The extraordinary Orvieto cathedral, interior: overview, apse, and Gentile da Fabriano

Last month I revisited Orvieto. What a delight. I enjoyed the interior as practically the only visitor and, fortuitously, the clergy was preparing for Christmas services, so I got to hear the magnificent organ playing holidays hymns. I will remember this visit for a long, long time to come. Lucky for you, you get to enjoy them too!

Above the entrance of the Chapel of the Corporal stands the cathedral’s large organ, containing 5,585 pipes and originally designed by Ippolito Scalza and Bernardino Benvenuti in the fifteenth century before being redesigned in 1913 and 1975.

Gentile da Fabriano, Madonna Enthroned with Child.
It is overlooked by a fresco in International Gothic style of the “Madonna Enthroned with Child”, a Maestà painted by Gentile da Fabriano in 1425. This is the only fresco saved when the stucco altars were added to the nave chapels in the late 16th century. These altars in turn were destroyed in the 19th century and only fragments of the other 14th- and 15th-century frescoes reappeared. Some of these frescoes are ascribed to Pietro di Puccio (who also painted frescoes in the Camposanto in Pisa).

The apse:

The large stained-glass quadrifore window in the apse was made between 1328 and 1334 by Giovanni di Bonino, a glass master from Assisi. The design was probably made by Maitani. Above the altar hangs a large polychrome wooden crucifix attributed to Maitani.

Construction of the Gothic wooden choir stalls was begun in 1329 by Giovanni Ammannati together with a group of Sienese wood carvers. They stood originally in the center of the nave but were moved to the apse around 1540.

Behind the altar are a series of damaged Gothic frescoes dedicated to the life of the Virgin Mary, occupying the three walls completely. They were created around 1370 by the local artist Ugolino di Prete Ilario and a few collaborators such as Pietro di Puccino, Cola Petruccioli and Andrea di Giovanni. It took them about ten years to finish. This series of frescoes were the largest in Italy at that time. They have been restored every hundred years for several following centuries. Two scenes, the Annunciation and the Visitation, were redone by Antonio del Massaro at the end of the 15th century.

The apse end of the church was cordoned off while I was there, so I couldn’t get a good look or pictures of the paintings. The fresco cycle was beautiful and I longed to get up closer. Alas, these photos will have to suffice.

When I was in Orvieto, the Chapel of the Corporal was cordoned off and I could not view it at all. Since it is the duomo’s raison d’être, I thought I should at least mention it here:

The Cappella del Corporale lies on the north side of the main crossing. It was built between 1350 and 1356 to house the stained corporal of the miracle of Bolsena. It is from this chapel that the reliquary with the corporal is carried in religious processions through the town on the Feast of Corpus Christi. In this Chapel you will find relics from the eucharistic miracle in Bolsena. Some people refer to this miracle as the miracle of Bolsena, because that is where it actually happened. However the relics are kept in this cathedral in Orvieto, because this is where the Pope was at the time. Therefore people can also refer to this miracle as the miracle of Orvieto.

And now, in closing, enjoy some Christmas music in this amazing duomo.

Scalza’s other major contribution to the church is the large Pietà he sculpted in 1579. it took him eight years the carve the four figures in this imposing marble group.

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