Sibenik Croatia - Visiting St. James Cathedral and Its Amazing Faces


Sibenik Croatia – Visiting St. James Cathedral and Its Amazing Faces

Earlier on this day trip from Split, Croatia we visited the water wonderland that is Krka National Park and now we are headed for the coastal city of Sibenik, Croatia, not far away. The idea of visiting Sibenik (pronounced Shi-ben-ick) came from our guide Dino Ivancic who wanted to know if we were interested in seeing a Croatian city that was very preserved and with a lot fewer tourists than Split or Dubrovnik. After experiencing the crowds at Krka, our answer was a definite yes.

While Sibenik is technically a coastal city, it has a very protected location that can only be reached through a narrow channel that would be very easy to block or defend. In fact it’s so narrow that from the shoreline you wouldn’t know it was there, but for a small lighthouse that marks the entrance on the Sibenik side. Our driver has no problem navigating the traffic into Sibenik which has a much smaller population than Split – just over 45,000. He pulls up to a modern waterfront which is not inundated with tour buses and we get out to walk into the old part of town that has steep, narrow streets most of which are pedestrian only. While there are a few other tourists around, in comparison to Split, it might as well be deserted.

Exploring Sibenik

The first thing I notice is a fortress high above the town which Dino explains is St. Michael’s, but we won’t be visiting it on today’s visit. Along with Klis, just outside Split, this makes two fortresses today I need to put on the list of must sees for my next visit. Here’s what the town and St. Michael’s fortress look like from the seafront courtesy of a photograph from the Sibenik tourist website.

Sibenik Croatia
Sibenik with St. Michael’s Fortress

The main attraction in Sibenik is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St. James Cathedral and I never fail to visit one of those if possible, but first Dino suggests taking a walk in the old city. He explains that Sibenik is unique among Dalmatian cities in that it is the only one that was actually founded by Croats which makes it comparably young by Dalmatian standards. It was founded in 1066, which we all recall as the year William conquered England, when places like Split were almost a thousand years old.  Unfortunately the Croats were not able to hold on to the city they founded and it became a political football kicked back and forth between Venice, Bosnia, Hungary and the Byzantines, until the Venetians won out and held it for almost 400 years before that city state collapsed in the late 1700’s. Interestingly, the one other contestant in the Balkans free-for-all, the Ottoman Turks, never succeeded in capturing Sibenik.

While the crappy part about being conquered all the time is having to learn all those new languages, the upside is that you do get a lot of different folks and their peculiar architectural styles coming to town.  Here is a map of the old city. The buildings in pink are of historical or architectural significance.

Map of old Sibenik Croatia
Map of old Sibenik Croatia

Thus Sibenik is blessed, some might say overrun, with different types of churches and other historical sites and we’ll look at just a few starting off down these narrow streets, otherwise we could be here for days.

Sibenik Croatia
Typical Sibenik Street

First up is the gothic Church of St. Barbara which has this very unusual clock.

Unique 24 hour clock, church of St, Barbara, Sibenik

Notice that not only is it a 24 hour clock, but also that it has old style Roman numerals. For example 9 is portrayed as VIIII and not the simpler IX we learned in grade school. Dino says it’s only one of five like it anywhere. Next up is another clock, this one famous because the Sibeniks stole it from the Turks – nothing like a little Turk-bashing to bolster the local esprit de corps.

Turkish Clock Tower, Sibenik

This is a very nice frieze from the oldest church, dating back to the 1200’s.

Frieze on the oldest church in Sibenik

And here’s one of the newest, The Church of the Holy Spirit which is only about 400 years old.

Sibenik Croatia
Church of the Holy Spirit, Sibenik Croatia

Not only is the baroque rosette a nice touch, but I really love the dove which symbolizes the Holy Spirit in Christianity. It’s interesting that this is something that would have to be explained to most people today, but that anyone in Sibenik would have known what it meant just as we know what the golden arches symbolize.

Enough with churches for a while, this next thing is pretty neat.

Amor di Cani

This is a tiny water trough with the words Amor di Cani (love of dogs) written on it. Ok, that’s a nice gesture for the dogs of Sibenik, but Dino explains that it originally had a more sinister purpose. In medieval times rabies or more properly hydrophobia (fear of water), was a very common affliction and mad dogs were greatly feared. If someone suspected a dog was coming down with rabies they would take it to this trough to see if it would drink or not. Failure to drink was fatal for the dog.

As if on cue, an elderly gentlemen with a dog walked by and the dog proved its rabies free status right in front of our eyes.

I don’t have rabies

Our guide Dino is a bit of a jokester. Here he is making fun of God knows what.

Sibenik Croatia
Dino making a point in Sibenik

Anyway, we were making our way back toward the cathedral and Dino suggested we take a short cut on these stairs. Only when we stepped on to them did we realize they were hanging in mid-air going nowhere with a drop of about forty feet on one side and a series of sharp spikes on the other.

Sibenik Croatia
Hanging Staircase, Sibenik

Very funny Dino. We are laughing in the picture, but only because we didn’t fall or get spitted. Turns out there was a method in Dino’s madness because from this vantage point you could see where a portion of one of the most famous scenes from Game of Thrones was shot – the Walk of Shame by Cercei Lannister in the final episode of season 5. Apparently the scene is a composite of shots taken in Sibenik and shots taken in Dubrovnik. Here is Alison, clothes on, walking in the direction Cercei does in the TV episode.

