On any showing, Orvieto cathedral is one of the most interesting, and unique cathedrals in all the world. In 1290, Pope Nicholas IV laid the cornerstone for the building of this cathedral, originally designed to be a Romanesque basilica, using white marble and black basalt (hence the zebra look on the sides and back of the cathedral), as was so often the case, the cathedral was developed and added to over many centuries. Its front face and interior took on more of a Italian ornate Gothic style.
I could spend days just describing the front facade of this cathedral. In the picture immediately above we have the whole story of creation carved in stone. Meanwhile, on the right side of the cathedral we have the whole story of redemption and final judgment carved in stone.
The construction of the cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary (Santa Maria Assunta), lasted almost three centuries with the design and style evolving from Romanesque to Gothic as construction progressed. Here is the Wiki description of the many stages of construction of this amazing building: “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.”
You will notice I have not even mentioned the inside of the cathedral or its famous Chapel of the Apocalypse. We will save that for a further post