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The Orvieto Cathedral and Luca Signorelli’s Paintings

The Cathedral of Orvieto


“Because the Duomo of Orvieto has escaped the kind of close analysis that scholars have devoted to cathedrals of Florence and Siena, it remains the least understood of these three important central Italian Gothic cathedrals.”

-David M. Gillerman



One of the most popular and visited sites in the region of Umbria, Italy is the cathedral or “duomo” of the city of Orvieto. Construction of the cathedral began in 1290 A.D., during the Middle Ages, at the order of Pope Urban IV.[1] He commissioned the cathedral to provide a suitable location to hold the Corporal of Bolsena, the result of a miracle that had occurred in the neighboring town of Bolsena.[2] A church had stood in that spot, but it was torn down to make way for the construction of the grander Orvieto Cathedral.

Fra Bevignate di Perugia originally oversaw construction, but most of the work was done under the architect Lorenzo Maitani. Maitani took over construction around 1309, after the Office of Works became doubtful of the ability of the choir to support the rib vaults that had not yet been constructed.[3] He fortified the choir walls with three buttresses and oversaw much of the subsequent construction. Maitani’s buttresses were the first in a series of changes to the original layout of the cathedral.[4] For over 20 years, Maitani oversaw the building of the cathedral, and passed the job onto his sons when he died.[5] Other architects and designers are accredited with other alterations and the construction of different sections of the cathedral. All these different architects and design changes contribute to the cathedral’s unique appearance, which completed belongs to many different styles. The shape of the cathedral is generally Romanesque, but its adornment represents a variety of Gothic style architecture. The overall style is sometimes called Siennese Gothic, due to its similarities to the Siena Cathedral.[6]

The famous golden façade of the Orvieto cathedral was designed in the gothic style by Lorenzo Maitani and Cesare Nebbia.[7] The upper exterior façade is made of intricate gold mosaics depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, designed by Nebbia. The lower section of the façade was formed from bas-reliefs and depicts scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.[8]

The work was done by a large team of craftsmen, most from other cities and regions, including Siena and Tuscany. The marble slabs were placed on the wall after they had been almost completely finished. The work was done from bottom to top, with workers specializing in a specific part of the process. As explained by John White in an article about the Façade of the Duomo:

It appears that as soon as the general roughing-out had been completed, a series of specialists… descended on the marble blocks to work piecemeal through their allotted tasks, with the result that the less skilled and more repetitive assignments were quite rapidly completed, whilst the men charged with more complicated and more subtle processes fell steadily behind.[9]

Work on the façade began around 1350, and it took half a century to complete. Unfortunately, the mosaics deteriorated over time, and today only one contains some of the original stone. Many restorations have been undertaken over time to preserve the beauty of the cathedral.

Four bronze statues, symbols of the Evangelists, project from the façade, with a beautiful large bronze door at their center. This portal, designed by Emilio Greco, is also famous for its intricacies and technical expertise. Four panels known as the Summa Theologica in marble decorate the pillars that frame the doors. The first panel shows scenes from the Book of Genesis, while the second one links the Old and New Testaments by depicting episodes from both books. The third panel chronicles major events in the life of Jesus Christ. The fourth and final panel shows the Last Judgment.[10] Andrea di Cione did the famous rose window above the facade, one of the final pieces of over 300 years of construction. It is centered around the head of Jesus, which radiates outward like a sun to more mosaics.[11] Framing the rose window are figures of prophets and apostles, and a bronze figure of the Lamb of God rests directly below.[12]

The interior of the cathedral is very large and spacious, with 10 huge columns decorated by black a white lines. It is composed of three naves, and a transept cuts across the central block to form a cross.[13] The walls are also black and white, but intricate frescoes cover many of the walls and ceilings in the cathedral. The apse is decorated by many paintings, which include works done by Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Pastura, Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Pinturicchio and Giacomo da Bologna.[14] While the entire cathedral contains a multitude of art and history, two of the chapels attract special attention and renown.225px-Interno_duomo_Orvieto_

The Chapel of the Corporal holds the relic of the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena. The miracle occurred in the nearby town of Bolsena, when a consecrated host began to bleed onto a corporal during Mass. It affirms the doctrine of transubstantiation, which claims that the bread and wine physically becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ at the moment of consecration. It is preserved in a large golden reliquary, built in 1339 by Ugolini di Vieri. The reliquary is the centerpiece of the chapel, which is also decorated by frescoes that depict miracles throughout the history of Catholicism that concern the bleeding host. These frescoes were painted between 1357 and 1363 by Domenico di Meo, Ugolino di Prete Ilaro, and Giovanni di Buccio Leonardelli.

