Cefalu Cathedral, Sicily travel guide, history and information

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Visit Cefalu Cathedral

The coastal town of Cefalù is one of the most charming towns on the north coast of Sicily, and the historical and artistic heart of the town is the area around its Cathedral. The cathedral was founded by Roger II and built in the Arab-Norman style.

Explore Cefalù cathedral

Italy This Way comment: the cathedral in Cefalù is unusual in Sicily having retained its original 12th century design with graceful stonewok and arches, and has impressive mosaics around the apse: together these make the cathedral an unmissable destination in the town

According to legend, Roger II ordered the construction of the cathedral in Cefalù to thank God for saving him from a storm by landing him on the beach in the town. In truth Roger II was very religious, and he himself makes no reference to the legend, so it is likely the cathedral was founded simply to do honour to God and to ensure "eternal life after death".

Facade of Cefalu cathedral

Founded in 1131, the massive fortress is accentuated by two strong square towers, each with a small belltower at the top. The façade has false loggias and a central arched window and the portal is decorated with an arch of white marble. You enter the cathedral through imposing wooden doors decorated with reliefs.

There is a battlement in the southern part, and underground passages and tunnels that connect the various parts of the building, a consequence of its need to be fortified when it was first built. Inside, the cathdral has a Latin cross form divided into three naves, separated by arches that are supported by marble columns.

Mosaics of Cefalu cathedral

As you walk along the central nave of the cathedral the gold of the mosaics shines out from the apse that was built later, in 1148, by Byzantine craftsmen who knew how to combine this Eastern tradition with a decorative Nordic structure.

Unlike some churches in Sicily, which are decorated on all surfaces, in the cathedral of Cefalù the floor, nave and wings are free of mosaics, but the bareness is more than compensated for by those who decorated the sanctuary.

Impressive above all is the figure of Christ the "Pantokràtor" (literally "the Creator and Sovereign of all things"), who looms in the apse overlooking the temple and inspiring a profound veneration. He is pictured as blessing with his right hand and holding an open volume in the left, in which it is written that He is the light of the world, and those who follow Him will leave the darkness and enjoy the light of life.

This mosaic is very similar to the one in Monreale cathedral, and was created by the same artist.

There are other mosaic figures, also of a very high quality, in large numbers around the apse of Cefalu cathedral, including archangels, saints and popes. They are divided into three compartments under the great figure of the Saviour: in the first is the Virgin Mary, flanked by four archangels; and in the two below you can see the apostles and two evangelists, Mark and Luke.

The Latin inscription in rhyming verse, which is located under the Apostles, gives us the date the mosaics were completed, and also the name of King Roger II, who instructed the Cathedral be built. The first lines translate as: "The outstanding King Roger, brimming with religious feeling, built this temple moved by devotion to God. These mosaics were completed in the year of the Incarnation 1148, in the Indiction XI , in the fifth year and 18th of his kingdom".

In the side walls of the sanctuary next to the Saviour you can see the figure of Melchizedek, with Moses and Hosea below. At the level of the Virgin on the same side are the prophets, Joshua, Amos, Obadiah, and in two compartments below are the eight saints: Peter, Vincent, Lawrence, Stephen, Gregory, Augustine, Sylvester and Dionysius, with Latin legends.

The opposite wall is ordered in the same way, with Abraham, David and Solomon portrayed next to the Redeemer; Jonah, Micah, and Nahum on the level of the Virgin, and in two lower partitions Saints Theodore, George, Demetrius, Nestor, Nicholas, Basil, and Gregory.

Among the other works that you will see inside the cathedral at Cefalu we should mention the 'Madonna and Child' by sculptor Antonio Gagini from the 16th century, some neoclassical stuccos and the silver altar in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.

Arches separating the naves in Cefalu cathedral

Attractions nearby

In front of Cefalù cathedral there is a charming square that contains several restaurants and some of these offer breakfast at a very reasonable price: it is a lovely place to sit in the early morning sun and have breakfast while looking at the facade of the cathedral

The cathedral is just one of the attractions in Cefalù which is a picturesque town with a pretty harbour: see our Cefalù guide.

You can find more local travel ideas in the Cefalu guide and the Sicily guide.

See also:

Map of Cefalu Cathedral and places to visit

Places to visit near Cefalu Cathedral

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