Sicily, Cefalù, Church of Santissimo Salvatore

Era 12AD
Location Piazza del Duomo, 90015 Cefalù PA, Italy

At Cefalù, about 70 km from Palermo, between 1131 and about 1148, King Roger built a large distinctively Norman church, a Romanesque basilica with three aisles and a transept in essence, though with some elements of Sicilian architecture about it. Although it was said to have been built in fulfilment of a vow after Roger was saved from a storm at sea, and was intended as a mausoleum, it was also the church of a new bishopric, created by the king for political reasons, and aimed as a challenge at Pope Innocent II. Cefalù, founded by Roger in a public challenge to papal authority, was a statement of intent. Its basilica spoke to the great basilicas of Rome and its mosaics were surely a signal of Norman ability to match Roman magnificence and piety.

An inscription on the apse claims that the mosaic work was finished in 1148: whether this refers to the apse alone or to all the mosaics in the church is a vexed issue. Indeed, it has been suggested that Roger actually lost interest in the church because the decoration of the side apses was never begun and the work in the presbytery was not completed.

In the apse, Christ Pantokrator is pictured, holding a book with the same text in both Greek and Latin, and with a Latin inscription. The curved wall of the apse has three zones of mosaic. The two lower ones show the twelve apostles; the upper one, a larger-scale Virgin orans escorted by four archangels. The apse is framed with columns covered with mosaic. The walls and vault of the first bay of the presbytery are also covered with mosaic. There are four sections to the vault and each holds a six-winged angel; the side walls have figures in horizontal strips like those of the apse. below the vault, the upper register consists of a lunette containing a medallion in the centre and two standing figures, then a register of Old Testament prophets, and finally a register of assorted saints. On the south side, the upper level consists of Abraham with David and Solomon; below are Jonah, Micah, Nahum; the lowest level consists of four Greek holy warriors and four Greek Fathers. On the north side, Melchizedek is in medallion at the top, flanked by Hosea and Moses; below are Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and below them, four holy deacons and four western Fathers. On the outside of the west wall (now lost), there were royal portraits in mosaic, starting with Roger himself.


The Norman Kingdom, which also included much of southern Italy, was established in 1130 and lasted only until 1194. Previously, between c831 and c1072, after its conquest from the Byzantines, Sicily had been an emirate, an Islamic state, with a ruler based in Palermo. It had been a wealthy state: Palermo, with a population of c150, 000, was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean, and it had been a multi-cultural state: Christian and Jewish communities on the island survived throughout the emirate. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, however, warring southern Italian rulers, Byzantines and Lombards alike, hired Norman mercenaries to help out in their struggles against each other and against the Moslems. One of the most successful of these was Robert Guiscard. Among his other triumphs in Southern Italy, Robert had taken Sicily from the Arabs after which Pope Nicholas II had created him Duke of Sicily and Robert in turn had handed Sicily to his brother Roger, to rule as Count in 1071. Count Roger (1071-1101) completed the conquest of Sicily by 1091.

It was Roger’s son, Roger II (1105-1130 as count, 1130-1154 as king), who created the Norman kingdom of Sicily and was its first and perhaps most successful king. Roger II was a supporter of the antipope Anacletus, who crowned him on Christmas Day 1130. Roger, with his admiral, George of Antioch, was successful at sea against both the Arabs and Byzantines and succeeded in establishing Sicily as a major force in the Mediterranean, possibly the most important sea-power in the region, though the Venetians might have had a view about that. Roger was succeeded by his son, William I (1154-1166), who maintained the kingdom in the face of internal revolts, and was in turn succeeded by his son, William II (1166-1189), whose reign was commemorated as two decades of peace and prosperity. William left no heirs and the kingdom gradually fell apart and was acquired by the Hohenstaufens and Frederick II in 1194.

Sicily was throughout this period a multiconfessional and multilingual state, occupied by Muslims, Latin and Orthodox Christians, one in which Arabic remained one of the languages of government, though the Norman kings and their churchmen aimed to convert the island to Latin Christianity. What happened in Sicily during this period of the three Norman kings stands in sharp contrast to ‘before’ and ‘after’. This clearly-definable ‘Norman’ period seems to have been when Sicily was at its height in terms of Christian power, prestige and wealth, all on the back of military might. The buildings and works of art associated with the three Norman kings are of an unprecedented scale, magnificence and quality, and served to advertise them as forces to be reckoned with, serious power-players in the region – art as propaganda on a considerable scale.

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