I do love a good historical religious story. They usually involve a swelling of intrigue, ceremony, and a fair amount of truth “sculpting”. In Orvieto, Umbria, there is a stunning church, built from 1330 to celebrate an alleged miracle that had the Catholic world abuzz. The story goes like this. In 1263, a passing priest, Peter of Prague, became doubtful about the dogma of transubstantiation (the belief that the communion “host”, or bread, actually transforms into the body of Christ at consecration, or when it’s blessed). During a mass he held in nearby Bolsena, the bread he was blessing “miraculously” began to bleed, running down his arms and onto the alter cloth (or “corporal”).
Bet ol’mate Pete didn’t know that this “miracle” (or perhaps his skin-saving recantation hoax), and the resulting relic would result in one of Italy’s most stunning cathedrals to be built in order to house it, and that the cloth would be paraded around the streets of Orvieto for years to come, and would influence Pope Urban IV to announce the feast of “Corpus Christi”! Talk about a snowball!
The gold and enamel reliquary which once housed the cloth is on display, and the fact such brilliant craftsmanship existed when it was made in 1358, is the true miracle in this story! The “Corporal of Bolsena” now rests in an aqua case in a gorgeous frescoed chapel in the Orvieto Duomo, with paintings showing the bleeding host; the amazed Pope; and crowds falling to their knees in its presence. The chapel opposite, the Chapel of San Brizio, is bright and brilliant and showcases the gruesome horrors that potentially await at Armageddon, as painted by Luca Signorelli, and Avalon’s chosen Confirmation patron saint (well, he’s not officially a saint just yet, but he has been beatified, and she insisted her patron be a painter), Fra Angelico.
The front of the Duomo is stunning – all jagged gothic spires covered in a rainbow of mosaics. To catch that first shimmering glimpse of it after climbing the steep alleys on the hill-tip town is a special moment.
The hill that Orvieto sits atop has a long, rich history, and underground lies a labyrinth of tunnels and caves – over 1200 of them, that have been cut out of the soft tufa rock for the last 3000 years. First the Etruscans used the caves to dig wells deep down into the earth, and for cool food storage; in Medieval times, oil was pressed below ground, and tiny niches were cut into the rock to house pigeons (a popular food source), which would fly in and (if they were lucky) out of their subterranean coops through large rock windows; and then during war time, the space was transformed into a shelter, with underground tunnels leading to the town hospital. Even today, private owners keep their food and wine in cool underground cellars.
We loved St. Patrick’s Well, and the cool 53m climb down into the earth. Built in 1527, with a double helix staircase (check your Science textbook under “DNA”), it would ensure the town would still have water if it ever came under siege. Each staircase (so if you DIDN’T check your textbooks, there are two of them, curving side by side) is wide enough for a donkey to travel carrying buckets to collect the water (they had MUCH cleverer donkeys in the 1500’s) and bring it back up to the surface. With most days here at the moment being hot and dry, the well offered sweet respite, and looking down to the pool of water below, now glittering with coin offerings, and up to the sunlight from the bottom, all illuminated by 72 windows along the well shaft, was fabulous.
We also found a special Trattoria for dinner “Antico Bucchero” in the centre of town, where the girls shared wild boar tagliatelle and osso buco, and all of our meals were home-cooked, simple and delicious.
Thank you bleeding bread. You’ve made Orvieto into a very special place indeed!