Both towns of Etruscan origins, the Latium lakeside town, Bolensa (Volsinii for the Etruscans) and the Umbrian medieval gem, Orvieto (the Etruscan Velzna), share another link: a sacred one.
The Sacro Corporale (“Holy Corporal”) – now housed in the Orvieto Duomo (Cathedral) – was brought to Orvieto in great triumph in 1263 from Bolsena, medieval town on Lake Bolsena.
A pious Bohemian priest – known to us only as “Peter of Prague”- stopped in Bolsena enroute to Rome on a pilgrimage. Peter of Prague had been battling with himself, attempting to resolve his doubts about the Catholic dogma, Transubstantiation, that is, the transformation of the Host into Christ’s Body and the wine into His Blood at the Consecration during Mass.
While saying Mass on the Tomb of Bolsena’s Santa Cristina (4th-c. martyr saint) in the church bearing her name, just as Father Pietro di Praga murmured the words, “This is My Body,” blood dripped out of the Host, trickling onto the linen altar cloth, the corporal, stretched out over the marble altar slab and onto the altar, too.
Panicked and confused, the priest initially tried to hide the blood – and you can see the perplexed astonishment of Pietro di Praga in this 14th-c fresco by Ugolino di Prete Ilaria in the Orvieto Duomo (Cathedral):
But after reflecting, Pietro di Praga interrupted the Mass, asking to be taken to Pope Urban IV then in residence in the papal palace of Orvieto. (The 13th-c Palazzo dei Papi of Orvieto was probably started during Urban IV’s sojourn there):
Pope Urban IV listened to the priest’s agitated account, absolved him and then immediately sent emissaries to Bolsena for verification. That scene, too, was frescoed by Ugolino di Prete Ilario – who depicted the Bishop of the diocese examining the Sacred Corporal in the Basilica di Santa Cristina at Papal request:
– and here is that venerated altar of the Miracle of Bolsena in the Basilica di Santa Cristina:
After confirmation of all facts as accounted by Pietro di Praga, Urban IV ordered the Bishop of the diocese to bring the Host and the linen corporal bearing the blood stains to him in Orvieto.
Accompanied by an assortment of Church dignitaries, the Pope met the Bishop of Bolsena just outside of Orvieto in a procession amid great pomp as commemorated in the 14th-c fresco by Ugolino di Prete Ilario in the Orvieto Cathedral’s Cappella del Corporale (and do note the 14th-c walled city of Orvieto in th background – with many family defense towers):
Pope Urban IV wished the Sacred Corporal enshrined in the Cathedral of Orvieto, where it remains today – an object of sacred veneration – in the Cappella del Corporale, a side chapel to the left of the main altar.
Prompted by the miracle, Pope Urban IV had commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas – then in a Dominican monastery of Orvieto – to compose a Mass and liturgy for the celebration of Corpus Domini (“Body of Christ” – also called “Corpus Cristi“).
A year after the miracle, Thomas Aquinus’ composition was presented and the Pope instituted the Feast of Corpus Domini by means of a papal bull.
One of the 14th-c frescoes by Ugolino di Prete Ilario in the Chapel of the Sacred Corporal depicts the scene of the Dominican saint in his Order’s black and white habit, presenting the composition to a seated Pope Urban IV, red-hatted cardinals at the Pope’s feet, pious local villagers and religious viewing from the sides:
At the end of the 13th-c., the foundations were laid for the building of a new cathedral – on the site of a pre-existing building (which in its turn, had probably been built on site of a Roman temple, or even an Etruscan one.).
Although some sources maintain that the glorious Duomo was constructed to house the Holy Corporal, the Orvieto Cathedral was in fact desired by the city, the bishop and Orvieto’s noble families as a sign of Orvieto’s prestige and power. And after all, the Cathedral is not dedicated to the Sacro Corporale but to the Madonna Assunta in Cielo (the Madonna Assumed into Heaven).
She reigns in a glorious mosaic at the peak of the facade:
Click here to read about Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle in the Duomo of Orvieto
Read more about Luca Signorelli’s fresco splendor in Orvieto’s Duomo