Orvieto, Part One, the Duomo: God is in the Details

It wasn’t easy to leave Rome. (Who in their right mind would voluntarily leave Rome?)

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 Duomo di Orvieto (wikipedia image)

The Duomo di Orvieto
(wikipedia image)

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 horizontal stripe pattern of black and white marble have led historians to conclude that the duomo was designed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio.

The horizontal stripe pattern of black and white marble have led historians to conclude that the duomo was designed by Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio.

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.

God is truly in the details in the duomo of Orvieto.

God is truly in the details in the facade of the duomo of Orvieto, which is studded with bas reliefs and glass mosaics. (polloplayer photo)

We shook the rain from our coats and entered the cathedral, initially overwhelmed by the cavernous interior.

The interior of the cathedral at Orvieto (polloplayer photo)

The interior of the cathedral at Orvieto (polloplayer photo)


These stained glass windows were magnificent even on a rainy day.

These stained glass windows were magnificent even on a rainy day. (polloplayer photo)

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.

Luca Signorelli filled the chapel with scenes of a Dante-inspired Judgement Day.

Luca Signorelli filled the chapel with scenes of a Dante-inspired Judgement Day. (polloplayer photo)


The chapel takes its name from the icon of the Madonna, a Byzantine-style panel of indeterminate age and attribution.

The chapel takes its name from the icon of the Madonna, a Byzantine-style panel of indeterminate age and attribution. (polloplayer photo)

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.

The reliquary in which the corporal of Bolsena is kept.

The reliquary in which the corporal of Bolsena is kept. (polloplayer photo)


I believe this fresco in the chapel depicts Pope Urban IV who resided in Orvieto at the time of the Miracle of Bolsena and ordered the corporal to be placed in the cathedral.

I believe this fresco in the chapel depicts Pope Urban IV who resided in Orvieto at the time of the Miracle of Bolsena and ordered the corporal to be placed in the cathedral. (polloplayer photo)

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.

The Piety, completed in 1579 by Ippolito Scalza (polloplayer photo)

The Piety, completed in 1579 by Ippolito Scalza (polloplayer photo)

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.

Thank God for Dante, memorialized in the Chapel di San Brizio.

Thank God for Dante, memorialized in the Chapel di San Brizio.

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
This entry was posted in Dante/Divine Comedy, History, Music/Art/Literature/Culture, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Orvieto, Part One, the Duomo: God is in the Details

  1. Jean Gutsche says:

    What gorgeous stained glass and inlays!!

  2. dizzyguy says:

    CE here: The polloplayer photos accurately convey the magnificence of this jewel of a cathedral. No further words necessary.

  3. katherine says:

    ah… thank you for this post. Brought back memories of 25 years ago, landing in Rome with little Italian (I mean few Italian language skills, not Danny Devito), and chancing in Orvieto. Beautiful place. Beautiful descriptions. So glad you had such a great trip – keep up the details and photos!!!

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