Visiting Orvieto Cathedral: 10 Things to Know Before You Go

Orvieto Cathedral has to be seen to be believed. Famous for its lacy and luminous exterior, fabulous frescoes and blood-soaked altar cloth, this is one of the most spectacular cathedrals in Italy.

To make the most of visiting Orvieto Cathedral, here are ten essential facts you should know before you go.

glittering multicolour mosaics on the facade of orvieto cathedral

1. Orvieto Cathedral owes its existence to the Miracle of Bolsena

In 1263, a Bohemian priest, Peter of Prague, was making a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way, he was asked to celebrate Mass at Bolsena, a town 12 miles southwest of Orvieto.

Father Peter doubted the Catholic dogma of the transubstantiation of the Host and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. But as he started to say Mass, blood started to seep from the consecrated Host onto the altar cloth.

His faith restored, Peter travelled to Orvieto to present the linen to Pope Urban IV. The Holy Father proclaimed it a miracle and the cathedral was built to house this sacred relic.

This bloody cloth is housed in the Chapel of the Corporal, which you enter through a separate door.

There are frescoes by Ugolino di Prete Ilario depicting the history of the Eucharist on the chapel’s left wall. Its right wall has depictions of bleeding Host miracles. These were painted between 1357 and 1363.

As this is reserved for private prayer only, it felt disrespectful to take photographs.  

beautiful stained glass window in orvieto cathedral
Stained glass window in the apse of Orvieto Cathedral

2. It took 300 years to complete

Like many European cathedrals, Orvieto Cathedral’s history is a long one.

The cornerstone of the Duomo was laid by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290 and work began in the Romanesque style. The first architect is widely held to be Arnolfo di Cambio, the architect responsible for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, one of Florence’s most famous landmarks.

It was transformed into an Italian Gothic cathedral 20 years later by the master architect Lorenzo Maitani of Siena. But that is not the end of its construction story.

Subsequent master architects tinkered with it, including Andrea Pisano, Andrea di Cione (also known as Orcagna) and Michele Sanmicheli. It wasn’t until 1617 that its façade was completed.

stone carings of a seriew of slightly grotesque figures on outside wall of cathedral in orvieto

Local materials were used to build Orvieto Cathedral.

Its foundations and main skeleton are made from local tufa rock. Its side walls feature alternating rows of local white travertine and blue-grey basalt. Finally, red marble from Sosselvole and white marble from Carrara are used for its glorious façade.

3. Orvieto Cathedral is known as the ‘Golden Lily of Cathedrals’

gothic facade of orvieto cathedral under a stormy sky

Orvieto Duomo’s sumptuous Gothic façade, resembling a giant medieval altarpiece, is the masterpiece of Lorenzo Maitani. Its mighty edifice is decorated with Technicolor mosaics and embellished with elaborate spires and lacy tracery.

detail of coloured mosaics on stone spiral on outside of orvieto cathedral
finely carved stone tracery on outside column of orvieto

The carved pillars at the base of the façade are a Bible in stone, depicting Creation, the Tree of Jesse (Jesus’s family tree), New Testament scenes and the Last Judgement. Each of these pillars is crowned by a bronze symbol of one of the Evangelists.

Amongst all of this Gothic splendour, there are modern Bronze doors. These are the work of the Sicilian sculptor Emilio Greco and you can see more of his sculptures in the gallery to the immediate right of the cathedral.

carved bronze doors of orvieto cathedral
Orvieto Cathedral exterior, Emilio Greco’s door

4. The Duomo’s interior is a clever optical illusion

nave of orevieto cathedral with striped stonework and soft light

In contrast to the majesty of its exterior, the interior of Orvieto Cathedral is bland and austere, dimly lit with light filtered through alabaster windows.

Although it appears enormous, this is a clever optical illusion. Its zebra-striped columns and arcaded side chapels make the space seem longer and bigger than it is.  

5. Its nave is lined with magnificent statues

line of marble statues by striped columns along nave of orvieto duomo

Eighteen statues of the apostles line the Doumo’s nave. These were only restored to the cathedral in 2019, following their removal during a restoration in 1897.

