In Umbria, one of Italy’s greatest works of art is housed in a very unlikely location. The cathedral built to hold an important religious relic grew into a cathedral blending styles and influences until it became a sight worth seeing – even if you must take a side trip to visit.
In 1263, a monk was traveling through what is now Umbria on his way home from Rome. He was completing a pilgrimage and stopped for mass in Lake Bolsena, very near the town of Orvieto. During the mass, the monk was astounded to see blood drip out of the communion wafers. In fact, so much blood was dropped, it stained the cloth below.
Impressed by such a miracle, Pope Urban IV had the cloth carried to the church at Orvieto. He then honored the event by establishing the sacred holiday of Corpus Domini. The mass is known through history, and one of Raphael’s famous Rooms at the Vatican was painted in a representation of the mass.
The bloodstained communion cloth is an important relic, but the church in Orvieto was an old, falling apart building not necessarily worthy of such importance. The townspeople took many years to make a decision, but in 1290, after 60 years of encouragement by various Popes, the first stone of the new cathedral was laid.
The original basilica was expanded and renovated and soon it began to take on a decidedly gothic appearance. This architectural style blended with the Byzantine and other northern elements until the total effect was softened into the unique style that we today call Italian Gothic.
The Cathedral of Orvieto is considered one of the prime examples of Italian Gothic with spires and arches heavily complimented by stained glass and other elements of design. Like many things that take decades or perhaps centuries to plan and build properly, there is no record of who’s design the church is.
Many believe an obscure monk named Fra’ Bevignate da Perugia was instrumental in designing the cathedral, but recent research shows that perhaps he was simply following instructions and designs left by Arnolfo di Cambio. Arnolfo di Cambio is a Florentine architect much renowned for his works.
The giant façade is simply stunning after winding through narrow allies. A tour through the beautiful building offers more grace and style than you might think possible for such a small town in Umbria.