From Symbol of Hate To Sign of Hope

Split, Croatia

Ornate reliquaries, priceless chalices and a granite sphinx from about 15 B.C. all lay before me at the world’s oldest Catholic cathedral. I was at Split’s Diocletian Palace and the Cathedral of St. Domnius.

The Roman emperor Diocletian built the cathedral as a monument to himself around the year 300 in what was then Dalmatia. (Later the area was part of Yugoslavia; today it’s Croatia.) While he was at it, he also built a surrounding palace.

At the time, building projects were a side job for him. His main interest was eradicating Christianity. When he died in 316, his body was interred in his mausoleum. It lay there for 170 years, then disappeared. It’s possible Catholics found a new, unmarked burial site for it when — thankful the persecutions were over — they transformed the infamous mausoleum into a great cathedral.

Three centuries later, neighboring people fleeing invaders took refuge behind the locked palace walls. The cathedral-and-palace expanse, with its narrow lanes and broad squares, has been home to Split’s citizens ever since.

St. Domnius was one of the early Catholics martyred by the ruthless pagan emperor, so it seems fitting that Diocletian’s coveted spot now hosts the bodies of Domnius and some of his companions.

The Church celebrates the feast of St. Domnius — who by the way was a bishop — on May 7.

A small black sphinx, perched near the entrance to the cathedral, is one of 16 that Diocletian had his slaves drag over from Egypt. Nearby is a column he pilfered from Greece. In total, Diocletian looted some 28 granite and marble columns from the Greeks and Egyptians just to decorate what he thought would be his final resting place.

The sphinx is in remarkable shape; only the nose is slightly marred. The statue lies just outside the cathedral’s entrance in the grand square known as the Peristyle, where the Split Summer Musical Festival is held every July and August.

Faithful and Steadfast

I walked into the narthex of the octagonal building to find that, as cathedrals go, this one is rather small. But the Romanesque architectural features are all but overwhelming.

Ornate carvings are topped by a vaulted ceiling. If you look way up, you can see busts of Diocletian and his wife Prisca around the dome. That’s the only evidence they were ever here. Where was his original resting place? His sarcophagus is thought to have been placed somewhere in the middle of the cathedral.

The 13th-century hexagonal pulpit immediately caught my eye. Carved with snakes, leaves and assorted fantasy beasts, it stands on six equally intricate columns. A large winged eagle, the symbol of St. John the Evangelist, serves as the lectern. The choir stalls behind the main altar (also dating to the 13th century) are decorated in the Romanesque style with carvings by local craftsmen.

I sought out the last resting places of Sts. Domnius and Anastasius. The tomb of St. Domnius, the patron saint of Split, is just to the right of the pulpit. In 1770, a new altar was dedicated to the saint. The sarcophagus itself is the altar and contains his remains. The two statues on either side of the altar represent Domnius’ virtues of faith and steadfastness.

Reposing on the 15th-century altar to the right of the entrance is a stone statue of St. Anastasius. There’s a millstone around his neck symbolizing his death: Diocletian had him drowned. An engraving of Christ’s scourging serves as a door covering his remains.

At some point the cathedral’s two front Romanesque doors were moved inside for safety; they are now protected by glass. In 1214, Andrija Buvina, a Split painter, carved their 28 panels showing the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Ascension.

John Paul Prayed Here

I headed to the right and climbed the stairs to the cathedral’s museum. Krunoslav, the museum’s archivist, was standing behind an array of brochures describing the museum in various languages. I was his only customer.

“Dobro Jutro,” he said. “I’m not busy. Come, I’ll give you a solo tour.”

Krunoslav walked me past vestments encrusted with gold thread and Baroque reliquaries containing sacred remnants of martyred saints. The oldest item was a book of seventh-century Masses in Croatian, the so-called Split Book of the Gospels. There were relics of St. Arnira and St. Arnir, both 12th-century martyrs, next to chalices encrusted with rubies and diamonds.

Not much has changed here since 300 A.D., I learned, except for the addition of the bell tower adjacent to the cathedral. Rising nearly 200 feet, it was built in stages between the 12th and 16th centuries.

Weather took its toll and some refurbishments were made around the turn of the last century. The tower is built in both Romanesque and Gothic Renaissance styles but, alas, during the refurbishment projects, the bell tower’s original Romanesque sculptures were removed. Nevertheless the tower remains remarkable and defines Split to this day.

As I descended the stairs I could almost hear the voices of centuries of pilgrims who have come and seen this former symbol of temporal persecution as a sign of eternal reward. Their number included Pope John Paul II, who stopped by in 1998. Surely he prays for Croatian Catholics now.

Wynne Crombie writes from

Huntley, Illinois.