The cathedral in Palermo, a monumental edifice, stands on the site of a sixth century Christian basilica which was later superseded by an Arab mosque. In Norman times the English Archbishop Walter of the Mill (Gualterius Offamilius) decided to erect a new building which would bear witness to the claim to power of the Archbishop of Palermo (and which, in fact, induced King William II to build "his" cathedral in Monreale, only 10km/6mi away). Construction of this unusually long, triple-aisled church began about 1170 or 1171, and it was finally consecrated in 1185. It was repeatedly altered in the years that followed, in the Gothic style in the 14th and 15th centuries, but especially in the years 1781-1804, when Ferdinando Fuga gave the interior a rather cold Classical appearance and added a dome and a second transept.
The east side of the exterior of the Palermo Cathedral has retained the original character of the Norman cathedral - the three apses, with cross-over round arches, and curved parapets. The south side looking down on the cathedral square is the side everyone sees; it will be particularly remembered for its 1453 Gothic-Catalan portico through which visitors enter the church. One of its columns, with a Cufic (early Arabic) inscription, comes from a mosque. The triangular pediment contains a carving of God the Father on His Throne, and above the doorway can be seen a 13th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary on a gold background.The bell-tower on the west side dates back originally to the 12th century, but was rebuilt in its present form in 1840.
Loggia dell' Incoronata
The Loggia dell' Incoronata to the left of the west front of the Palermo Cathedral, on which the kings appeared before the people following their coronation, was also built in the 12th century but altered in the 15th century.The square in front of the Cathedral was laid out in the 18th century. In 1744 the memorial to St Rosalia was erected in the center, and in 1761 followed the balustrade around the square, surmounted by figures of saints.
Entering through the south doorway of the Palermo Cathedral the visitor will find himself in the right side aisle, the first and second chapels of which contain the monumental tombs of the ruling dynasty of the Norman-Hohenstaufens. There are four sarcophagi in porphyry, a material which had to be imported from Egypt and which previously - because of its purple color - was permitted to be used only for the tombs of Roman and Byzantine emperors. The altar canopy and the pillars supporting it are also made of porphyry.King Roger II (d. 1154) was the first to be buried here - in a newly prepared and simple sarcophagus and not, as he had wished, in "his" cathedral in Cefalù. The two artistically more pleasing sarcophagi which he had had built in Cefalù were brought to Palermo Cathedral in 1215, on instructions from Frederick II, and Frederick II himself (d. 1250) and his father Henry VI (d. 1197) are interred in them. The fourth sarcophagus is that of Frederick II's mother Constance (d. 1198), a daughter of Roger II.The four sarcophagi are arranged in two rows: on the left of the front row is that of Frederick II, supported by four lions; the tympanum shows the Norman crown and on the top are decorative panels depicting the Virgin Mary and Christ the Pantokrator (Almighty Ruler) between symbols of the Apostles. This tomb is usually decorated with flowers. It is clear that Sicilian nobility paid due homage to the great Frederick and considered the design of his tomb as perfect, as there are a number of copies to be seen, for example, in the cathedral at Mazaro del Vallo and in the Chiesa Santissimo Salvatore in Naro where, however, they clearly knew their place and used green marble rather than the royal purple porphyry.To its right lies the sarcophagus of Henry VI, and in the rear row that of Roger II on the left and of Constance on the right.Two further tombs can be seen let into the wall: on the left is that of William I (d. 1339), a descendant of Frederick II, and on the right that of Frederick's first wife, Constance of Aragon (d.1222); she lies at rest in an ancient figure-shaped sarcophagus with the touching Latin inscription "Sicaniae regina fui Constantina coniux augusta hic abito nunc Federice tua" (I, Constantine, was Queen of Sicily and the wife of the Emperor, but now I reside here, yours, O Frederick).The sarcophagus was opened in 1781. Inside, the embalmed bodies of Frederick II and his wife Constance were found to be well-preserved and surrounded by expensive grave goods. Today these objects are kept in the cathedral treasury.
Chapel of St Rosalia
In addition to a metal meridian in the floor of the Palermo Cathedral, a further item of interest is the Chapel of St Rosalia to the right of the choir, with a silver shrine containing her remains (1625). However, this can be seen only during the Festival of the Saints in July.
In addition to liturgical robes and articles worked in gold, the treasury in Palermo Cathedral contains fragments of Henry VI's burial vestments, in particular the almost priceless crown of Constance of Aragon; it is in the form of the camelaukion worn by the Byzantine emperors, and is richly adorned with strings of pearls and precious stones. It is probably the very crown with which Frederick II was crowned emperor by Pope Honorius III on 22nd November 1220 - he would have placed it in Constance's grave.