The Cappella of San Brizio houses the famous frescoes by Luca Signorelli. Fra Angelico started the frescoes in 1448, but he left for Rome a few years later and never returned. 50 years passed until Signorelli would continue his work. His frescoes depict the episodes of the end of the world: The Preaching of the Antichrist, the Ascent of the Elect, the Antinferno, the Damned and the Resurrection of the Flesh. The frescoes of the Antinferno drew inspiration from Dante’s Divine Comedy and the state of purgatory.

The varying architecture of the Orvieto cathedral leaves a lasting impression on its visitors. The sheer size and intricacies of the design is awe-inspiring, and the history of the construction is interesting in its own right. One is struck by the history of the famous chapels and multitude of beautiful paintings throughout the entire cathedral. It truly is one of the treasures of Italy.



 Encycolpaedia Britannica. 15th ed., s.v. “Orvieto Cathedral.”


Gillerman, David M. “The Evolution of the Design of Orvieto Cathedral, ca. 1290-1310.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, no. 3 (1994).


Harding, Catherine. “The Production of Medieval Mosaics: The Orvieto Evidence.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 43, (1989).


“Orvieto’s Duomo.” Inorvieto Web. Last modified April 30, 2014.


Sullivan, Mary Ann. “Orvieto Cathedral.” Bluffton University Web. Last modified 2005.


White, John. “The Reliefts on the Façade of the Duomo at Orvieto.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22, no. 3/4 (1959).



Luca Signorelli’s Frescos

By Jessica Howard

At first glance, the interior of the Orvieto Cathedral seemed similar to all of the other Cathedrals we had seen during our travel. Each just as breathtaking as the next the interior of Orvieto’s Cathedral was as gloriously detailed as it’s exterior. It was breath taking. Hidden in the left side, tucked away in a corner of the grand interior of the Cathedral, is a chapel. “La Cappella Nouva” is its name. It is where the widely known Luca Signorelli painted his frescos depicting Dante’s Inferno and the biblical book of Revelations upon its four walls. La Cappella Nuova began construction in 1408 and was finished in the year 1444. The chapel is separated from the rest of the church by two large iron gates leaving an air of sacred silence when you walk into the smaller room. The chapel was made in honor of Saint Britius also known as San Brizio who was one of the first bishops who evangelized people in Orvieto. But first the church was in need of an artist who could capture the grand beauty of the church as a whole through his paintings. Their first choice painter went by the name of Perugino who, at the time, was the most famous painter in the region of Umbria. Perugino was born in Citta della Pieve around the year 1446 and Raphael was one of his most famous pupils. However, he was in busy in Rome so he did not take the offer. Therefore Fran Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli started the decoration of the vault in 1447. They painted only two sections, Christ in Judgment and Angles and Prophets, which are both located on the ceiling of the chapels interior. Not soon after both artists were summoned by Pope Nicolas the Fifth to paint the Niccoline Chapel within that very same year. Fifty years passed, and still they had found no one who could complete the remainder of the chapel. That is, until they found a young man by the name of Luca Signorelli. At the time he was not a very well known painter and on April 5, 1499 he was awarded the vault. Only twenty-five years old, Signorelli started to add the scenes with the Choir of the Apostles, of the Doctors, of the Martyrs, and of the Virgins and Patriarchs. Upon seeing his completed works the board of the church assigned him to paint the remainder of the blank walls. He started in 1500 and completed in 1503 (there was a gap in the year 1502 because the church lacked funds) never the less, Signorelli finished his frescos within 3 years and they are considered his most complex and compelling work.


The first scene is called Preaching of the Antichrist. This fresco was painted soon after the execution of Savonarola, who was a Dominican friar and active preacher during the Renaissance, held in Florence on May 23 1498. Savonarola had been judged guilty of heresy, and the Antichrist depicted in the painting that is preaching slander and calumny, is causing an uproar just as Savonarola did. However, the Antichrist is being overtaken by the words of the devil who is standing just behind him whispering words to speak into his ear. The Antichrist is painted in resemblance to Jesus Christ, yet he is embraced by the devil. In the book of Revelations it says that when the last days of Earth are near the Antichrist will come and he will resemble in ways Jesus Christ. He will be charismatic and handsome and even people who say they are followers of Christ will follow him without knowing that he is actually being controlled by the devil. The followers of the Anti-Christ are killing the Christians in the foreground. And women and elderly people are being rounded up to be slaughtered in the background. According to the bible when the women and the elderly people are considered the weakest that is when the Revelation is coming. Behind the devil and the Anti-Christ there are Franciscans and Dominicans who are reading and speaking the word of God. They are strong in the words of Christ. Among the crowd in the painting are some familiar faces. A young Raphael is standing in the foreground striking a pose, Dante, Christopher Columbus, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Cesare Borgio are also some faces to keep an eye out for. And in the left corner of the fresco Signorelli painted himself, dressed in noble wear next to Fra Angelico. In the left background the Antichrist is being chased from the heavens by the archangel Michael. And in the right background he paints a large Renaissance styled temple.

