Orvieto and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Orvieto atop a butte

The town of Orvieto is an Etruscan city located in the scenic region of Umbria, between Firenze (Florence) and Roma (Rome).

I first visited the medieval town of Orvieto in 2002, and again in 2006.  It’s the eucharistic miracle which is preserved there that I want to tell you about today—but first, let me tell you a little about this picturesque little town.

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Getting Up There – Orvieto sits atop a volcanic rock, on a high butte overlooking the plain; and our group rode a funicular, a hillside train, from the valley below.  The original funicular, with its water ballast counter-balanced cabin, was replaced in modern times by an automatic line.  There is no driver aboard the cabin—just a single operator who manages the computerized system from the upper station.

Troubled History: A City Under Siege – The citizens of medieval Orvieto thought they were safe, up there on that butte.  When attacked by other groups, they could fend them off, hurling arrows or axes or rocks over the cliff.  What they weren’t prepared for, though, was a long siege.  On their fertile butte they could grow corn and other crops, even raise cattle and chickens; but they descended to the valley to get their water.

When many of the town’s citizens died of dehydration following a long siege by the Romans, the people of Orvieto conceived the idea of a deep well.  Utilizing a double helix staircase St. Patrick’s Well, as it was named, descended from the upper plain 248 steps to the water level.  Families maintained narrower artesian wells, down which they could drop a bucket to retrieve water for drinking, cooking and bathing.  In the walls of the deep wells, the Etruscans dug holes which served as dovecotes, encouraging pigeons to nest. At dinnertime, the enterprising Etruscans simply reached into the well, pulled a dove out of the nest—and enjoyed the bird roasted.

Popes In Residence – Orvieto, securely situated and not too far from Rome, was a place of refuge for five popes during the 13th century:  Urban IV, Gregory X, Martin IV, Nicholas IV and Boniface VIII.  Orvieto’s Palazzo Soliano, the palace of the popes in that city, contains many well-preserved frescoes from 1290 and earlier.

A Crisis of Faith, and a Miracle – Pope Urban IV was in residence at Orvieto in 1263 when a German priest, Peter of Prague, had a crisis of faith.  The priest was devout, but found it difficult to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  He was en route to Rome and stopped at the Italian city of Bolsena, where he celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Christina.  As he spoke the words of the Consecration, blood began to seep from the consecrated Host and trickle over his hands and onto the altar and the corporal.

Shocked, the priest immediately traveled to nearby Orvieto, where Pope Urban listened to his story.  The pope asked that the Host and the bloodstained cloth be brought to him in the cathedral.  Pope Urban and a number of cardinals and Church dignitaries greeted the procession and had the relics enshrined in the Cathedral at Orvieto.  The stained corporal bearing the spots of blood is still displayed there, in a golden reliquary in the Chapel of the Corporal.

Eucharistic Hymns for the Ages – Pope Urban, deeply affected by this miracle, commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office honoring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ.  The hymns which St. Thomas wrote included the traditional hymns still widely used in Benediction:  the Pange Lingua (with its concluding verses, the Tantum Ergo), the Panis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia.

One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced Aquinas’ composition and issued a papal bull instituting the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ).


Get them while you can:  Milan’s Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nascente, is putting its 135 gargoyles up for adoption.

Italy’s “culture budget” is smaller this year; but the Duomo requires essential maintenance, even in a lean economy.  The gargoyle adoption program is an effort to protect the world’s fourth-largest cathedral and, as Cathedral management has stated, to encourage the Milanese and citizens of the world to be protagonists in the history of the cathedral.”

I should note that there will be no chainsaws and no grand dissembling of the sixteenth-century Duomo.  Indeed, you’ll be rescuing and preserving the grand cathedral.  For a contribution of $123,000, each donor will have his or her name engraved on a plaque which will be mounted beneath one of the gargoyles.   Oh, and bargain hunters:  I’m sure there will be some sort of framed certificate or photo album included for free.

About the Duomo

The Duomo as we saw it on October 6, 2000–with a banner celebrating the Jubilee Year

It took 500 years to complete this white marble masterpiece with its forest of pinnacles and spires, flying buttresses and statuary.   One of the largest cathedrals in the world with 14,000 square feet, it was designed to accommodate 40,000 worshippers.  Construction began in 1386, on a site dedicated to Fourth-Century Milan bishop St. Ambrose, one of the Doctors of the Church.  The building was consecrated by St. Charles Borromeo in 1577.  Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the completion of the façade in 1805, and he was crowned King of Italy within its walls.  Mussolini commanded the construction of the 5-manual, 225-rank pipe-organ, which is the largest in all of Italy.  Both St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo are buried in its crypt.

A view from the roof of the Duomo at some of the its pinnacles and buttresses

It was at a much earlier church on the site of the present Duomo where St. Augustine studied the faith and where he was baptized.

An aside:  The Duomo is dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente—the child Mary.  As it happens, today is the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when we remember Mary as an innocent and holy three-year-old, entering the Temple in Jerusalem.


Jerry and Jeff Schiffer, dwarfed by the grand doors of the Duomo


The glass-enclosed tomb of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Duomo’s crypt

Two Mary’s! Giotto’s “Birth of the Virgin” Raises an Interesting Question

September 8 is the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary– and I’ve got a question for you:  WHY are there two babies in this picture?

This painting, titled “Birth of the Virgin,” is by the Renaissance artist Giotto di Bondone (better known simply as “Giotto.”)  It’s one of a fresco cycle on the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Giotto’s work can be seen in the basilica at Assisi and in the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower) in Florence, Italy.  It’s in Padua, though, where Giotti’s masterwork, the frescoes depicting the life of the Virgin and the life of Christ, can be seen.  They’re in the Scrovegni Chapel (also called the Arena Chapel), which is built on a site where—for more than a generation—medieval Christians had held an annual open-air procession and reenactment of the Annunciation to the Virgin.

The Scrovegni Chapel was commissioned by a wealthy landowner, Enrico Scrovegni.  Historians believe that Scrovegni, like his father before him, had once earned his living by usury (charging interest on loans), a sin so grave that the penalty for usury was excommunication, but that he had repented of his sin.  Enrico’s father, Reginaldo degli Scrovegni, is the usurer encountered by Dante in the Seventh Circle of Hell.  Enrico is believed to have built the chapel in penitence for the sins of his father and as restitution for his own sins.  He is buried in the chapel’s apse, and is portrayed in his fresco of the Last Judgment—where he is presenting a model of the chapel to Mary.

But back to my question:  Why TWO babies in swaddling clothes?

No, Mary was not a twin!  Actually, both babies are depictions of Mary.  It was unusual for Giotto to use this technique of painting the same person twice in a single painting; but it was not an unusual technique among artists of that era.

The first baby is Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, after having been bathed by attendants on the floor. 

Then, after she has been washed, she—the second baby in the picture—is presented to her mother Ann who is lying in the bed.

On September 8—exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary.  If you’re wondering about Catholics’ understanding of the Immaculate Conception, check out that story here.