Plus, it was threatening to rain. And while our driver, Fabrizio, seemed capable and friendly, his English was only slightly better than our Italian, and our Italian added up to a big fat niente. Nothing. Zero. It was going to be a long day.
The outskirts of Rome are not scenic. We drove for quite a while before I was willing to think we might be trading up for our next destination in Umbria. And, frankly, the outskirts of Orvieto were not all that promising, either. It wasn’t until we began climbing and winding up, up, up the hill that I stopped sulking and started paying attention to what was ahead of us.
Fabrizio entered an undistinguished parcheggio and, in the universal language of hand gestures, pointed the direction we were to walk into town. I had done niente in the way of homework on Orvieto, so as we came to the end of the road into the Piazza del Duomo, our eyes were as big as piatti and any stray mosche could have flown into our wide-open mouths.
Wow! That is some cathedral!The fact that much of the cathedral’s facade is currently under scaffolding (hence the Wikipedia image) does not in the least detract from its majesty. We didn’t just fall off the turnip truck of church gawkers, after all – we’d just spent a week in Rome! We were pros! And yet, fly-trap mouths all around.
The distant view in the Wikipedia image belies the duomo’s most striking feature: the ribbon-striped pattern of the facade:The cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV but it took more than three hundred years for the project to be completed, and the bronze entrance doors were not finished until 1970. Known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, it is widely considered to be one of the most cherished masterpieces of Italian medieval architecture. We shook the rain from our coats and entered the cathedral, initially overwhelmed by the cavernous interior.
Was this one of those cathedrals that was all packaging and no gift inside? Not at all. As we drew forward, we saw the entrances to the church’s two cappelle on either side. We turned first to right and entered the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio, dominated by the stunning frescoes by artist Luca Signorelli, who took over the project from famed Renaissance figure Fra Angelico. Inspired by the imagery of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the frescoes, painted 1499-1503, are said to have influenced Michelangelo’s triumph of the Sistine Chapel.
The exquisite chapel on the left side of the cathedral, (where a pesky tour guide loudly ignored the posted signs requesting Silenzio, Per Favore!) is known as the Chapel of the Blessed Corporal. As the story goes, a doubting priest experienced a miracle while saying Mass in the nearby Italian town of Bolsena in the year 1263. A consecrated communion wafer appeared to drip blood onto the corporal cloth upon which it rested, seemingly affirming the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is central to the Christian faith and states that the bread and wine of the communion ritual become the body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration during the Mass.
The miracle is said to have been the impetus for the building of the cathedral, and the corporal, housed in a spectacular reliquary in the chapel, is brought out and paraded through the town every year during the festival of Corpus Christi.
As we exited the chapel and prepared to leave the cathedral, I took a moment to admire the four figures of the Piety, carved from a single block of marble by architect and sculptor Ippolito Scalza, who served for fifty years as capomaestro of the duomo. Italy is rife with spectacular cathedrals, some of which struck me as more preening than divine. Some of the churches we visited seemed more like museums than places of worship. The duomo of Orvieto, though, felt truly sacred; a place that reminds us that God is in the details, and in our lives. Amen.