Who knew that the Orvieto cathedral would be one of the most beautiful ones we’ve ever seen? This is so especially from our point of view where we are looking for Medieval and early Renaissance fresco decorated churches. It is hard for any church to compete with the shining splendor of the mosaics of St. Mark’s in Venice or Monreale in Sicily. But in the non-mosaic cathedral category Duomo di Orvieto is tops!
There is no driving in Orvieto unless you have a special permit so we park below and take 4 escalators, a moving walkway, and an elevator up to the old city. It is a lovely city – clean, with flowers hanging out of balcony baskets. There are lots of little lanes with small shops selling artisanal wares. Even a non-shopper such as myself stopped in one of the stores.
We pass by an old looking church so of course we stop in. It is the Church of Sant’Andrea (St. Andrew.) Built in the 12th century on top of an Etruscan house and later an earlier medieval church, it still has some wonderful early frescoes.
Two frescoes that we enjoyed are first, a fresco of St. Julian with his poor parents that he stabbed by mistake and second, a fresco of St. Anthony the Abbot with his devil pig nipping at his heels.
This is one of my favorite pictures of our whole trip. Sarah noticed a stream of light coming in through one of the windows so she sat down an assumed her best Annunciation pose.
After exploring St. Andrew’s we head off in search of the Duomo. You don’t even see it until the last second. You are in a dark lane and then, wow, you walk out into a sunlit piazza with this magnificent structure in front of you. The front facade is so amazing that you could spend hours just looking at it!
After buying a combo ticket for the Duomo, the Diocesan Museum, and the Archeological museum, we step inside. Again, wow, what a space! There are some frescoes on the side walls and an old baptismal font but the really amazing frescoes are in the side chapels near the front and the whole altar area.
Near the back of the church is the large baptismal font which was begun in 1390 by Luca di Giovanni and completed in 1407 by Pietro di Giovanni.
Above the baptismal font is a beautiful fresco in International Gothic style of the “Madonna Enthroned with Child” painted by Gentile da Fabriano in 1425. I love his work in the Uffizi of the Adoration of the Magi. So much gold!
One of the chapels in the cathedral is known as the Cappella del Corporale. It was built between 1350 and 1356 to house the stained linen of the Miracle of Bolsena. (That’s where we had lunch our first full day in Italy on our trip from Viterbo to Siena!) In 1263 a consecrated host allegedly began to bleed onto the cloth which the host and chalice rest on during Mass. The appearance of blood was seen as a miracle to affirm transubstantiation. Moreover it is said the dots of blood outlined the visage of Jesus. This is a miracle that the Roman Catholic Church says you can believe or not but there were plenty of believers here today in Orvieto.
The chapel is decorated with frescoes depicting on the left wall the history of the Eucharist and on the right wall miracles concerning the bleeding host throughout church history. They were painted between 1357 and 1363.
Moving on from this fabulous side chapel we approach the main altar. Here are decorations, some damaged by age, of the life of Mary on all three sides. These frescoes were painted around 1370.
And if this isn’t enough, there is another chapel, the Cappella Nuova or new chapel. After a number of false starts in the 1400’s the decoration was completed by Luca Signorelli in the early 16th century and is considered some of his greatest work. We are a little taken aback by all the naked people depicted but in the name of religion I guess this was all okay.
After our extensive viewing of the cathedral we stop in the Museum of the Cathedral. Most major churches in Italy have a museum. It is where they put a lot of the old artwork which is no longer fashionable or is not needed in the church. Among other works we see early woodcuts and the iconic figure of Mary Magdalene that is printed on the tickets and seen on posters around Orvieto.
We have had a very busy morning and early afternoon and it is time for a little sit-down and some lunch. Giorgio from the hotel has recommended a nearby restaurant, La Pergola. He says the food is like home cooking. We enjoy it.
After lunch we spend a little time basking in the sun in the piazza across from the Cathedral. The church is so beautiful and the facade so detailed that you can spend a considerable amount of time just looking at it. So we do.
Our next stop is at the deconsecrated 13th century Sant’Agostino church. It is now part of the museum complex. It houses large scale sculptures of the Apostles, Saints, and an Annunciation group made between the late sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries which used to reside in the duomo. Since this is not in our wheelhouse of interest, no one took pictures. The one shown here is off the internet.
Our final visit of the day is at Chiesa di San Giovenale or St. Juvenal. He is a saint we haven’t heard of. He was the first bishop of Narni in Umbria during the 4th century. There are conflicting reports of whether he was a martyr or merely a confessor. His legend suggests that he saved Narni from invaders by calling down a divine thunderstorm. He was removed from the Catholic Calendar in 1969.
Nonetheless he has a pretty wonderful church in Orivieto. We are met at the church by an elderly priest who speaks no English but he is quite eager to show us around and sell John a book about the church. He proudly lifts up the altar cloth so we can see a carved date of 1171 but the church is older than that. It is said to have been built in 1004 on an Etruscan temple dedicated to Jupiter. There are a lot of great old frescoes in here. It appears that the oldest ones are on the upper columns and detail the life of Christ. The first one on the right from the main door is of the Annunciation and the last one is the Crucifixion.
As you can imagine by now we are very tired from our big day of sightseeing so we cap it off by getting lost getting back to the parking lot. Finally John approaches an elderly man and asks for help. A great conversation of Italian/English ensues with another guy getting involved. Finally the first one decides that he’ll have to walk us back to where we can see the parking lot and find our way back. This includes a lot of climbing up and down hills but mostly down. What a nice guy to do all this for us!
By the time we are on our way back to our hotel no one wants to go out to dinner so we stop at the adverbially oddly named Simply Market and buy salami, cheese, crackers, and wine and have a picnic in our room for dinner.