Sibenik Croatia
Alison as Cercei in the walk of shame, Sibenik

St. James Cathedral, Sibenik, Croatia

Also from close to this perilous locale we can get a good view of St. James cathedral which has scaffolding around its dome. This is not the usual scaffolding you often see around ancient monuments that need to be shored up to preserve them. This scaffolding was made necessary be events that happened in a few short days in September 1991 in what is now known as the Battle of Sibenik, which took place between the Croats and Serbs. While the Croats prevailed and ultimately secured themselves an independent country, it was not without death and destruction. There is no doubt that the Serbs deliberately targeted the dome of the cathedral which was totally unjustified and ridiculous. We have over the years and in particular, this past spring, visited places that have been devastated by war during the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents, but this is the first time I recall ever visiting a place where the destruction happened during my lifetime. It’s a very strange and somewhat sickening feeling. I can’t help but be reminded of the song lyric, “When will they ever learn?”

Sibenik Croatia St, James cathedral
St. James Cathedral damaged by Serbian bombs

Ok, enough with the moroseness. Let’s visit the church. That’ll cheer me up.

The reason St. James Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is

 The structural characteristics of the Cathedral of St James in Šibenik make it a unique and outstanding building in which Gothic and Renaissance forms have been successfully blended. The Cathedral of St James is the fruitful outcome of considerable interchanges of influences between the three culturally different regions of Northern Italy, Dalmatia, and Tuscany in the 15th and 16th centuries. These interchanges created the conditions for unique and outstanding solutions to the technical and structural problems of constructing the cathedral vaulting and dome. The Cathedral of St James in Šibenik is a unique testimony to the transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance period in church architecture. 

From the exterior the cathedral frankly doesn’t look that special, until you start looking at details. Here is the front of the church. You can see from the people in front that it’s not of monumental size, but it does have perfect proportions. Slice it down the middle and each halve is the mirror image of the other.

St. James cathedral, Sibenik Croatia
Entrance, Cathedral of St. James, Sibenik

The main entry has Jesus looking down and the apostles, six on each side, looking like they are about to fired out of a torpedo shaft.

St. James cathedral Sibenik Croatia
Jesus & Apostles, Cathedral of St. James
St. James cathedral Sibenik Croatia
Adam and Eve

Over on the side entrance there is a motif that seems common to Dalmatia – Adam and Eve standing atop or near two lions. This picture doesn’t show the lions, but it’s not dissimilar to what I saw in Split and later in Trogir. Next we come to the real sculptural stars of this building, the heads of actual Sibenik citizens as carved in stone by George of Dalmatia. Altogether there are 74 of them and they are priceless, every one as distinct from the other as possible. The story, unproven, is that those represented were locals who were too cheap to contribute to the building fund. They definitely were not patrons for they would not have paid to be depicted as unflatteringly as these.

 St. James Cathedral, Sibenik Croatia
Sculpted Heads, St. James Cathedral, Sibenik

Particularly this guy.

St. James Cathedral, Sibenik Croatia
Sibenik sourpuss – St. James Cathedral

Inside the church there are also a lot of things to attract one’s notice including this beautiful stained glass rosette in the style of peacock feathers.

St. James Cathedral Sibenik Croatia
Peacock Window, Cathedral of St. James, Sibenik

Also of note is this gilded depiction of St. Christopher carrying the baby Jesus across a river – and the thanks he got was to be demoted in the saintly ranks because nobody could really prove he did this great service to Jesus? Really?

St. James Cathedral, Sibenik Croatia
St. Christopker with Jesus, St. James Cathedral, Sibenik

And this poor fellow seems to be aware that his clothes are on fire and there’s nothing he can do about it but pray. You can almost see the beads of sweat on his face. Hard to believe the Christians later decided that this was a good way to dispose of heretics (a.k.a. witches).

St. James cathedral Sibenik Croatia
Martyr on fire

The last stop is the baptistry where there is this absolutely marvellous depiction of the face of God looking down at the babies about to be immersed and presumably saved from Original Sin. Am I the only one who is reminded of The Dude in The Great Lebowski? Let’s go roll a few.

St. James Cathedral Sibenik Croatia
Head of God, St. James Cathedral Baptistry

So that’s Sibenik Croatia.

On the way back to Split we head out in the country to visit a traditional Dalmatian restaurant Torcida where we get grilled lamb to eat with our fingers, potatoes and spring onions. Fabulous.

Sibenik Croatia
Grilled lamb, potatoes and spring onions, Torcida Restaurant outside Sibenik

We also stop for this view of the city of Trogir where we will be embarking on our sea voyage to the Dalmatian Islands tomorrow.

Overlooking Trogir
Overlooking Trogir

Ruins of Salona, Croatia

Dino has one final stop before depositing us back in Split. It is the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Salona , but before we get there we have to maneuver past a traffic jam caused by a bunch of obviously drunken idiots holding up flares to stop traffic. Dino curses “God damn rednecks!” and explains that this is actually a Croatian wedding celebration of, shall we say, the less evolutionary advanced of the species. Darius, our driver, simply ignores the attempted road block and drives right through them. Miraculously they all get out of the way unscathed.

Salona at one time was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and the capitol of Dalmatia province. It survived well into the decline of the empire and became an important early Christian centre before being sacked by the Slavs in the seventh century. As I wrote about in the post on Diocletian’s Palace, it was refugees from Salona who came to occupy that palace and live there for centuries after the Romans had disappeared.

We only have time for a quick look and I can see that the ruins are enormous and mostly unexcavated.  Near the entrance gate there is a jumble of Roman and Christian tombs in a cemetery.

Ruins of Salona
Ruins of Salona

The real star of this ancient city is the ruins of the amphitheatre which is estimated to have held between 12,000-15,000 spectators. I wonder how many Christians became martyrs here when Diocletian ruled. More than a few I bet.

Ruins of Salona Amphitheatre
Ruins of Salona Amphitheatre

Well that’s it for today. Tomorrow we start our trip to the Dalmatian islands. Please join us.

Here is a link to the Croatia photo gallery with pics from Split to Dubrovnik sand all places in between.