The extraordinary cathedral of Orvieto, the exterior

Last month I paid a visit to this incredible church. I spent the night in Orvieto, with a room with a view of the church, so I could see it in all times of day. The bonus was I was there in December, so I also got to view it through the prism of Christmas lights.

Orvieto Cathedral (aka the Duomo di Orvieto and/or Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta) is a large 14th-century Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

The building owes its existence to a 13th century miracle. It was constructed under the orders of Pope Urban IV to commemorate and provide a suitable home for the Corporal of Bolsena, the relic of miracle which is said to have occurred in 1263 in the nearby town of Bolsena, when a traveling priest who had doubts about the truth of transubstantiation found that his Host was bleeding so much that it stained the altar cloth. The cloth is now stored in the Chapel of the Corporal inside the cathedral.

Situated in a position dominating the town of Orvieto which sits perched on a volcanic plug, the cathedral’s façade is a classic piece of religious construction, containing elements of design from the 14th to the 20th century, with a large rose window, golden mosaics and three huge bronze doors, while inside resides two frescoed chapels decorated by some of the best Italian painters of the period with images of Judgment Day. The cathedral has five bells, dating back to Renaissance, tuned in E flat.

The construction of the cathedral lasted almost three centuries with the design and style evolving from Romanesque to Gothic as construction progressed. The flagstone of the cathedral was laid on 13 November 1290 by Pope Nicholas IV, and construction was entrusted to chief-mason Fra Bevignate di Perugia using a design by Arnolfo di Cambio (the architect of the cathedral of Florence).

The cathedral was initially designed as a Romanesque basilica with a nave and two side aisles. However, when Giovanni di Uguccione succeeded Fra Bevignate, the design was transformed into Italian Gothic forms.

Construction continued slowly until, in 1309, the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani was commissioned to solve several issues concerning the load-bearing capabilities of the building, especially of the choir. He substantially changed the design and construction of the building, increasing the similarity of the building to Siena Cathedral. The architecture of both buildings sometimes is classified as a substyle of Gothic architecture: Siennese Gothic style.

Maitani strengthened the external walls with flying buttresses, which proved later to be useless. These buttresses were eventually included in the walls of the newly built transept chapels. He rebuilt the apse into a rectangular shape and added a large stained-glass quadrifore window.

Starting in 1310 he created the current façade up to the level of the bronze statues of the symbols of the Evangelists. He also added much of the interior. He died in 1330, shortly before the completion of the cathedral, succeeded by his sons.

In 1347 Andrea Pisano, the former Master of the Works of the Florence Cathedral, was appointed the new Master of the Works. He was followed in 1359 by Andrea di Cione, better known as Orcagna. The beautiful mosaic decoration and the rose window are attributed to him.

The rose window is the most important stained glass window of a cathedral made in the Gothic era. This once octagon-based design was replaced by Orcagna with the new 22-sided polygon. This type of geometrical base is uncommon in Gothic architecture. Due to the windows unusual shape, statistical and geometric techniques were used to achieve a symmetrical design.

The Sienese architect Antonio Federighi continued the decoration of the façade between 1451 and 1456, adding some Renaissance modules. In 1503 Michele Sanmicheli finished the central gable and added the right spire, which was finished by Antonio da Sangallo, Junior in 1534.

Final touches to the façade were made by Ippolito Scalza by adding the right pinnacle in 1590 and the left in 1605–1607. All in all, the succeeding architects kept a stylistic unity to the façade.

The Gothic façade of the Orvieto Cathedral is one of the great masterpieces of the Late Middle Ages. The three-gable design is attributed to Maitani, who had clearly undergone some influence by the design scheme for the façade in Tuscan Gothic style of the Siena Cathedral by Giovanni Pisano (1287–1297) and the plan for façade of the Florence Cathedral by Arnolfo di Cambio (1294–1302).

The most exciting and eye-catching part is its golden frontage, which is decorated by large bas-reliefs and statues with the symbols (Angel, Ox, Lion, Eagle) of the Evangelists created by Maitani and collaborators (between 1325 and 1330) standing on the cornice above the sculptured panels on the piers. In 1352 Matteo di Ugolino da Bologna added the bronze Lamb of God above the central gable and the bronze statue of Saint Michael on top of the gable of the left entrance.

The bas-reliefs on the piers depict biblical stories from the Old and New Testament. They are considered among the most famous of all 14th-century sculpture. These marbles from the fourteenth and fifteenth century are the collective and anonymous work of at least three or four masters with assistance of their workshops, It is assumed that Maitani must have worked on the reliefs on the first pier from the left, as work on the reliefs began before 1310. The installation of these marbles on the piers began in 1331. They depict from left to right:

Stories of the Old Testament: Book of Genesis
the Tree of Jesse with scenes from the Old Testament with messianic prophesies of Redemption.
scenes from the New Testament with below Abraham sleeping: episodes from the lives of Jesus and Mary

Last Judgment: Book of Revelation
Above this decoration are glittering mosaics created between 1350 and 1390 after designs by artist Cesare Nebbia. These original pieces have been replaced and redesigned in the centuries since, particularly in 1484, 1713 and 1842. Most of these mosaic represent major scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, from the “Nativity of Mary” in the lower right gable to the “Coronation of the Virgin Mary” in the topmost gable. One of these glassmakers is recorded as Fra Giovanni Leonardelli.

Central to the mosaics is the large rose window built by the sculptor and architect Orcagna between 1354 and 1380. In the niches above the rose window stand the twelve apostles, while in niches on both sides twelve Old Testament prophets are represented in pairs. Statues in niches is typical for French Gothic cathedrals. It is therefore likely that the sculptors have undergone some influence. Eight statues have been attributed in the records to Nicola de Nuto. The spandrels around the rose window are decorated with mosaics representing the four Doctors of the Church. The frame of the rose window holds 52 carved heads, while the center of the rose window holds a carved head of the Christ.

The newest part of the decoration are the three bronze doors which give access to the entrance of the cathedral. These were finished in 1970 by the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco (1913–1995) depicting mercies from the life of Christ and are surmounted by a sculpture of the Madonna and Child created by Andrea Pisano in 1347.

The cathedral’s side walls, in contrast to the façade, are more simply furnished with alternating layers of local white travertine and blue-grey basalt stone.

The next few pictures were taken from my hotel room. I had a stunning view of the cathedral.

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