Orvieto’s pièce de résistance is a mesmerizing assemblage of spikes and spires, mosaics and marble statuary—and that’s just the facade. The rest of the bulky-yet-elegant church is banded in black and white stone and seems to perch miraculously on the edge of the cliffs that surround the town. You might notice that it is wider at the front than at the back, designed so to create the optical illusion upon entering that it is longer than it actually is. The facade has been compared to a medieval altarpiece, and it reads like an illustrated Catechism. On the four broad marble panels that divide the surface, Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani (who also more or less designed the church) and others carved scenes from the Old and New Testament. On the far left is the story of creation, with Eve making an appearance from Adam’s rib; on the far left, Christ presides over the Last Judgment, as the dead shuffle out of their sarcophagi to await his verdict. Prophets and the Apostles surround a huge rose window, and Mary appears in lush mosaics inlaid in fields of gold; she ascends to heaven in a triangular panel above the main portal, and she is crowned Queen of Heaven in the gable at the pinnacle of the facade.
Capella del Coporale -- In 1263, a Bohemian priest, Peter of Prague, found himself doubting transubstantiation, the sacrament in which the host is transformed into the body of Christ during mass. He went to Rome to pray on St. Peter's tomb that his faith be strengthened and, stopping in Bolsena, just below Orvieto, was saying mass when the host began to bleed, dampening the corporal, or altar cloth. Pope Urban IV, who was in Orvieto at the time, had the cloth brought to him, and a few decades later, Pope Nicholas IV ordered the cathedral built to house the relic. Frescoes in the chapel tell the story of the miracle, and the exquisite enamel reliquary that once held the cloth remains in place.
Cappella San Brizio -- The cathedral’s other treasure is one of the Renaissance’s greatest fresco cycles. The themes are temptation, salvation, damnation, and resurrection, though the scenes are rich in everyday humanity and allegedly inspired Michelangelo, who came to Orvieto and filled sketchbooks before beginning work on the Sistine Chapel. (In subsequent centuries church authorities had workers scramble over the frescoes and put sashes on the male nudes that Michelangelo so admired, though subsequent restorations have removed most of them.) Fra’ Angelico (the “Angelic Friar,” who learned his craft illuminating manuscripts) began the series in 1447 and Luca Signorelli completed the works that have come to be considered his masterpiece in 1504. Both artists appear in a magnificent panel of the “Sermon of the Antichrist,” in which the devil coaxes a Christ impostor to lure the faithful to damnation. Signorelli looks handsome and proud, with his long blonde hair, and he gets a bit of revenge on the mistress who had jilted him, portraying her as the worried recipient of funds from a moneylender (or, according to some interpretations, she’s a prostitute being paid for her services).
To the right of the altar is “The Entrance to Hell” and “The Damned in Hell,” in which devils torment their victims, a man raises his fists to curse God as he sees Charon rowing across the Styx for him, and bodies writhe and twist for eternity. Signorelli gets his revenge again in his depiction of a winged devil leering toward a terrified blonde on his back—the ex-mistress, of course. Should a bit of relief be in order after all this misery, you need only look at the “Elect in Heaven,” where those who have been saved look quite content, even smug, in their assurance of eternal salvation.