22 Sep,2017 By jagabond
My first question was – what in the name of the Lord is this ginormous church doing here?
Orvieto is a small hilltop town north of Rome. It’s significantly more active than most small towns due to rampant tourism. Scores of day-trippers flock here to sample the Orvieto Classico wine, admire views from the hill, and experience one of Europe’s most incredible cathedrals.
The cathedral dominates the atmosphere and personality of Orvieto. So why is this magnificent building residing in such a modest town? It’s a miracle…literally. I will discuss in more detail below.
Unless the August sun has blinded you, it’s impossible to miss the predominant feature of the Orvieto Cathedral. This gothic masterpiece began construction in the 14th century.
Getting a full picture of the façade is the easy part, whereas you need a quality zoom lens to capture many of the other intricacies. There are four marble pillars that, from left to right, tell the story of man’s creation to his final judgement. The first pillar shows depictions from the Old Testament, most notably Adam and Eve’s life-changing encounter with the serpent.
2. Bronze doors
These make for a dramatic entrance, as you are using angels as door handles. The main door in the center highlights various scenes in the life of Christ and Mary. The architects and artists did a great job making these look like original parts of the façade. In reality, the doors are the most recent addition to the cathedral.
3. Chapel of the Corporal
The highlight on the interior of the Orvieto Cathedral is the twin chapels on either side of the altar. The most famous is the Chapel of the Corporal, as it houses the miracle for which the cathedral was built. In this case the word ‘corporal’ isn’t the military term, but refers to the cloth upon which the communion is placed during Catholic mass.
As the story goes, a priest in the nearby town of Bolsena doubted the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. During a service he was officiating, the bread began to bleed on the corporal, leaving red spots that vaguely resembled the face of Christ. The Chapel of the Corporal proudly displays this miracle, and the bloody cloth is paraded around town annually at the Feast of Corpus Christi.
The Orvieto Cathedral was originally built to honor this miracle, thus explaining why so much money and artistic talent was expended for its construction.
Frescoes elegantly cover the chapel walls. One in particular highlights vividly the ‘martyred mayor’. Pietro Parenzo became mayor of Orvieto by decree from the Pope, and quickly rose in popularity only to be murdered by heretics in 1199.
4. Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio
Luca Signorelli is responsible for painting many of the frescoes adorning this chapel. His artistic theme for the chapel was the apocalypse, so of course the images are quite dark and unsettling. It starts with the ‘Sermon of the Antichrist’ where a figure resembling Jesus is preaching while a demon whispers into his ear. What follows tells the story of natural disasters bringing about the end of the world, and angels resurrecting humans for their final judgement and placement into heaven or hell.
Signorelli also painted the Lamentation of Christ shown below, with the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene joined by two saints from Orvieto.
5. ‘Striped’ stone
Around the exterior of the cathedral and throughout the interior is a unique stone design. Builders placed locally found basalt and travertine rock in alternating rows to give this striped appearance. A simple concept, but very novel compared to other churches in Europe.
6. Baptismal font
As a reminder of baptism, Catholic churches typically have a holy water basin near the entrance. Some are humble, others not so much. Consider this the latter, with its exquisite blend of red and white marble.
7. Mary motif
The cathedral was dedicated to the ascension of Mary, so it’s no surprise her image is found here more than normal. Highlights include a marble statue showing Mary and Christ, the crowning of Mary shown at the top of the façade, and a more modern depiction of Mary on the altar.
Stained glass windows go with churches like ketchup on french fries. I was thus surprised to see windows of both stained glass and alabaster. The alabaster allows less light in, effectively cooling the inside during those hot Italian summers.
How to get there: Orvieto is one-hour by train from Rome and three-hours from Naples. Exit the train station, cross the street and take the cable car up to the main town. Shuttle buses are available and will drop you off in front of the cathedral.