The second fresco is titled The End of the World and is painted of the arch of the entrance into the chapel. There are paintings of cities collapsing and people running under dark grey skies. On the right side below there is the Sibyl with her book of prophesies and King David with his hand raised predicting the end of the world. In the left corner people are scrambling and lying in an abundance of different positions on the ground. It looks as if the people are trying to escape the painting and their fate inside the painting and trying to reach our world inside the chapel. During this time period a successful foreshortening technique was uncommon.

Next, the third fresco titled The Resurrection of the Flesh is known more commonly as Signorelli’s study of the nude body. He explored the possibilities of the male and female in the nude and tried to recreate a three-dimensional setting. His completion of this study is what makes him a Master painter in many art historians perspectives. Those figures brought back to life are being risen from the dead and are crawling out from under the earth. They are being received by two angles in the sky blowing on a trumpet. To see this in real life was beyond incredible, the detail he put into each figure was implacable. He got the composition of the human figure more accurate than any other painter during that time period in my personal opinion.

250px-Orvieto108The Damned are taken to Hell and Received by Demons is the title of the next fresco. Signorelli went to the extremes of fantasy when he painted the Resurrection and the Damned paintings. He evokes powers to portray cataclysmic vision and fate, and the despair of the damned being sent to hell. He once again shows his skills in painting the naked body, except this time the human figures are greeted by contorted and multi-colored demon figures. The demons are in near human form yet there skin is in the colors of decomposing flesh. The humans are being brutally tortured by the demons. One is flying in the air with a women on its back telling her of her undeniable fate in hell.

The next and final fresco is The Elect in Paradise that shows people looking up to angles playing music. This is the small group of humans who made it to heaven. It is believed that Signorelli may have used real nude models to help him portray his figures throughout all of his frescos.

Looking back I am honored to have been able to see these frescos in person. Because the people in the frescos were almost life sized it made everything come to life and surfaced a deep-rooted fear in my veins. The scenes of what the Judgment Day might look like is frightening but equally as important for people to know and be aware of. I’d never imagined such a small chapel in the left corner of a Cathedral, much like all other Cathedrals, could hold such a powerful and moving cycle of frescos.

Works Cited

David M. Gillerman (1994). “The Evolution of the Design of Orvieto Cathedral, ca. 1290–1310”. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Society of Architectural Historians) 53 (3): 300–321. doi:10.2307/990939. JSTOR 990939.
Harding, Catherine. “Orvieto”. In J. Turner. Grove Dictionary of Art (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517068-7.

James, Sara Nair (2003). Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry, and a Vision of the End-time. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0-7546-0813-1.

Pope Hennessy, J. (1955). Italian Gothic Sculpture. London.

Riess, Jonathan B. (1995). Luca Signorelli: The San Brizio Chapel, Orvieto (Great Fresco Cycles of the Renaissance).

George Braziller. ISBN 0-8076-1312-6.

Torriti, Piero. The Cathedral of Orvieto. Bonechi Edizioni. ISBN 88-7204-612-2.

White, John (1959). “The Reliefs on the Façade of the Duomo at Orvieto”. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22 (3/4): 254–302.

1] Encycolpaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v., “Orvieto Cathedral.”

[2]Mary Ann Sullivan, “Orvieto Cathedral,” Bluffton University Web, last modified 2005,

[3]David M. Gillerman, “The Evolution of the Design of Orvieto Cathedral, ca. 1290-1310,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, no. 3 (1994), 301,

[4] Gillerman, The Evolution of the Design, 301.

[5] “Orvieto’s Duomo,” Inorvieto Web, last modified April 30, 2014,

[6] Encycolpaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v., “Orvieto Cathedral.”

[7] John White, “The Reliefts on the Façade of the Duomo at Orvieto,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 22, no. 3/4 (1959), 254,

[8] “Orvieto’s Duomo,” Inorvieto Web, last modified April 30, 2014,

[9] White, The Reliefs on the Façade, 254.

[10] White, The Reliefs on the Façade, 270.

[11] Catherine Harding, “The Production of Medieval Mosaics: The Orvieto Evidence,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 43, (1989),

[12] Sullivan, Orvieto Cathedral,

[13] Orvieto’s Duomo,” Inorvieto Web, last modified April 30, 2014,

[14] Orvieto’s Duomo,” Inorvieto Web, last modified April 30, 2014,


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