Sacred Sunday: Mosaics in the Cathedral of Cefalù – 1145 – 1160 AD

Cathedral of Cefalu

Numerous churches were built in Sicily in the 12th Century under the Norman kings. Notable among them is the cathedral which rises above the coastal town of Cefalu’, overlooking the Mediterranean.

The cathedral of Cefalù, consecrated to the Savior and to Sts Peter and Paul, was built by Roger II, king of Sicily. The cornerstone was laid on June 7, 1131, a few months after Roger II was crowned. When Roger II died in 1154, the cathedral was still far from finished. The final consecration is documented as having taken place in 1267.

The cathedral’s chief decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and bay just in front of it. Mosaics were here first employed for the decoration of a church interior in Sicily; Byzantine mosaic artists were entrusted with their creation. However, by the time the mosaics on the side walls of the choir were undertaken, native artists were working alongside the imported ones.

Unlike the medieval mosaics in Rome, where there was a deliberate return to Early Christian motifs originated in Rome, the pictorial program is wholly Byzantine in flavor.

The bust of the Pantocrator was given the most prominent spot available, namely the apse calotte. Beneath the apse calotte with its dominant Pantocrator figure, the mosaic is divided into three registers, Mary occupying the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower registers the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.

The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, sainted deacons and warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.

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Overall view of the apse, 1145-60. Mosaic, Cathedral, Cefalù.  Beneath the apse calotte with its Pantocrator figure the mosaic is divided into three registers. Mary occupies the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. Turning toward her in reverence are the archangels Michael and Raphael on the left, and Gabriel and Uriel on the right. In the two lower registers, interrupted by the apse window in the center, the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.

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Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The figure of Christ is much larger than all the other figures in the apse, so it can be seen as the dominant image from far back in the nave. Given the figure’s vast dimensions, it is astonishing how extremely fine the work is, especially in the head of Christ. The intricacy of his face is emphatically underscored by the subtle lines of countless tiny stones used to model the flesh tone.

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Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Beneath the apse calotte with its Pantocrator figure the mosaic is divided into three registers. Mary occupies the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor in the pose of an orant, seen from the front and with her hands raised in prayer.

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Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Mary occupies the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. Turning toward her in reverence are the archangels Michael and Raphael on the left, and Gabriel and Uriel on the right. In the two lower registers, interrupted by the apse window in the center, the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.
The picture shows Sts Mark, Matthew, Peter (top), Philip, James, Andrew (bottom) on the apse wall, left to the window.

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Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Sts Paul, John, Luke (top), Simon, Bartholomew, Thomas (bottom) on the apse wall, right to the window.

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North wall of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, sainted deacons and warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church arrayed across from each other in an asymmetrical arrangement dictated by the irregular placement of the windows.
In the upper lunette of the north wall Melchizedek is featured as half-figure in round medallion. Beneath Melchizedek are the the prophets Hosea and Moses (the latter being a 19th-century recreation). In the second register are the figures of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, while in the third register are the deacons Peter of Alexandria, Vincent, Lawrence, and Stephen. In the fourth (bottom) register Sts Gregory the Great, Augustine, Silvester, and Dionysius the Aeropagite are represented.

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South wall of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
In the upper lunette of the south wall Abraham is featured as half-figure in round medallion. Beneath Abraham are the kings David and Solomon. In the second register are the prophets Jonah, Micah, and Nahum, while in the third register are the soldier saints Theodore, George, Demetrius, and Nestor. In the fourth (bottom) register Sts Nicholas, Basilius, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianz are represented.

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Vault of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault. Cherubim and seraphim are presented on both the longitudinal and horizontal axes, identified by labels, and holding standards in their hands.

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