I’m about at the end of our relaxing time in Orvieto, but no stop to this hilltop Italian town would be complete without a trip to its Duomo.
The official name of this impressive building is Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, so you’ll understand if I just stick to “Duomo.” From the side, with its black and white stripes, the Duomo sort of looks like the costume designers for Beetlejuice got a hold of it. But once you walk around to the front, you can’t help but have a Wow! moment – especially if you see it for the first time at night when it is nicely lit.
The cathedral was started in 1290 and took about 60 years to complete, with some additional work done in the 1400s and 1500s on the facade and spires. When you first walk in (after buying your very inexpensive ticket), you can’t help but think, “Gee, golly this is big. And bare.” The Orvietans (thankfully) decided they wanted to “de-Baroque” their church and so removed much of the gaudy nicknacks, leaving a nice open space to wander and gawk.
And the church really isn’t as big as it looks. The clever architect, realizing he simply didn’t have the space for a ginormous cathedral, designed the building so it’s wider at the back (the altar end) than the front (the entrance end) creating an optical illusion that makes the building look far vaster than it really is.
At the altar end (apse) of the Duomo you’ll see frescoes painted by a local artist in 1370, a huge organ with over 5,500 pipes (according to Wikipedia…I didn’t count them myself), and stained glass dating from around 1330. To the left of the apse is the Chapel of the Corporal with some lovely frescoes dating from the mid- to late 1300s. This chapel houses an altar cloth said to have become stained with blood when a priest said he doubted the truth of bread and wine truly becoming Jesus’s body during the Eucharist. Or maybe he was just clumsy with the communion bread knife?
Although the Chapel of the Corporal is where the religious pilgrims head to when they visit the Duomo, most tourists make a beeline straight for the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio. What’s the big deal about this chapel? Naked people, whores, violence, and angels that shoot laser beams from their eyes!!
Don’t believe me? Well, it’s no Scorsese flick, but the frescoes in the chapel show a highly detailed, very colorful version of the Apocalypse painted by Luca Signorelli in 1500. Before you take a peek at the pictures, keep in mind that he completed all of these in only three years!
The story starts with the Antichrist preaching to a crowd that includes Raphael, Caesar Borgia, Christopher Columbus, and even Signorelli himself with Far Angelico. The next panel shows the end of the world, followed up by the resurrection as the dead rise from their graves (zombies!!). Additional panels show folks (zombies included) being sorted and to hell (the damned) or to heaven (the non-damned). When Signorelli first painted this scene, everyone was naked, but people got a bit prudish about that in the 1700-1800s so little sashes were painted over everyone’s loins. Some of this prudishness has been removed with the sashes of the damned being carefully removed (the non-damned got to keep their loins covered).
When you need to give your neck a break from looking up at the frescoes, you can check out the paintings along the walls of writers such as Dante, Homer, and Ovid…and even a painting of Signorelli gazing up at his own work.
When buying your ticket to the Duomo, you have the option of a combo ticket for just a couple euro more that gets you into the Papal Palace and the Palazzo dell’Opera del Duomo (both just next door to the Duomo). The Papal Palace has a museum of Emilio Greco works, which you may want to skip if you’re rushed for time (unless you’re a huge Greco fan), but the Palazzo dell’Opera is a hidden treasure trove of underground passageways, secret chapels, and many pieces of art some of which are in a very delicate state of preservation.
Alright everyone, that is it for our time in Orvieto and now it’s time to wish you all a very Merry Christmas.
Oh, and if anyone was wondering how the “office party” went, well, here you go….