Orvieto: life on a volcano

May 21, 2010


Last week I spent three days with friends in the Umbrian town of Orvieto. The town is built atop a hill, a volcano. You would think I would be wise to keep away from volcanoes after the pilgrimage experience. But it would be hard to keep someone who has visited Orvieto from returning. My first taste of life on this cliff was two years ago.

To say that the town is built on a cliff is not an exaggeration.


The railway station is at the foot of the cliff. A finicular at the station takes you up into the town.


At the heart of this city is the Cathedral. Building began in the thirteenth century. It is a magnificent building. The sides of the structure are black and white stripes of marble and basalt.


The facade is ornate. (that is a bit of an understatement). It appears as you enter the town square from the narrow house-lined roads.

That is my photo – not very good, you get a much better picture of the beauty of the facade here:

I remember hearing from the sisters who taught me, that a host once bled onto the altar during the consecration at a Mass in Italy, proving the reality of Jesus present in the bread. Now I know that this miracle happened in the town of Bolsena about 20 km from Orvieto in 1263. In response the people of Orvieto began to build their cathedral which now houses the corporal onto which the host bled. The year later (1264) the pope instituted the feast of Corpus Christi which we celebrate in a couple of weeks. Each year on this feast the people of Orvieto celebrate with a procession of the corporal.

However sceptical we might be about such miracles, the fact remains that in the darkness of the Middle Ages, great rays of divine light were given to provide hope for the people. The thirteenth century was remarkable for such renewal of hope: in this same Italian region of Umbria, Francis of Assisi had died only forty years earlier (1226). Clare of Assisi died just ten years before the miracle of Bolsena. For the next three centuries the people of Orvieto would focus on the building of this sign of the reality of God among them.

Such single-minded focus on the reality of God present bore much fruit. Within one hundred years of the miracle Catherine of Siena began to speak powerfully of the reality of God’s personal love. She lived just an hour up the road in Siena.

The Orvieto visit has got me thinking about the importance of people working together in a practical way (ie building a cathedral, or feeding the poor) to lift our vision above the routine and mundane demands of life. I was at a great lecture on this last month. More on that later…






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