Šibenik’s dominating feature is the tumescent, stone-tulip dome of St James’s Cathedral (Katedrala svetog Jakova), a Gothic Renaissance masterpiece that still has art historians clutching their heads in a “how-on-earth-did-they-build-that?” state of admiration. Occupying the site of an earlier church, the current edifice was begun in 1431 when a group of Italian architects oversaw the erection of the Gothic lower storey of the present building. In 1441, dissatisfaction with the old-fashioned Gothic design led to the appointment of a new architect, Juraj Dalmatinac, who presided over three decades of intermittent progress, interrupted by cash shortages, two plagues and one catastrophic fire. The cathedral was just below roof height when he died in 1473 and his Italian apprentice Nikola Firentinac (“Nicholas of Florence”), thought to have been a pupil of Donatello, took over. Firentinac fashioned the cathedral’s barrel roof and octagonal cupola from a series of huge interlocking stone slabs, a feat that is still considered an engineering marvel. He was also responsible for the statues on the cathedral’s roof – high up on the southeast corner is a boyish, curly-haired Archangel Michael jauntily spearing a demon.

Entry to the cathedral is by the north door, framed by arches braided with the swirling arabesques that led to Dalmatinac’s style being dubbed “floral Gothic”. Inside, the cathedral is a harmonious blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles; the sheer space and light of the east end draw the eye towards the soft grey Dalmatian stone of the raised sanctuary. Follow the stairs down from the southern apse to the baptistry (krstionica), Dalmatinac’s masterpiece. It’s an astonishing piece of work, a cubbyhole of Gothic carving, with four scallop-shell niches rising from each side to form a vaulted roof, beneath which cherubs playfully scamper.

The frieze of stone heads

Outside the cathedral, around the exterior of the three apses, Dalmatinac carved a unique frieze of 71 stone heads, apparently portraits of those who refused to contribute to the cost of the cathedral and a vivid cross-section of sixteenth-century society. On the north apse, beneath two angels with a scroll, he inscribed his claim to the work with the words hoc opus cuvarum fecit magister Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus – “These apses have been made by Juraj Dalmatinac, son of Mate.”

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