Axel Haig, Cefalù Cathedral, etching, 1901.
This etching of Cefalù Cathedral, a Romanesque basilica located in Sicily, displays Haig’s mastery of the etching medium. The print depicts the interior of the cathedral in stunning detail, made possible by Haig’s skillful manipulation of the etching needle. The perspective of the print situates the audience in the west end of the cathedral, observing the east interior, which includes the seat of the bishop and the apse, complete with a fantastic rendering of Cefalù’s famous mosaics.1
Haig visited Sicily in 1875, at the suggestion of his friend, architect William Burges, who often commissioned Haig to illustrate his designs in watercolor.2 There, Haig was enchanted by the beauty to be found in the city, especially in the unique hybrid architecture that combined the Norman style with Sicilian and Gothic influences. Haig had yet to take up etching at this point in his career, but the images of Sicily stayed with him.3 This etching is a tribute to Cefalù and includes all that makes it unique; the Gothic pointed arch combined with the Romanesque walls and the Sicilian mosaics.4
The etching features an astounding level of tonality for an etching, as the medium is typically suited to uniform lines and tones. In order to achieve the contrast between the light of the foreground and the darkness in the background, Haig would have adjusted the number and style of lines used. The apse, for example, is dominated by cross-hatching, in which horizontal and vertical lines are overlaid. The denser the crosshatching, the darker the resulting printed lines. Additionally, Haig also employed the stopping-out process, in which the etched plate is exposed to acid multiple times to differentially bite certain lines so that they vary in tone. This is most obvious in the subtle tones of the light entering through the window in the upper-right of the print, which would have been achieved with over five separate bites.
Haig’s skill for depicting masonry and the intricacies of architectural design are unparalleled.5 Although the etching does feature worshippers crowded in the nave of the cathedral, it is the building that most captures the audience’s attention. The high walls and vaulted ceilings of the Romanesque style, and later the pointed arches of the Gothic style, were meant to shock and astound, in order to force the audience to contemplate the grandeur of the divine. So too in this etching are those feelings of awe present, conveyed through Haig’s masterful use of detail and tone.
1 Illustrated Catalogue of Etchings by Axel Herman Haig (New York City: American Art Association, 1919), 142.
2 Joseph Mordaunt Crook and C. Lennox-Boyd, Axel Haig and the Victorian Vision of the Middle Ages (Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 19.
3 Ibid., 20.
4 Illustrated Catalogue, 142.
5 Crook and Lennox-Boyd, 24.