was drawn up in 1767 by Ferdinando Fuga, a Florentine architect who extensively worked in Rome for Popes Clement XII (Palazzo della Consulta) and Benedict XIV (loggia of S. Maria Maggiore). In 1751 he moved to Naples where in 1762 he was appointed Architect of the Royal House.
The Cathedral was built on the site of a previous mosque. Initially the Norman kings built a small chapel where the first three of them were crowned. The chapel had a loggia from which they made their first public appearance. When the Cathedral was completed the chapel continued to be used for the coronation ceremony. The new king appeared on the loggia and then reached the Cathedral via a covered passage to attend a Solemn Mass.
(left) Cathedral: rear/eastern side (in 2000 evidence of an ancient Roman house was found near the central apse); (right) detail of one of the bell towers
The cathedral was built in 1185 by an English archbishop of Palermo,
Gualterio Offamilio, Walter of the Mill, who had been tutor to William II during
the regency of his mother. Not much except the east end remains of the English
prelate's church, which has been repeatedly altered. (..) The east end, however, retains its
apses, inlaid with polychrome interlacing arches, like
Monreale, and flanked by two towers.
Sir Thomas Graham Jackson - Gothic architecture in France, England, and Italy - 1915. The author (1835-1924) of this essay was one of the leading architects of his time. He extensively wrote about Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Interlaced arcading in polychrome masonry of white interlaced
stone and basalt is very characteristic of Sicilian architecture, especially in the later buildings. Interlacing
arches are a common feature in Norman buildings of
France and England: we have plenty of them at Canterbury, at Christchurch, at Castle Rising and Castle Acre,
and elsewhere. But in the North the arches are round:
here in Sicily they are always pointed, and the mixture of colour is also unlike northern work. These intersecting arches do not occur in the earliest buildings, at La Martorana, S. Cataldo, or the Eremiti. At Cefalu we find them, but they are not particularly coloured. At Monreale and the Duomo of Palermo we have polychrome interlaced arcading in full force.
T. G. Jackson
Other fine interlaced polychrome arches can be seen at S. Spirito in the environs of Palermo.
The western front is mainly a XIVth century work, but it is preceded by an enclosure with statues of the early XVIIIth century. The design of the portal and of the windows is characterized by the use of very thin columns, a feature which is evidence of Catalan influence (see a detail of St. Yves' Gate in the Cathedral of Barcelona - it opens in another window). In 1282, after the Sicilian Vespers, the rebels offered the crown of Sicily to Peter III, King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona. The use of zigzag or chevron mouldings is, instead, typical of Norman architecture.
(left) Arches between the Cathedral and the tower of the Archbishop's Palace (the turret on its top is an early XIXth century addition); (right-above) XVth century portal of the Archbishop's Palace with the coat of arms of Simone Beccadelli; (right-below) 1535 inscription on the Archbishop's Palace celebrating the ceremonies held in honour of Emperor Charles V who visited Palermo after having conquered Tunis. The inscription points out that the Emperor confirmed the privileges granted to the city and to Sicily by his predecessors
The west front (..) has separated from it by a street what seems the real west end, a strange pile of turrets and pinnacles surmounting an earlier structure, and united to the main building by two fine arches across the street. (..) The Arcivescovado, opposite the west end of the Duomo, has an interesting doorway dating from the middle of the 15th century, but surrounded by scroll-work of an almost Romanesque character. T. G. Jackson
The south porch,
dating from the 15th century, has a column inscribed
with texts from the Koran. Under this porch is the
principal entrance to the church, with scroll-work in the
jambs and arch of a Romanesque character. T. G. Jackson
The western entrance was the main one from an architectural point of view, but it did not have much space in front of it. This led to opening another entrance on the southern side which was separated from Il Cassaro by a large square. This was done in 1426 on the occasion of the coronation of King Alfonso V of Aragon. He became king of Sicily in 1416, but he visited and resided on the island during the 1420's when he used it as a military base for the conquest of Naples and southern Italy. After a very long war in which many Italian states were involved, Alfonso was recognized as King of Naples in 1443.
The portal and its reliefs were made by Antonino Gambara, a local sculptor. The central relief shows the Annunciation; Mary is portrayed while reading a book, the iconography which prevailed in Italy. An earlier mosaic at La Martorana showed her while spinning a red thread, in line with the Byzantine tradition. The scene is watched by God the Father whose crown is very similar to that of a Pope. The relief is enclosed in an elaborate series of scrolls in Gothic Flamboyant style which is rather unusual in Italy for that period.
Other details of the southern portal
Unlike the Cathedrals of Monreale and Cefal¨ that of Palermo was not decorated with many mosaics. We know that one of them was removed from the main apse in 1510. The opinions about the reasons for this different approach vary and they are not entirely satisfying. The only remaining mosaic is in the southern portal and it is dated XIIIth century.
