The Kings’ Cathedrals

Introduction to Route A

The route leads to the discovery of the great Norman cathedrals of the UNESCO Site of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale. Through dynastic and cultural intertwining, each cathedral is a symbol of one of the great protagonists of the Hauteville dynasty and of a stylistic moment that looks to local, oriental and transalpine art. Each route, divided into several stages, explores the majestic buildings on different levels, from an architectural and artistic standpoint, without neglecting the historical, social, philosophical and cultural context..
The Cefalù Cathedral was King Roger’s dream: it stands at the foot of a majestic rock and overlooks the crystal clear sea. A landscape that also fascinated Idrisi, the Arab geographer who, in 1145, was called to Palermo by Roger II to write the famous Libro di Ruggero (Book of Roger) and work on the construction of a new building.
Idrisi wrote about Cefalù: “Gaflùdi (Cefalù), a city-like fortress, lies on the seashore, a short day’s journey from Sahrat ‘al ‘hadid, with its markets, baths and mills, situated in the same town, overlooking water that rises [from the rock], sweet and fresh, giving its inhabitants something to drink. The fortress of Cefalù [is built] on rocks, washed by the sea.”
The temple of Cefalù, begun by Ruggero II in 1131, is the one with the most Nordic influences. Architecturally, especially in its original design, it takes the form of a real fortress. Even its location is strategic: the Cathedral is at the eastern end of the town, under the fortress that dominates the surrounding area. With its imposing structure, built within two towers, it was created with a precise dynastic purpose, since it was intended to house the remains of King Roger.
On the other hand, at the Monreale Cathedral, the burial place of William I and William II, there is a stylistic balance of forms between decoration and architecture. The monumental complex, begun by William II in 1172, consists of the church, the Benedictine monastery and the royal palace. Inside, the centrepiece of the mosaic cycle depicting stories from the Old and New Testaments, created by Byzantine craftsmen, is the grandiose Christ Pantocrator in the apse basin. The King of kings has a stern but loving gaze, and with his embrace he blesses and welcomes the faithful who, once having passed through the bronze door, known as the Gate of Paradise, created by Bonanno Pisano, set off on an upward journey towards salvation. The Benedictine monastery cloister is also from the same period. The capitals of the cloister are of Romanesque origin and are richly decorated with zoomorphic, phytomorphic, fantastic and symbolic motifs.
The last stop is the Palermo Cathedral. Previously, during the period of Muslim rule, this was the Gami Mosque, connected by a passageway to the Emir’s palace. It was then converted into a church when the Normans arrived in Sicily and was entrusted to the care of Bishop Nicodemus. During the reign of William II, the old church was restored at the behest of Archbishop Gualtiero, the King’s Proto family member. In the Chapel of the Royal Tombs, inside the ancient Cathedral, lie Roger II, first king of Sicily; Queen Constance of Aragon; Empress Constance of Hauteville; Emperor Frederick II and Emperor Henry VI.
The canopied sarcophagi of Frederick and Henry VI were ordered by Roger II, before 1145, and were intended for the Cefalù Cathedral. It was the grandson Frederick who transferred them to Palermo, not respecting the wishes of his grandfather. According to the first king of Sicily’s designs, there was supposed to be two sarcophagi: one to house his remains and the other for the greater glory of God.

The beginning of the construction site

The towers facing the facade used as bell towers

The lost chapel

The chapel of san Castrense: an important renaissance work

The Gualtiero Cathedral

The Chapel of the Kings

A polysemy of high-level artistic forms and content

A new Cathedral

Two initially similar towers, varied over time

A controversial interpretation

The Cathedral over the centuries

The liturgical spaces of the protesis and the diaconicon

Tempus fugit: a strategic project implemented in a short period of time

Palermo: the happiest city

The towers and the western facade

Squaring the circle

The mosaics of the presbytery

Mosaic decoration

The chapel of St. Benedict

From the main gate to the aisles: an invitation to a journey of faith

Characteristics of religious architecture in the romanesque period

Biblical themes enlivened by the dazzling light of the stained – glass windows overlooking the naves

A remarkable ceiling

Interior decorations

Roger II of hauteville: a sovereign protected by God

Gardens and architecture as a backdrop to the city of Palermo

The Bible carved in stone

A tree full of life

The plasticism of the main portico and Bonanno Pisano’s Monumental Bronze Door

Roger II’s strategic design

The chapel of the crucifix: an artistic casket based on a previous model

A Northern population

The balance between architecture and light

The columns of the nave: the meticulous study of the overall order

The cultural substrate through time

From the Mosque to the Cathedral

The dialogue between the architectures of the monumental complex

The southern portico

The marble portal: an intimate dialogue between complex ornamental aspects and formal structure

The king’s mark

The architectural modifications ti the cathedral building after the death of Roger II and the transformations of the cloister

The stone bible

The mosaics of the apses

The Great Presbytery: a unique space for the cathedral

Cefalù: settlement evidence through time

A compositional design that combines nordic examples with new artistic languages, over the centuries

The Cefalù cathedral: a construction yard undergoing a change between a surge of faith and control over the territory

The area of the Sanctuary

The medieval city amidst monasticism and feudal aristocracy

The longest aisle

The decorated facade

Porphyry sarcophagi: royalty and power

The chorus: beating heart of the cathedral

The Virgin Hodegetria

A space between the visible and the invisible

The links between the hauteville family and the monastic orders in Sicily

The paradisiacal “Conca d’oro” that embraces Palermo: a name with countless faces through time

The construction of Monreale Cathedral: between myth and history

A palimpsest of history

The Kings’ Cathedrals

A chapel by an unknown designer based on repeated symmetries

The side Portico: a combination of elegance and lightness of form

Artistic elements in Peter’s ship

A cloister of accentuated stylistic variety

The Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene

The senses tell Context 1

The cemetery of kings

The rediscovered chapel

Worship services

The original design

The Great Restoration

Layers of different cultures decorate the external apses

Thirteenth-century iconography decorates the nave’s wooden ceiling, designed with new solutions

Under the crosses of the Bema

A mixture of styles pervades the floor decorations

The chystro: a place between earth and sky

Norman religious architecture with islamic influences in Sicily

Beyond the harmony of proportions

Ecclesia munita

Transformations over the centuries

The side aisles

Survey of the royal tombs

The transformations of the hall through the centuries