About Cathedral

Architecture of the Old Cathedrals

The present-day Dubrovnik cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was built between 1671 and 1713 as a substitute for a Romanesque basilica of the same dedication, destroyed in the earthquake of 1667. Nevertheless, the famous medieval cathedral which was, according to ancient writers of local history, unrivalled “throughout Illyria”, replaced an even older large-scale building, the remains of which were found during archaeological excavations in the 1980s. There is no mention of this building in the local historical tradition, largely con­sisting of late medieval compilations written in the form of chronicles and annals and named as such. Their authors share the common opinion that the first cathedral was erected ex novo in the course of the 12th century. Despite the indisputable fact that local prelates (successors to the archpriests of the Late Antiquity see of the nearby Epidaurum) had, by then, been residing in Dubrovnik for centuries, none of the old writers posed an obvious question: which church was, hitherto, the episcopal church? In more recent historical literature, the “cathedral before the cathedral” has been alternatively identified with the churches of Saint Peter the Great and Saint Stephen, both of which were of a rather modest size. The latter was famous for its multi­tude of holy relics and it was also the most commonly chosen burial site of the archbishops of the 11th century Dubrovnik.

The extensive body of local historical texts, however, does not mention, albeit only in two places, the existence of a major church dedicated to the Virgin Mary prior to the 12th-century. The account, which is believed to be the oldest, the so-called Miletius’s Chronicle in verse, reveals that in 1012 the relics of the saints Zenobius and Zenobia were solemnly translated to the Temple of Saint Mary, Mother of God (in aede Sancte Marie Domini Cenetricis). When writing his history of the Dubrovnik metropolitan see, the 18th-century historian Serafino Cerva stated that by the end of the 12th century “the foundations were laid for a larger and more beautiful church, on the location of the old church dedicated to Saint Mary”.

Nave of the Byzantine basilica

Archaeological excavations under the cathedral, resulting from the urgent need for structural repairs after the earthquake in 1979, started in 1981. They were led by art historian Josip Stošić, aided by archaeologist Ivica Žile and architect IvanTenšek. Photographer KrešimirTadić documented the finds and Ivan Mirnik processed the numismatic material. The excavations were subsequently extended westward, beneath Bunić Square, and continued until 1987, covering the total surface of approximately 1,200 metres square (750 under the present-day cathedral and 450 underneath Bunić Square). Together with the anticipated remnants of the Romanesque cathedral, destroyed in 1667, and its baptistery, demolished in the 19th century, the excavators disclosed vestiges of several older, previously unknown buildings: the Byzantine basilica, the tetraconch memorial chapel and the Late Antique defensive wall. What is more, in the words of the head of research Josip Stošić, the research uncovered 500 major and thou­sands of small pieces of architectural elements, decorated stone furniture and sculpture from all periods ranging from Late Antiquity to the Baroque; thousands of fragments from wall-paintings; more than 700 coins from the 3rd century B.C. to the 17th century and hundreds of other significant items. The results of the research campaign were presented in several concise scholarly texts, mainly concerned with the excavated architectural structures. Yet, apart from the numismatic finds and the Pre-Romanesque stone reliefs, the vast archaeological material has neither been completely processed nor published. In this text, the early medieval church arc preceding the Romanesque cathedral will be referred to as the Byzantine basilica, according to the head researcher Josip Stošić who claims that, on the grounds of its formal features, it belongs to the corpus of Middle Byzantine religious architecture.


Late Antique wall

The oldest architectural structure discovered within the investigated area is the wall, which stretches diagonally in relation to the façade of the Byzantine basilica, underneath the pres­ent-day Bunic Square. A portion of the wall of approximately thirty metres in length was un­earthed. Based on the building technique, it was dated to the period of Late Antiquity, i.e. the 5th/6th century, and interpreted as part of the fortification – a castrum – inside of which the cathedral complex later emerged. In the early medieval period the wall was strengthened; its outer, western face, segmented by pilasters, has a typical Pre-Romanesque appearance.

The tetraconch memorial chapel

The foundations of a tetraconch building were discovered under Bunic Square, between the remains of the late antique wall and the basilica. Its plan is in the form of a Greek cross, drawn inside a square with sides of length about 8.5 metres, with four apse niches, semicircular on the inside and rectangular on the outside. Due to the fact that the building was surrounded with a multitude of graves as well as owing to its characteristic layout, typical of Early Christian buildings created for such a purpose, it was inferred that it had been built above the funerary chamber or the grave of a venerated person. As regards its chronological relationship with the Byzantine basilica, the excavator dated the memorial chapel posterior to it, i.e. to the later Early medieval period, since its foundations were at a level which was shallower than that of the basilica. Although its preserved walls do not reach the height of the openings, the tetraconch chapel was certainly oriented in exactly the same way as the basilica: its entrance was on the west side, and in front of the eastern apse traces of the chancel screen were found. In the interior, the remains of a well were also discovered. Due to the sudden interruption of burials it was presumed that the memorial chapel had, at a certain moment in time, been turned into a baptistery, and that after a while – as evidenced by a new layer of graves – it resumed its original purpose.

