The façade of the Cathedral in Orvieto – A picture book in stone

The façade of the Cathedral in Orvieto – A picture book in stone

The work on the Cathedral began in 1290 and went on for 150 years. While this was completed in 1444 the work on the façade spanned a period of 300 years and is a blend of several styles. The façade can be well described as a wonderful picture book and set up at a time when most people could not read or write.

In the bottom panel are four large relief panels in marble. From left to right one can see the story of creation found in the book of Genesis followed by the Tree of Jesse which gives you the genealogy of Jesus. These two panels on the left are taken from the Old Testament. To the right one sees two panels from the New Testament. The one closest to the main door depicts the life of Jesus followed by the fourth panel which depicts the last judgment.

So detailed are these works that one can even see the teeth of persons depicted. In the panel of the last judgment, on the second line from the top, among ‘the blessed’ is a man carrying a set square which is how an architect was depicted. This is the Sienese sculptor and architect Lorenzo Maitani who was commissioned to work on the church and solve several issues concerning the load-bearing capabilities of the building, especially of the choir. He substantially changed the design and construction of the building, increasing the similarity of the building to Siena Cathedral. The architecture of both buildings sometimes is classified as a sub-style of Gothic architecture; Siennese Gothic style.

Above the four panels are the sculptures of the evangelist depicted in their symbolic forms; a man, a lion, an eagle and an ox. Above the marble reliefs on the right hand side, captured in mosaics, are events from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary in whose honour (the assumption) the cathedral is named. The mosaic depicts the birth of Mary and is flanked by mosaics of her parents, Joaquim and Anna. Just above this scene is the presentation of Mary in the temple. On the left hand side, to the top is the marriage between Mary and Joseph. Below this scene, on the left is the annunciation with Mary and the angel which flanks the triangle that depicts the baptism of Jesus.

Orvieto, Exterior of the Duomo: The Birth of Mary

Bang smack in the middle is the annunciation of Mary flanked on both sides by the apostles. Just above this is the coronation of Mary. Between the assumption and the coronation is the Rose window which has at the centre the face of Jesus. Flanking the rose window, in mosaic are the images of the four doctors of the western Church, Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine. In the square frame are 52 faces of saints. The square frame is flanked by 12 prophets in pairs and 12 apostles in the niches.

The great facades of the middle ages, like this one, were fascinated by numerical arrangements. In this façade one sees the elements of time depicted numerically through art. The four doctors of the Church symbolize the four seasons. The 52 faces of the saints stand for the 52 weeks in the year. The 12 prophets and 12 apostles depicts the 24 hours of the day.

The three bronze doors of the Cathedral are not the original. 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 original doors are inside the museum of the Cathedral

Fr Warner D’Souza

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One thought on “The façade of the Cathedral in Orvieto – A picture book in stone”

  • This Cathedral is really beautiful. thank you Fr, for penning down about this place. It brings back lovely memories of this place. I remember we would walk to the front and spend so much time on every occasion, just studying and admiring the workmanship and biblical stories as explained by you above, brought out on stone…. Lovely workmanship done by the artisans. This place itself is so beautiful.


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