6. Its greatest treasure is the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio (Capella Nova)

brilliantly frescoed chapel of s brizio at orvieto cathedral
S. Brizio Chapel

The Capella della Madonna di San Brizio is decorated with one of the finest fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance.

They were begun in 1447 by Fra Angelico, assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli. He had barely begun – he just managed to finish the serene Christ in Judgement – before he was summoned to Rome.   

Perugino was then hired to take up the mantle but didn’t deliver. Finally, in 1499, the city commissioned Luca Signorelli (1450 – 1523) who completed the work according to Fra Angelico’s design.

It is Signorelli’s masterpiece.

In the Resurrection of the Bodies on the right wall, angels blow their trumpets as the dead emerge from the earth.

fresco painting of nakeds people emerging from the ground
Resurrection of the Bodies, Luca Signorelli

Below this is a moving Pietà, the emotion on the faces of the two Marys plain to see.

fresco of mary holding the body of jesus

Take a look at the Sermon of the Antichrist on the opposite wall. The Antichrist, posing as Jesus, forgets his lines mid-speech but the Devil is on hand to tell him what to say next.  

fresco of jesus surrounded by a group of people
Sermon of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli

Over the window, the devils launch themselves on a terrified group of the dammed.

fresco of dammed naked people being tortured by devils
Driving out the Dammed, Luca Signorelli

Don’t miss the self-portrait of the artist, dressed in black with long golden hair. He stands next to Fra Angelico, also in black.

fresco in church showing two men dressed in black robes

7. There is a visible reminder of the Counter-Reformation  

During the Counter-Reformation, the altar was moved back to allow the congregation to sit closer to the cathedral’s stained glass and frescoes. These had been designed as a visual representation of the glory of Heaven to wow the commoners, powerful propaganda for the Catholic church at that difficult time.

A patch on the marble floor marks the spot where the altar originally stood.

8. The Cathedral of Orvieto has a fine Pietà statue

marble statue of the pieta in orvieto cathedral

Inspired by that carved by Michelangelo, local artist Ippolito Scalza sculpted this exquisite Pietà in 1579. Made from one piece of marble, it shows Mary cradling Jesus’s dead body. Just look at the rich drapery and the unity of this group of figures.

9. You can see the exquisite Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels 

tempura fresco of madonna and child

Just before the cathedral’s exit, there is a small fresco. This is the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels (1425) by Gentile de Fabriano.

10. Duomo di Orvieto is home to a magnificent 15th Century organ

magnificent church organ

What’s a cathedral without an organ?

Above the entrance of the Chapel of the Corporal is the cathedral’s organ. Originally designed by Ippolito Scalza and Bernardino Benvenuti in the 15th Century, it is said to contain 5,585 pipes.

But who’s counting?

Visiting Orvieto Cathedral: Practical information

Address: Piazza del Duomo, 26, 05018 Orvieto

Opening hours: Check the seasonal opening hours on the cathedral’s website

Admission fee applies. Included with the Orvieto City Card (Orvieto Carta Unica). In addition to Orvieto Cathedral, it gives you free admission to these eight sites:

  • MoDo Museum
  • National Archaeological Museum
  • Faina Etruscan Museum
  • Necropolis of the Crocifisso del Tufo
  • Orvieto Underground
  • Well of the Cava
  • St. Patrick’s Well Torre del Moro

Like any city pass, you will need to do the maths, based on what you plan to visit in Orvieto. But maxing out this card saved me €14 in admission fees.

Enjoy your visit to Orvieto Cathedral

Inside and out, Orvieto Cathedral is a feast for the eyes and I recommend visiting it twice.

Beat the tour groups and get there as it opens its doors. You’ll have the place pretty much to yourself.

Later in the day, do as I did. Admire it over a glass of Orvieto Classico in Piazza del Duomo at the end of the day, when the mosaics glow with life.

glass of Orvieto Classico white wine with a small bowl of crackers

Finally, if you need more help with planning your visit to Orvieto, take a look at a few of my other articles about this gorgeous city:

Happy travels!