Area underneath Bunić square


The Byzantine basilica, the older of the two large-scale structures investigated underneath the Baroque cathedral, was a three-nave, triapsidal building of considerable dimensions (about 31 metres long and almost 16 metres wide), with a broad nave, and rather narrow side aisles. With its sanctuary facing the east, the church was oriented exactly the other way round compared to the present day building. The main façade, the traces of which completely disappeared in the course of subsequent construction activities on the site, had been on the west side. The wide apse of the basilica, semicircular on the inside and trapezoidal on the outside, was flanked by a pair of smaller semicircular apses, belonging to the pastophoria (separate rooms of the quad­rangular plan at the east end of the side aisles).

The floor of the Byzantine basilica was found approximately three metres below the floor level of the Romanesque edifice (and only slightly more with regard to that of today’s church), so the surviving elements of the earliest building – portions of the southern perimeter wall, bases of pillars, and parts of the apse and the pastophoria – do not exceed that height.

The nave was divided from the side aisles by six pairs of massive masonry piers of an elongated rectangular cross-section. Five of the seven arched intercolumnia on each side were, however, at ground level, closed with full masonry parapets. The nave and aisles were thus connected by only two openings along the inner side of the western façade. A matching pair of openings on the opposite end of the church enabled communication between the pastophoria and the presbytery. The church had open timber roofs, with the exception of the pastophoria, which were covered with barrel vaults, whereas their apses, as well as the main apse, had half-domical vaults. In analogy to other buildings of the period, it was hypothesised that the Byzantine basilica had been preceded by an atrium on the western side, of which, however, no traces survived. Of the three presumed entrances to the church, only the position of the doorway on the eastern part of the southern façade was confirmed.

In the interior, in the centre of the chord of the apse, the remains of the base of a massive masonry altar were found. Before the altar, the remains of a bema, an elevated platform inside the sanctuary, were identified, in front of which are relatively large square foundations of a structure interpreted as an ambo (a raised pedestal for preaching and reading the gospel) or, alternatively, a cella (an underground chamber for relics). In the central part of the apse arch, originally there was a low masonry seat – cathedra. Subsequently, a synthronon (a bench for the clergy) was constructed along the curve of the apsidal wall and on such an occasion the throne in its centre was raised and enlarged.

The remains of stone furnishings of the Byzantine basilica found within its perimeter (posts and colonnettes, plutei, entablatures, tympanums) mostly belong to the Pre-Romanesque period. The large majority of them were identified as the fragments of liturgical installations, primarily stone screens which had separated the nave from the chancel and the aisles from the pastophoria, as well as parts of the ciborium above the high altar. Moreover, the remains of the stone transennas, doorframes, and a large number of small carved items of indeterminate purpose were also found. The identification of fragments was difficult owing to the extent of the damage; in fact, most objects were found among the waste material which had been used to level ground prior to the construction of the Romanesque cathedral, or reused as a raw material for its foundations. Taken as a whole – although they show a fairly large range, not only of designs and decorative motifs, but also of the quality of stone material and carving skill – the sculptural fragments fit into the overall picture of the stylistic and chronological development of the interlace sculpture, dominant in the early medieval period over the wider south Adriatic area. The material can be roughly divided into two distinct groups, associated with two phases of interior furnishings. The older group of fragments, dated to the 9th century, are interpreted as the remains of the original stone furniture and architectural sculpture of the Byzantine basilica.

Namely, the research has shown that the building was subjected to major architectural changes twice. The first of these interventions was aimed at enabling the construction of the vaulting and the dome above the central nave. An independent system of pillars was inter­polated inside the nave, and the three-nave basilica was thus transformed into a five-aisled building. Two rows of six columns bore the weight of the arcades supporting the groin vaulting. As regards the position of a dome, it was placed above the third bay of the nave (looking from the sanctuary, i.e. from the east), as indicated by a slightly larger distance between the second and third pairs of newly installed columns. Judging from the traces of T-shaped pilasters, added along the inner faces of the perimeter walls, the side aisles were vaulted as well.

