The History of a Centuries-old Building Site
Origins of the Cathedral of Saint Mary's Assumption
The Cathedral is a sign of the presence of God, as well as of an active and industrious Christian community; it shows the relationship between God and His people's yearning. The bond with the town history and its inhabitants is so strong that still nowadays the Cathedral is Orvieto's very symbol, the monument that most shapes its identity.
In November 1290, with Pope Nicholas IV's blessing, they lay the foundation stone of the Orvieto Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary's Assumption, a majestic project sponsored by both the Bishop's Curia and the Town Council. Orvieto was then in its heyday, a powerful town with a developed political and institutional structure. Right in that period, under the government of the Seven, the building site of the new cathedral was set directly upon the previous one, a smaller cathedral then in ruins, called Saint Mary de Episcopatu (“by the Bishop's Palace”). The foreman entrusted with its construction was Brother Bevignate – the one who also worked on the Great Fountain in Perugia – together with the art supervisor, Ramo di Paganello.
Lorenzo Maitani's Building Site
In 1310, twenty years after the job had been started, the project passed to Lorenzo Maitani (1275 - 1330), one of the greatest sculptors and architects at that time. He would make radical and definitive structural changes: a strongly Gothic space, a Latin-cross-shaped building whose wings include two big, important chapels, and a tricuspidal (three-vertex) façade. He remained the foreman until his death in 1330.
The history of the Orvieto Cathedral does not only include artists and buyers, but also all those people, workers and craftsmen, who day by day shared in the raising of the church. We can still imagine that living site, the town's working core: a place filled with construction materials, where the workers' chatting merged with the fire crackling from the furnaces of the glass-makers, as well as the din from the tools of carvers and stone breakers, blacksmiths and carpenters.The building grew with the aid of everybody, under the leadership of the foreman, Lorenzo Maitani. After him, during the two following centuries, many others from all over Italy would take on the same role, until the work was completed
Decorating the Orvieto Cathedral
The Cathedral façade is a visual narrative that recounts the History of Salvation, well visible in a mix of architecture, sculptures, and mosaics. One's eyes are led toward “heaven” by vertical lines stressed by the four main pillars, the cusps, and the steeples. Verticality is counterbalanced by the horizontal lines that separate the different levels. Looking bottom to top, you will, first of all, admire the three huge and deep gates, whose splays and arches house thin spiral pillars decorated with different kinds of marble.
In the areas between the gates lie the basements of the main pillars, covered with marble slates and embellished with low reliefs that are among the most important specimens in Italian Gothic sculpture. By showing episodes of the Old and New Testaments, plus the Last Judgment, they make sort of a sculptured Bible that you may go on examining till you get lost in details.
Above the marble decorations, please have a look at the four bronze statues (actually copies; the original versions are in the Museum) representing the Evangelists by means of the Four Living Beings: an angel (Saint Matthew), a lion (Saint Mark), an eagle (Saint John), a bull (Saint Luke). Statues of Saints stand on the steeples and on the vertexes of the cusps. Horizontally, the façade area is further divided by an exterior gallery with three-lobed arches.
The Rose Window
In posizione centrale campeggia il rosone del Duomo di Orvieto, opera dello scultore fiorentino Andrea di Cione, nicknamed “Orcagna” (1354 - 1380). The circle, inscribed within a square, is internally decorated with small interweaving arches, supported by thin pillars; and in its center, Jesus Christ's face is carved. So, this rose window reveals itself as a powerful symbol of Christian faith: Christ as the core of God's plan for the salvation of humankind. All along the perimeter of the square, 52 stone heads are inserted, belonging to Prophets and Apostles.
The mosaic decoration fills every part in the façade that is not taken up by sculptures. Since the Orvieto Cathedral is dedicated to Virgin Mary, she is the subject matter of decorations. The pictures in fact summarize her story, although – unfortunately – most mosaics have been heavily reworked during the centuries. The only original work left had been designed by Ugolino di Prete Ilario and made into a mosaic by a Franciscan friar, Brother Giovanni Leonardelli, in the second half of the 14th century. In 1890, however, it was sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it is still exhibited.
The Interior of the Orvieto Cathedral
As a theologian and philosopher, Romano Guardini, put it, “A cathedral is not mere architectural space, it is a spatial substance that pulsates and breathes.”
The space inside the Orvieto Cathedral is broad and majestic, a gathering point for art and faith. Like the external sides, the interior is typically decorated with bands in travertine (white) and basalt (gray); it is divided in three naves covered by wood trusses. The space, recalling the ancient Roman basilicas (public halls, not churches), is made solemn by the vertical dynamics of the walls, the ten central pillars, and the light effects from the alabaster sheets in the windows. Each visible architectural element leads one's soul upward. The floor is in red limestone from Prodo (a place near Orvieto).
The side naves are made livelier by two sets of five semicircular chapels. In the left nave, especially to be admired is a 1423 fresco by a famous painter, Gentile da Fabriano (1370 - 1427), showing Virgin Mary enthroned, together with a smiling Infant Jesus, who grasps one of his mother's fingers in an attitude of moving tenderness.
In the years 1370-1380 the apse was frescoed by Ugolino di Prete Ilario with episodes from Virgin Mary's life. Quite striking are the colors projected by the light from the big central window, dating back to 1334; it consists of 44 glass panels, the work of Giovanni di Bonino. The heads of the transept house the two most important chapels: the Chapel of the Corporal and the Chapel of Saint Brizio.
The Chapel of the Corporal
In this chapel they keep the relic of the Holy Corporal, that is, a linen cloth stained by true blood drops that fell from a consecrated wafer during a Mass in the town of Bolsena in 1263. The officiating priest was thinking, right then, he was not completely sure that that was Christ's real Body. The story of this miracle is reported on the walls, in the frescoes made – again – by Ugolino di Prete Ilario in 1357-1364. But the most precious work of art here is the reliquary made by a goldsmith, Ugolino di Vieri, in 1337.
The Chapel of Saint Brizio
This chapel is dedicated to a bishop who also is Orvieto's patron saint. It exhibits some of the most surprising examples of 15th century Italian painting. The vault was entirely frescoed by Fra Angelico between 1447 and 1449, while the walls were frescoed by Luca Signorelli in the years 1449-1504 with scenes of the Last Judgment. They influenced Michelangelo.
Piazza del Duomo, 26, 05018 Orvieto TR
Da Novembre a Febbraio 9:30-17:00
Marzo e Ottobre: 9:30 - 18:00
Da Aprile a Settembre: 9:30 - 19:00
Domenica e feste di precetto
Da Novembre a Febbraio: 13:00-16:30
Da Marzo a Ottobre: 13:00-17:30