The portal houses two reliefs which are shown in the introductory page and depict the coronation ceremonies of King Victor Amadeus of Savoy in 1713 and of King Charles of Bourbon in 1735.
(above) Southern side between the transept and the apse; (below) detail from the decoration of the Great Mosque of Cordoba
A section of the southern side retains its original decoration which, although being mainly based on Gothic architectural elements, has details, such as the use of very small columns, which bring to mind Moorish patterns. It is likely that Arab architects were involved in the design of the Cathedral, similar to what happened in other buildings of Norman Palermo.
Many of the churches here are extremely rich and magnificent. The cathedral or as they call it Madre Chiesa is a very venerable Gothic building and of a great size; it is supported within by eighty columns of Oriental granite and divided into a great number of chapels some of which are extremely rich.
Patrick Brydone - A Tour through Sicily and Malta in 1770.
Brydone visited the Cathedral before its interior was redesigned. Sir Richard Colt Hoare visited it in 1790 when changes were being made and he wrote:
The ancient cathedral presents a rich exterior of Norman architecture; but "fronti nulla fides" (Juvenal - Satires) (no reliance can be placed on appearance); for the interior exhibits a bad specimen of the Sicilian taste. Its ruinous condition occasioned so disadvantageous a transformation. Originally the inside corresponded with the exterior, was adorned with numerous granite and marble columns, and four porphyry tombs of Norman kings. At present it is unfinished; the columns, tombs, &c. all remain, but altered in a manner, which leaves no trace of the primitive style.
Sir Richard Colt Hoare - A Classical Tour through Italy and Sicily - published in 1819.
The inside has been lately repaired and is quite modern and different from the outside being in the style of Grecian architecture. It is one hundred and twenty yards in length from the great entrance to the wall behind the altar which is a magnificent work in marble and near it is a tabernacle entirely of lapis lazuli and of exquisite workmanship finely ornamented (..). But the great beauty of this church consists in its hundred grey granite Doric columns placed on each side and supporting arches.
Sir George Cockburn - A Voyage to Cadiz and Gibraltar: up the Mediterranean to Sicily and Malta in 1810/11.
Antonello Gagini, who is regarded as the best Renaissance Sicilian sculptor was commissioned a complex tabernacle having three layers of niches housing statues. He worked at it from 1509 to 1536 when he died. The tabernacle was completed in 1574 by his three sons. It was dismantled in 1797; some of its statues are lost, while others have been separately relocated to other parts of the building. The relief of the Dormition of Mary is consistent with the Byzantine depiction of the event, not with that prevailing in other parts of Italy in the XVIth century which is called Assumption of Mary. The Cathedral was dedicated to Santa Vergine Maria Assunta.
(left) Baptismal font attributed to Domenico Gagini; (right) relief celebrating the inauguration of the baptismal font with an imaginary Renaissance urban landscape; (inset) detail of a bronze relief by Lorenzo Ghiberti at Porta del Paradiso in the Baptistery of Florence
Antonello Gagini was the son of Domenico, a sculptor who was born in 1420 at Bissone, today in Switzerland, but at the time a possession of the Duchy of Milan. After having worked at Florence, Genoa and Naples he moved to Palermo in 1463 and lived there until his death in 1492. His baptismal font shows that he was very familiar with Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Bissone was also the birthplace of Francesco Borromini, a leading architect of XVIIth century Rome.
The monuments of their Norman kings, several of whom lie buried here, are of the finest porphyry; some of them near seven hundred years old and yet of very tolerable workmanship. Brydone
The eastern aisle contains several tombs of sovereigns; four are of porphyry under canopies of the same beautiful materials, borne by columns that seem to appertain to no known order of architecture. Swinburne
The chief interest of the interior is centred in the monuments of the Emperor Henry VI, his wife Constance, and, above all, that of their son Frederick II. These monuments, however, have been removed from their original places. T. G. Jackson
You may wish to see ancient porphyry sarcophagi in Rome and in Constantinople.
St Rosolia, the patroness of Palermo, is held in greater veneration here than all the persons of the Trinity and which is still much more than even the Virgin Mary herself. The relics of the saint are preserved in a large box of silver curiously worked and enriched with precious stones. They perform many miracles. Brydone.
The Chapel of Santa Rosalia is embellished with an Altar of Solid Silver; and contains the Relics of the Princess, preserved in a Silver Sarcophagus, reported to weigh 1298 Sicilian pounds.
Mariana Starke - Travels in Europe for the Use of Travellers on the Continent and likewise in the Island of Sicily - 1838 Edition - based on a travel to Sicily made in 1834.
