As I’ve mentioned several times, Orvieto’s claim to fame is its incredibly beautiful Duomo. I thought you might be interested in knowing how the town got to have such a fabulous tourist site. I will warn you right here that if someone with a religious background were telling the story, it would probably be slightly different from my secular version, but here goes….
It seems the hierarchy of the Church was always having arguments about nit-picky points of dogma, and at this particular time (1263), it was about transubstantiation, or the idea that the bread and wine offered during communion turned into the body and blood of Christ. Of course, the Pope, Urban IV, was on the side of the miraculous body and blood, since any kind of unexplained phenomena just served to strengthen his position.
At the time, there was a traveling priest who had stopped to give mass in the lakeside town of Bolsena, about 20 miles from Orvieto. This priest hadn’t decided how he felt about the transubstantiation issue, but as he broke the communion bread that day, a red liquid looking suspiciously like blood fell on the alter cloth. He immediately gathered the cloth and hotfooted off to give it to the Pope, who just happened to be staying in Orvieto.
Why was he in Orvieto? Well, back in those days Rome was not the laidback La Dolce Vita place of today, and when church factions weren’t fighting among themselves, you could always count on an outside enemy trying to invade. Orvieto wasn’t that far from Rome, it sits high in the middle of a valley making it difficult for an enemy to sneak up, and it had those wonderfully shear cliffs that would be impossible to climb – particularly if you were wearing a suit of mail or whatever invading armies wore back in those days. It made a perfect spot for hiding out.
When the traveling priest showed up with the exact proof the Pope needed to prove his point, it was naturally declared an official miracle, and a miracle back in those days almost always meant building a church to act as a reminder to those who needed reminding of just who was boss. In this case, it was such an important miracle that the only suitable thing was a cathedral.
As far as I know, there was never a moment’s thought given to the idea of building the grand church or housing the valuable cloth where the miracle had actually occurred – a point I’ve heard the Bolsenese haven’t forgotten. Of course everything had to be where the Pope and his friends regularly hung out.
There would be many, many Popes before the building was complete, with just as many different architects, builders and artists playing their role in the project. The result, however, is absolutely gorgeous – particularly on a day with a vibrant blue sky. The top part of the front is covered in mosaics that use a lot of lapis blue. You know how if someone with gorgeous blue eyes wears the same color, it makes his/her eyes stand out even more? Well, the sky plays the part of the clothing and the mosaics are the eyes that absolutely sparkle.
At ground level are four bas-reliefs of biblical stories. Lorenzo Maitani, who is credited with designing the front of the building, is also credited with having a hand in at least 1 or 2 of these intricately carved marble panels. Talk about creative genius back in those days! Being talented in only one discipline was just not enough. My favorite panel is Genesis on the left, which has a great scene of Eve floating out of Adam’s side…..although I sometimes like to think of it as Adam appearing from the bottom of Eve’s feet.
After all the eye-popping dazzle of the façade, you’re thrown off balance for a few seconds when you finally enter. It’s incredibly stark….the walls and columns continuing with the gray and cream stone stripes that form the outside of the church. However, when you get up to the apse, it and its two side chapels once again dazzle. But those stories will have to wait for another day.
For now, I think the lesson to be learned here is: if you can’t have your own miracle, it pays to be the place where the Pope feels safe and likes to hang out.