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Split - The cathedral
On the east side of the Peristyle stands one of the two black granite Egyptian sphinxes, dating from around 15 BC, that originally flanked the entrance to Diocletian's mausoleum, an octagonal building surrounded by an arcade of Corinthian columns. Diocletian's body is known to have rested here for 170 years until it mysteriously disappeared – no one knows where. The building was later converted into the Cathedral of St Domnius (Katedrala svetog Dujma; Mon–Sat 7am–noon & 4-7pm) and a choir added.
The cathedral porch is entered through an arch guarded by two Romanesque lions with a motley collection of human figures riding on their backs, including Greek-born Maria Lascaris, wife of Hungarian King Bela IV, who briefly took refuge from the Tatars in the nearby stronghold of Klis. The walnut and oak main doors – carved in 1214 by local artist Andrija Buvina with an inspired comic-strip-style sequence showing 28 scenes from the life of Christ – are scuffed and scraped at the bottom, but in fine condition further up. On the right looms the six-storey campanile (same times as cathedral), begun in the thirteenth century but not finished until 1908 – the climb up is worth the effort for the panoramic view over the city and beyond.
Inside, the dome is ringed by two levels of Corinthian columns dating from the first century BC, while a frieze depicting racing chariots, hunting scenes and, in one corner, portraits of Diocletian and his wife Priscia, runs around the base. The rest of the constricted interior is stuffed with miscellaneous artworks. Immediately to the left of the entrance, the pulpit is a beautifully proportioned example of Romanesque art, sitting on capitals tangled with foliage, snakes and strange beasts. Moving clockwise round the church, the next feature is the Altar of St Domnius, honouring the first bishop of Salona's underground Christian community, who was beheaded in 304. Buil by Giovanni Morlaiter in 1767, the altar features a pair of angels holding a reliquary on which a group of celestial cherubs cavort – a symbol of man's journey to the afterlife.
Further around lies the church's finest feature, the Altar of St Anastasius (Stas), which preserves the bones of a Christian contemporary of Domnius who, on Diocletian's orders, was thrown in a river with a stone tied to him. Sheltering under an extravagant canopy, the saint's sarcophagus bears Juraj Dalmatinac's cruelly realistic relief, the Flagellation of Christ of 1448, showing Jesus pawed and brutalized by some peculiarly oafish persecutors, while just above is a figure of St Anastasius with a millstone round his neck. The Baroque high altar, occupying the arch which leads through to the choir, features a pair of delicate, gilded angels supporting what looks like a cherub-encrusted carriage clock bearing paintings on each of its faces; an ornate coffered ceiling with ten paintings on Old Testament themes by Matej Ponzoni-Poncun fills the arch above. Further around is Bonino of Milan's fifteenth-century Altar of St Domnius, where the saint's bones were once kept. Sheltered beneath a flowery Gothic ciborium, this uses an ancient Roman sarcophagus bearing a relief of a man with hunting dogs as a base, on which rests a larger sarcophagus etched with a reclining figure of the bishop.
Behind the high altar, the choir was tacked onto the mausoleum in the seventeenth century, and still feels a very different part of the church. It's worth peering closely at the latticed choir stalls, which include some particularly delicate wood-carving — the oldest in Dalmatia, dated to about 1200. To the right, a flight of steps leads up to the treasury (riznica), sporting a melange of chalices, handwritten missals, thirteenth-century Madonnas and reliquary busts of the city's three great martyrs — Domnius, Anastasius and Arnerius (Arnir), a bishop of Split who was stoned to death in 1180.
Opposite the cathedral, a narrow alley runs from a gap in the arched arcade down to the attractive baptistry (opening times vary, check at the cathedral), a temple built in Diocletian's time and variously attributed to the cults of Janus or Jupiter, with an elaborate ceiling and well-preserved figures of Hercules and Apollo on the eastern portal. Later Christian additions include a skinny statue of John the Baptist by Meštrović (a late work of 1954) and, more famously, an eleventh-century baptismal font with a relief showing a Croatian king trampling on a figure thought to represent either a devil or a pagan foe. Above the two figures runs a swirling pleated pattern known as plutej, a design typical of the Croatian Romanesque which has subsequently been adopted as a national symbol — you'll also see it around the bands of policemen's caps.
At the southern end of the Peristyle, steps lead up to a cone-shaped, roofless chamber which once served as the palace vestibule, in which visitors would wait before being summoned into the presence of the ex-emperor. On the far side of the vestibule, the area once occupied by Diocletian's private apartments is nowadays one of the poorest parts of the city, where medieval tenement buildings brush up against the sea-facing walls of the palace. The sequence of interlocking small squares here have a desolate, half-forgotten air which seems miles away from the tourist-tramped areas nearby. The area used to be the favoured meeting-place of Split's prostitutes and drug addicts, and is still fondly referred to by locals as the kenjara ("shit-hole"). At the south end of this area, along Severova, windows in the palace wall provide an excellent vantage point from which to spy on goings-on down on the Riva while, to the west, Aljegičeva threads its way through one of the most abandoned and mysterious parts of the palace, eventually bringing you out at Mihovilova siring.
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