The worship of St. Rosalia is rather recent. She was a young lady at the Norman court when she chose to leave her house and live as a hermit. She spent her last years in a cave on Mount Pellegrino where she passed away in 1170. She was regarded as a holy woman only in Palermo and there are no records of churches dedicated to her in the next centuries. In 1625 her intact body was found in the very moment that a major pestilence was coming to an end and the fact was seen as evidence of a miracle by her (a similar event occurred in 1600 in Rome with the body of St. Cecilia). In 1630 Pope Urban VIII included St. Rosalia in the official list of saints and she became the patron saint of Palermo. A second dedication to her was added to the Cathedral. The Feast of St. Rosalia is celebrated in July.
Chapel of the Holy Relics (this chapel was redesigned in the XXth century)
Nor roses (martyrs) nor lilies (virgins) are wanting among the flowers (saints) of the Church of Palermo. This sentence (from a text attributed to St. Cyprian of Carthage) in the Chapel of the Holy Relics is meant to highlight the large number of relics which are housed there.
On the other side over the altar is an iron case which encloses the bones of Saint Rosolia, an arm of John the Baptist and St Peter's jaw bone, all which many persons in Palermo fully believe. Cockburn
(left) Door of the Sacristy by Domenico Gagini; (right) Madonna della Scala by Antonello Gagini
The three generations of Gagini sculptors left a mark on the art of Sicily. Their works can be found in many important churches in Sicily (e.g. in the Cathedral of Messina) and a very large number of statues in minor locations, especially those portraying a Madonna, are labelled as school of the Gagini (e.g. at Erice and at Agrigento). You may wish to see other works by Antonello Gagini at Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Abatellis.
The Sacristy is very rich in robes, dresses, diamonds, plate and ornaments. Cockburn
The Cathedral houses a veritable small museum with many interesting exhibits, including a crown found in the sarcophagus of Costanza d'Aragona, first wife of Emperor Frederick II.
In the Sacristy or, as it is sometimes called, the Ante-Sacristy, is a pointed door of 3 orders, resting on twisted shafts with foliated capitals. This is one of the richest pieces of pointed architecture about the cathedral, and is the only remnant of this style in the interior.
A Handbook for travellers in Sicily - Murray 1864
A flight of steps leads from the choir to the Crypt, which lies not immediately beneath the choir, as usual, but to the E. of it. This subterranean vault is sometimes called "Le Catacombe", but is more generally known as "Tutti i Santi". It is separated into 2 aisles, by low massive columns of granite and marble, with capitals of very simple character supporting pointed vaults. (..) The crypt is now an episcopal mausoleum, as it contains the remains of no less than 24 archbishops of Palermo, enclosed in sarcophagi of various antiquity which are arranged beneath the arches and within the apses; and in the dim light which struggles through narrow openings in the vaults they assume a solemn, mysterious appearance. 1864 Murray Handbook
Crypt: (above) monument to Archbishop Giovanni Patern˛ by Antonello Gagini who made use of an ancient sarcophagus; (below) lid placed on the sarcophagus of Federico d'Antiochia (d. 1305), brother of two archbishops of Palermo and son of Corrado d'Antiochia, grandson of Emperor Frederick II; you may wish to see other sarcophagi in this crypt
In the central apse stands a
large monument containing the ashes
of Archbishop Giovanni Patern˛, who
died in 1511, and who reclines in effigy
on the lid, his hands crossed over his
crozier on his breast. His head is remarkably fine and true to nature, the
drapery is well arranged and executed, and there is a grand repose in
the whole figure. (..)
In the Ist apse is a sarcophagus
of incongruous character, originally
Roman, (..) and covered by a lid
with the figure of a warrior in complete armour of the Renaissance period. 1864 Murray Handbook
The background image for this page is based on a decorative pattern on the southern side of the Cathedral.
Other pages on Palermo:
- Gates and City Layout
- Norman-Arab Monuments
- Martorana and Cappella Palatina
- Medieval Palaces
- Churches of the Main Religious Orders
- Other Churches
- Palaces of the Noble Families
- Public Buildings and Fountains
Plan of this section:
Agrigento - The Main Temples
Agrigento - Other Monuments
Catania - Ancient Monuments
Catania - Around Piazza del Duomo
Catania - Via dei Crociferi
Catania - S. Niccol˛ l'Arena
Piazza Armerina and Castelvetrano
Reggio Calabria - Archaeological Museum
Selinunte - The Acropolis
Selinunte - The Eastern Hill
Syracuse - Main Archaeological Area
Syracuse - Other Archaeological Sites
Syracuse - Castello Eurialo
Syracuse - Ancient Ortigia
Syracuse - Medieval Monuments
Syracuse - Renaissance Monuments
Syracuse - Baroque and Modern Monuments
Taormina - Ancient Monuments
Taormina - Medieval Monuments
Villa del Casale