The Cathedral of Orvieto

As Thomas returns to Germany, I’ve diverted south into northern Umbria to take in the magnificent Duomo of Orvieto. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m on a quest, an “architectural adventure,” to take in central Italy’s best Gothic cathedrals. (That should give architecture fans a clue as to where I’m headed next.)

The small town of Orvieto itself is a sight to behold. Situated on a volcanic plug, the entire town is a natural fortress. Curiously, the location bears an odd resemblance to the Acoma¬†Pueblo in New Mexico, one of my favorite places in the U.S. Most visitors arriving by train travel up the steep walls of the table mountain by a classic three-rail funicular quite similar to Hong Kong’s Peak Tram. A short walk through the atmospheric town and you come face to face with Orvieto’s pride and joy.

The cathedral’s interior alone would be enough to attract visitors. Extreme black and white striped walls, a beautifully restored Gothic trussed timber roof, and windows of alabaster and neo-Gothic stained glass create yet another astonishing masterpiece unlike anything you’ll ever see in central or northern Europe.

On the south side of the transept, the Capella di San Brizio features extraordinary frescoes by Signorelli detailing the Apocalypse. Eager to prepare myself for the end of the world, which apparently is going to happen in a couple weeks, I carefully studied the paintings. It turns out that an army of angels armed with laser canons are going to attack us inadvertently blasting off our clothes. While the devout will all be nude when they are resurrected, some will get wispy silk scarves to cover their privates as they enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, the interior of the church has a certain soft-core-porn meets Indiana-Jones-opens-the-Arc-of-the-Covenant appeal. But that’s just the beginning.

As with many things in religion, it’s all about the facade. The polychrome facade of the Duomo of Orvieto shows up in just about every reasonable text on European art history and architecture out there. IT IS AMAZING!!! Layer upon layer upon layer of detail. Elaborate sculptural panels in the grotesque style, marvelously ornate skewed columns, bronze animal statues, golden mosaics, and an outrageously intricate rose window, all framed in bands of alabaster and travertine. It’s extraordinary.

Photography is no longer allowed within the cathedral. The interior shots are open source images from Wikimedia Commons Otrebor81. All exterior photography is by

4 responses to “The Cathedral of Orvieto”

  1. avatar Leonie says:


    Do they explain, why photography is not permitted anymore? People trying to pray getting annoyed by the flashlights? Fear of light damage to the artwork? The curch wanting to sell more picture postcards?

  2. avatar Tony says:

    I think many places are banning photography for several reasons. First, I think there is the general concept that flashes damage art (I have no idea if that’s true or not) and they are tired of telling people not to use flashes. Second, they are tired of people bumping into things while they try to compose pictures. Third, it distracts from the atmosphere. Forth, and most important, they want to maintain commercial control over the imagery of the monument.

  3. avatar Laurelle says:

    Well. Nothing subtle about that place, eh?

  4. avatar Tony says:

    I don’t think the Vatican has ever been known for their subtlety. But I have to admit, they really can build some great architecture.

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