This building undertaking is coeval with the extensive refurbishment of the interior, insti­gated by the development of liturgical practices, but also probably by new requirements on the part of the cathedral clergy whose prominence increased by the late 10th century, as the Dio­cese of Dubrovnik was elevated to the rank of an archdiocese, Thus the bema was shitted slight­ly to the west, i.e. further Into the space of the nave, up to the second pair of newly installed columns, whereas the two intercolumnia between the original masonry piers – corresponding to the bay under the dome – were walled up along their entire height and, as evidenced by the remnants of stairs, pulpits on high pedestals were placed in the nave in front of them. In the apse, a new synthronon with two rows of seats for the clergy was arranged and again, for the third time, the cathedra in the centre was enlarged and elevated. Josip Stosic associated this extensive renewal of the interior with the more recent group of interlace sculpture fragments, characterized by late Pre-Romanesque stylistic features, and dated it to the latter half of the 11th century or, more precisely, posterior to the East-West Schism in 1054. The material per­taining to this period also includes a number of, regrettably inconclusive, epigraphlc fragments, certainly parts of the horizontal beams of the chancel enclosures. The second architectural remodelling of the Byzantine basilica concerned its western front. The central part of the main façade was reinforced and a massive bell tower of the quadrangular plan was erected next to it. Based on the analysis of the stonework, i.e. the structure of the re­maining portions of the wall, this construction was dated to the early Romanesque period.

Nave of the Byzantine basilica with the remains of the central apse



In the local tradition of Dubrovnik the credit for the construction of Dubrovnik Romanesque cathedral is given to an English king who was, on his return from the Holy Land, shipwrecked and rescued on the nearby island of Lokrum. While still in peril, the King made a vow that if he managed to make it to the coast, he would build a church dedicated to the Mother of God worth 100,000 ducats. Having learned of his intentions, the people of Dubrovnik sent twelve wise men to Lokrum and invited him to the city. At the insistence of the citizens, the King rescinded his earlier intention and agreed that the church would be built in the city, and in return, the citizens of Dubrovnik pledged to erect a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary on the island of Lokrum. To keep his vow, the king donated 100,000 ducats, 80,000 of which was spent on the construction of the cathedral and the rest was given to the municipality to cover the expenses of chalices, vestments and other items which were necessary for the divine ser­vice. Some writers claim that the king’s name was Aloisi or Aloviso and that the cathedral was built between 1116 and 1160,whereas others name the king Riccardo – King Richard the Lionheart – and place his arrival in the year of 1192, claiming that the works followed imme­diately. A combination of these two fictitious events that was being spread by local 19th-century erudites, who believed in the reliability of both dates as regards the commencement of the building, has its supporters even today. As a matter of fact, it is assumed that the cathedral was first built from 1116 to 1160, and then was subsequently destroyed (with reference to the alleged destruction of the city in the 1171 attack of the Venetian naval forces), and was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century, that is, after 1192.

The story of the English king donating 100,000 ducats for the construction of the cathe­dral made its way into the “official history” of the Dubrovnik Republic as early as the 16th cen­tury, during one of the disputes between the supreme civic and ecclesiastical authorities over jurisdictional rights concerning the metropolitan church. Thus the reasons for the appearance and perpetuation of this legend should probably be sought in an ancient, little known, yet com­plex relationship between the Benedictine abbey of Lokrum and the City on one side, and the archbishop on the other. Although the news of Richard the Lionheart’s sojourn in Dubrovnik, corroborated by some sources written outside Dubrovnik, are certainly worthy of attention, the idea that the King of England would not only be the principal donor but, in a way, also an initiator of Dubrovnik Romanesque cathedral, seems highly improbable.

At least however, the local chroniclers were correct about one point: the construction of the cathedral did, in fact, begin in the 12th century: more precisely between 1132 and 1158. Terminus post quern is the death of Archbishop Gerard, the last prelate to be interred in the early medieval cathedral, whereas the terminus ante quern is the death of the first archbishop known to be buried in the Romanesque edifice – Andrea of Lucca. His tomb in the outside wall of the cathedral’s sanctuary was mentioned some three hundred years later by Philip de Diversis (Philippus de Diversis de Quartigianis) of Lucca. Writing his treatise in praise of Du­brovnik, he claimed that the church had been built during the administration of his long-gone compatriot. Archbishop Andrea’s tomb was also noted by the mid-16th century historian Niksa Ranjina, who transcribed his Latin epitaph.

In fact, the construction of the cathedral was an extensive and lengthy undertaking; judg­ing from the data provided by documentary sources, at least one hundred and fifty years passed before it was brought to completion.

