The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, better known as the Orvieto Cathedral, is located in Orvieto, in the province of Terni, and probably represents the greatest masterpiece of Gothic architecture of Central Italy. Today, we will retrace the history and legends that accompanied its construction, guiding you in an exciting journey between art and faith that is definitely worth your while.
The cathedral that was born thanks to a miracle.
According to popular tradition, in the summer of 1263, a priest from Bohemia was tormented by doubt, not sure if the body and blood of Christ were present in the consecrated Host, as it was affirmed in the Scriptures. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, trying to strengthen his faith which had began to waver.
After the pilgrimage, on his way back, the priest stopped in Bolsena, in the Basilica of Santa Cristina, to celebrate mass. At the moment of the consecration, according to legend, the broken Host began to ooze blood, which bathed the linen cloth used in liturgical functions, called the corporal.
Upon hearing the news, Pope Urban IV, who resided in Orvieto, sent a bishop to Bolsena to bring the relic of the corporal to the Church of Santa Maria.
The Orvieto Cathedral, which at the time was merely a ruin, did not seem worthy to keep a relic of such importance, so much so that the Pope decided to erect a building beautiful, that would worthily guard the corporal: the Orvieto Cathedral.
This is the legend which we report as it has been handed down over the centuries. The fact is that the Episcopal Church of Orvieto was in such a terrible state, that, for years, no important ceremonies were held there. Hence, the need to erect a new cathedral became more and more pressing until the 13th of November 1290, when the first stone was laid during a lavish ceremony.
Orvieto Cathedral: story of a long construction.
The impressive cathedral, which stands majestically in the Orvieto square, still is considered as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the late Italian Middle Ages, with numerous references to the great European cathedrals and, specifically, explicit references to the French Gothic.
The project of the cathedral was probably designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (although we have no certainty), and the direction of the work was entrusted to Fra Bevignate from Perugia, followed by Giovanni di Uguccione, who was responsible for the introduction of the first Gothic forms.
In the early 14th century, the leadership of the work was entrusted to Benedetto Maitani, Sienese architect, which designed the façade that we see today.
The construction of the Orvieto Cathedral lasted centuries, during which many master builders such as architect-sculptors were involved. Each of them contributed to make it as spectacular as it still appears:
- The Chapel of the Corporal was built between 1350-1356 to preserve the relic of the miracle of Bolsena.
- The Chapel of San Brizio was built between 1408 and 1440 (the foundation stone of the Cathedral was laid the day that celebrated the solemnity of this saint).
- The façade was completed in the mid-16th century by Ippolito Scalza.
In a construction period of about 300 years, many were the changes in taste that alternated, and all were more or less etched in the architecture and decoration of the Cathedral. At the end of the 19th century, it was even decided to remove the Baroque decorations, to return the Cathedral to its original beauty.
Visit the Cathedral: everything you need to know.
The cathedral, already at a first glance, looks majestic and richly decorated. In the piazza, it stands out as a “cathedral in the desert” and you could satisfy your desire for beauty just by admiring its façade, decorated with magnificent mosaics on a gold background, which present different shades depending on the time of day (at sunset the show is really lovely). It is surmounted by spires which seem to want to touch the sky.
Upon entering the Cathedral, it is impossible not to be impressed by the contrast between the splendour of the exterior and the three austere aisles that make up the cathedral: three huge white spaces separated by tall columns of basalt and travertine that recall the external side walls, contributing even more to make us perceive the vastness and the sacredness of the place.
Usually, the cathedral is full of visitors, but if you’re lucky enough to visit it alone, you will be overwhelmed by the atmosphere that you breathe and enjoy in peace the wonderful floor of cosmatesque style, the frescoes of the apse and chapels of the corporal and San Brizio, which houses frescoes by artists such as Beato Angelico and Luca Signorelli.
The Orvieto Cathedral (including the Chapel of San Brizio and the Cathedral treasure), can be visited every day:
- From November to February, from 9:30 to 13:00 and from 14:30 to 17:00
- In March and October, from 9:30 to 18:00
- From April to September, from 9.30 to 19:00
On Sundays and established holy days, the cathedral can only be visited during the afternoon.