In the Catholic Church, today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, a day we commemorate Christ’s desire to remain with us always in the Eucharist.
This special feast began centuries ago in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. The story is somewhat lengthly, and I think I’ll save it for another time. Today, I wanted to write about the town of Orvieto and it’s great Cathedral, two of my favorite places to visit in all of Italy.
Several years ago, I was leading a tour of Italy, and many close friends were on the trip. We visited the usual tourist sites, and after leaving Assisi and heading south to Rome, I built into the itnerary a visit to Orvieto. As we were leaving, someone came up to me and said something like, “My whole life I’ve heard about Florence, Pisa, Assisi and Rome. I can’t believe no one ever told me about Orvieto.” Once you go there, you’re hooked!
Orvieto is situated on the flat summit of a large butte of volcanic tuffa. The site of the city is one of the most dramatic in Europe, rising above the almost vertical faces of the tuffa cliffs. Since there is very little car traffic allowed in the city center, buses have to stay down in the valley below. To reach the city, you have to travel on a funincula, a kind of tram that hugs the mountain as it goes up to the top.
You may recall the song Funincula Funinculi. The story goes that, at one time, these kinds of trams were operated by people pulling ropes that lifted the tram either up or down. I always get it mixed up, but I think funincula meant going up, and funinculi meant heading down. I can’t imagine the strength that was necessary to get these people movers up and down.
Back to the Cathedral. To me, it’s facade is one of the most beautiful in the world. Done primarily in mosaic, the artist used a lot of glass pieces that must have been gold -leafed on the back, because when the sun hits the cathedral, it’s like a thousand lightbulbs going off. Remarkable.
The cornerstone was laid by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290, and the magnificent church was completed in the mid fifteenth century. The walls are striped in white travertine and greenish-black basalt, in narrow bands. This was the first church I had ever seen this style, and it is striking. This great cathedral was built to commemorate the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. The pope at the time, who verified the miracle himself, later asked St. Thomas Aquinas to write songs to commemorate the event, and he produced two pieces that are still sung on a regular basis in Catholic Churches all over the world, O Salutaris, and Tantum Ergo.
There are two main things to see in the cathedral. One is the chapel of the miracle, and the other is the Brizi Chapel, which houses one of the great frescoes of the Renaiassance, the masterpiece by Lucca Signorelli known as the Last Judgement. I think this fresco is one of the greatest works of art I have ever seen, and I could sit for hours in this small chapel and take in the artistic drama and mastery captured there. It is no wonder that historians say that this is where Michaelangelo came for inspiration before painting the Sistine Chapel.
Any photograph can’t really caputure the powerful imagery on these four walls of the chapel. One day, I hope you’ll have the chance to see it for yourself in Orvieto. In the meantime, there are Signorelli paintings in museums all over the world, including one right here in Baltimore. If you can find one, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.