Depiction of the cathedral ftom the middle of the 15th century in a picture of St. Blaise, L. Dobričević

The architectural design of the cathedral and the results of archaeological research

On the basis of the scarce evidence from the period between the late 12th and mid-14th centuries, complemented with more generous documentary information on the subsequent construction activities (between the latter half of the 14th and 17th centuries), as well as old paintings and several invaluable descriptions in narrative sources, a coherent and rather com­prehensive picture of the “old Dubrovnik cathedral” was successfully composed by art history scholars by the mid-20th century. The vestiges of the building, uncovered during the exca­vation campaigns in the 1980s, confirmed their conclusions, thus providing archaeological evidence for a more thorough understanding of the Romanesque edifice.

The construction of a new cathedral, considerably longer (41 metres) and somewhat wider (about 17 metres) began at the exact location of the Byzantine basilica. With respect to the latter, the presbytery was moved further to the east, and the main façade to the west (closer to the tetraconch memorial chapel). The construction proceeded in successive stages, starting from the east and gradually moving towards the west end, so that some parts of the older build­ing, the nave and southern aisle in particular in fact remained in use for a certain time before eventually being demolished.

The Romanesque cathedral inherited the basic spatial disposition from its predecessor: it was conceived as a three-aisled transeptless edifice, but unlike Byzantine basilica, it had a single apse on the east end. The nave was separated from the aisles by six pairs of massive masonry pillars of a slightly elongated rectangular cross section. It is assumed that the weight of the walls above the arches was reduced by the insertion of triforia (shallow galleries into the thickness of the wall). The nave and aisles were covered with barrel vaults, and above two bays, between the second and fourth pairs of piers, when looking from the east (or the presby­tery), a voluminous oval dome rose.

The Romanesque basilica, as already stated, was built at a much, approximately 3 metres, higher level than the Byzantine edifice. Its floor, found just below the pavement of the Baroque cathedral, was raised to about 1.5 metres above the surrounding ground level. Judging by the traces found along the inner edge of the apse, it was presumed that the 12th-century project had envisaged the construction of a crypt beneath the presbytery, but that the plan had been revised already in the initial stage of construction and the crypt eliminated. However, long tunnel-like barrel-vaulted spaces discovered in the subsoil of the Romanesque basilica, beneath the western parts of both aisles, seem to have been corridors meant to provide access to the crypt. It is very likely that those spaces were subsequently converted into water reservoirs and could thus be identified with the “cisterns of St Mary Major”, which were frequently recorded in late medieval documents, and which remained in use even after the completion of a public waterworks system in the mid-15th century.

Ashlar exterior walls of the Romanesque basilica were articulated by pilasters and blind arcades, and their horizontal division into seven bays corresponded to the plan of the interior. The same treatment of surface was provided on rear end walls, and perhaps the apsidal wall, of which, however, no archaeological traces were found.

The cathedral had three entrances. The main portal was on the central axis of the west façade, whereas the lateral doorway, facing the public square (in front of the Rector’s Palace), was positioned in the middle of the northern façade. The third entrance portal, which led di­rectly to the presbytery, was in the second easternmost bay of the south façade, opposite the Archbishop’s Palace.

In the upper parts of the aisles the galleries (matronea) were constructed. The corre­sponding external galleries, which reached up approximately to half the height of the aisles perimetral walls, were apparently not part of the original project. They were resting on the arches supported by the semi-piers attached to the original pilaster strips.

The knowledge of the interior decoration of the Romanesque cathedral is limited due to the fact that the findings of the stone liturgical furnishings and architectural sculpture were as yet neither methodically elaborated nor published. In the research report, however, a dozen stone fragments and a relatively well-preserved capital were identified as parts of the original pulpit, which is assumed to have had a polygonal, most likely twelve-sided shape.

Cathedral in a view of Dubrovnik from the middle of 17th century, Convent of the Friars Minor, Dubrovnik

Danko Zelić

The Design and Construction of the Baroque Cathedral

The Dubrovnik Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the Cathedral of the Assumption (1671-1713) is one of only a few architectural achievements of the Roman Ba­roque on Croatian soil. It is a three-aisled vaulted basilica of monumental spatial organization and excellent sculptural and architectural detailing. The basic spatial concept of the cathedral is made up of refined gradations of volume, from the lower chapels and aisles to the elevated Latin cross that forms the nave, including the transept and a prominent rectangular sanctuary, and finally the elegant dome on a high drum. The dominant element of the interior and exte­rior ornamentation is the large order of Corinthian pilasters, which includes piers in the nave and the crossing, and separates into free-standing columns in the avant-corps of the two-level façade, while the arcades between the aisles and the chapels rest on the small order of Tuscan pilasters. In this classically conceived architectural type, suited for a cathedral, the emergence of the Baroque period is expressed in the centralization of the longitudinal space with an em­phasis on the crossing under the dome and in the increasing array of sculptural decoration from the main façade to the central axis.

