It’s no surprise that many of the western world’s most enduring, beautifully crafted and well-preserved structures are churches and cathedrals. For centuries, they were the center of all community activity in remote villages and sprawling cities throughout Europe. In many instances, this still is true today. In fact, a trip to any European city is incomplete if one does not tour at least one historic house of worship. Regardless of your religious beliefs or affiliations, these structures offer not only great learning opportunities about the daily lives of past civilizations, but the buildings themselves also are key historical characters – not to mention architectural treasures.
Of course, everyone is aware of the great churches and cathedrals in Spain, France and Italy, but cross the Adriatic Sea into Croatia (the town of Sibenik to be precise) and one will find a little-known, 16th century stone cathedral known as St. Jacob’s. Built between 1431 and 1536, this UNESCO World Heritage site (2001) is constructed entirely of stone and is a blend of Venetian Gothic and Toscano Renaissance styles. The naturally white structure and domed roof certainly stand out against the red tiled coverings of most of the buildings in this coastal town, but it is all the wonderful details (inside and out) that make St. Jacob’s Cathedral the cultural and architectural focal point of Sibenik.
In the early-to-mid 15th century, Sibenik’s city council commissioned a young architect from Zadar, Croatia to design the cathedral. Juraj Matvejev Dalmatinac, who at the time was studying art in Venice, Italy, took on the project with great fervor and incorporated his love for Venetian Gothic architecture. He managed the construction for St. Jacob’s until his death in 1475, but his vision for the cathedral’s final design and exquisite detailing did not die with him.
Juraj Matvejev Dalmatinac’s design called for a triple nave basilica with three apses and a cupola (interior height is 32 meters), all made from stone. The roof of the central and lateral nave forms a semicircular vault. Where these sections meet emerges a rectangular base bearing an octagonal tambour with 16 windows; the final part of the dome rises above it. The main portal dominates the lower, gothic part of the facade. Its inside frame is abundantly decorated with stone carvings and sculptures, including the 12 apostles. The baptismal font lies at ground level in the southern apse. It is a small, round space with niches meeting within the columns. Dalmatinac set statues of prophets in this space and he roofed it over with a mildly bent arc.
Prior to Dalmatinac’s death, the side naves, the sanctuary, the ornamental apse and the sacristy were erected. Perhaps the most remarkable aspects of the exterior are the 72, life-sized carved stone heads representing the citizenry of Sibenik during Dalmatinac’s residency – peasants, soldiers, fishermen, etc. The frieze has held up quite well for more than 400 years.
Nikola Firentinac took over the cathedral’s construction until his death in 1505 and is credited with completing Dalmatinac’s designs for the dome (stone slabs fitted into grooves); the sculpture of Saints Michael, Jacob and Mark; the roof complex (a barrel roof of stone slabs); and the upper part of the façade. However, he continued the work of Dalmatinac, but did so in more of a Toscano Renaissance style. Within the cathedral, he built parallel galleries within the side naves, and completed the presbytery and sanctuary sections. Following Firentinac’s passing, the project continued under the direction of another Zadar architect and a pair of constructors from Venice.
It is because of this unique blend of architectural styles and cultural influences that this cathedral remains important today. Among its justifications for including St. Jacob’s within the World Heritage registry, UNESCO said these cultural interchanges (Northern Italy, Tuscany and Dalmatia – the early name for this region of Croatia) created the conditions for unique and outstanding solutions to the technical and structural problems of constructing the cathedral’s vaulting and dome.
St. Jacob’s Cathedral finally was consecrated in 1555, and still stands prominently in a town square with Sibenik’s Renaissance town hall, the Prince’s castle and other houses of worship and palaces. But none of those other buildings – despite their own unique histories and beauty – can be called the symbol of Sibenik. That title alone belongs to one of the most charming and inspiring examples of sacral architecture in Croatia.