A cathedral of this shape made an effective focus of Baroque style within the medieval urban fabric of Dubrovnik, enclosed within the historical walls that encircle the city. Surround­ed by spacious squares, the cathedral was part of some key views in the city including views from the main street, the Placa, and the square in front of the Rector’s Palace [Pred Dvorom]. Moreover, the tall dome with a lantern dominated the skyline of the city. However, many circumstances, both fortunate and unfortunate, needed to occur within the city/state of Dubrovnik in the late 17th century in order to make it possible to commission and build a monument of such high architectonic and urbanistic qualities, envisaged and designed in the starting point of the Baroque – Rome.

The main incentive for the construction of the new Baroque cathedral was a catastrophe – the famous earthquake that hit Du­brovnik on 6th April 1667. While, despite heavy damage, it was pos­sible to restore the other religious and public buildings – the church of St Blaise (the patron saint of the city), the Rector’s Palace, the City Hall, and the Sponza Palace – “the pride of the city of Dubrovnik”, the Romanesque cathedral, was transformed from a monumental three- aisled basilica with a dome into ruins in a single moment. The same fate befell the neighbouring Archbishop’s Palace so Pietro de Torres (archbishop from 1665 to 1689) fled to Ancona in order to save his life, after which he found shelter in his home town of Trani, leaving the care of the destroyed metropolitan church to the decimated Dubrovnik gov­ernment. They were left with no other decision than to pass the decree in June 1667 to clear the rubble of the old cathedral.

Yet, from that disaster one fortuitous circumstance emerged: in the very seat of the Catholic church and the centre of European politics – Rome – Dubrovnik had a world-famous citizen, a widely cultured man with a network of political connections, a priest, a dip­lomat, and a scholar. What is more, this man, Stjepan Gradić (Stefano Gradi, Dubrovnik 1613 – Rome 1683) was “a fervent patriot”. Abbot Gradić was thus the first man to whom the people of Dubrov­nik went for help after the earthquake, asking him to intervene with the pope, and to inform the sympathetic statesmen in Rome of the catastrophe that befell the city. Gradić’s response was undoubtedly greater than expected. Not only did he immediately and completely engage himself with helping Dubrovnik, but he spent the rest of his life devoted to rebuilding his destroyed homeland. His efforts to restore Dubrovnik included a wide spectrum of activities, from gathering funds to sending craftsmen and builders, but the primary task was the construction of a new cathedral.

In addition to the renewal of “a place where God dwells among men”, Gradić also saw the new construction of the cathedral as the symbolic restoration of the city/state. This approach can be seen in a wealth of his written documentation: from correspondence with the Senate and the representative of the temporary government, Luka Zamanja, to explanations of the design with directions for its con­struction, and a number of professional surveys and assessments of the stone elements of the building. However, more than these hun­dreds of written pages, all of which exude professionalism, enthusi­asm, and love for his homeland, it is the work itself, the monumental Baroque cathedral that bears witness to Gradić’s relationship with his “lofty mission.” He ordered the design in Rome in 1671 and kept watch over its construction until the end of his life in 1683, without seeing its completion in 1713, more than forty years after the start of construction, and one hundred years after his birth.

Hence, although the cathedral was built for four full decades, and then furnished for another number of decades, it is important to emphasize that its completion in the given cir­cumstances was a great success for the small Republic. The Roman design, challenging in both form and construction was realized flawlessly. When we take into consideration that many Baroque churches in Italy, even in Rome, only gained their façades in the 19th century, or were left without a finished façade and dome, this completely finished building, with stone cladding and architectural sculpture on all four façades, deserves all the compliments it receives. There is no need to doubt that this manner of construction, where the building of walls and vaults was accompanied by the appropriate articulation of masonry elements and architectural sculpture, was due to Stjepan Gradic and his numerous directions and measurements for the production and erection of the elements made of travertine.

Hence this beautiful building, for which the Dubrovnik Republic spent more than fifty thousand ducats, became the crown of the victory of the city over adversity and an exquisite monument to the Dubrovnik Baroque. Because of Its characteristics, it is not only an integral part of the heritage of Dubrovnik and Croatia, but has also found its place in the greater sphere of Roman and Italian Baroque sacral architecture.

Katarina Horvat – Levaj

From the monograph The cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin in Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik – Zagreb 2014.