Corpus Domini (or Corpus Christi) is one of the main celebrations of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church. It is celebrated throughout the world, but it has a special significance in Ovieto (Umbria), Italy. Since 1264, the holiday has been celebrated every year with an ever-growing number of festivities and processions that encompass faith, history, tradition, and folklore.
On June 18, 2017 in Orvieto, for the first time, the procession was broadcast in both Italian and English. And the honor belonged to our friend Susan Forkush, who lives in Orvieto and Santa Barbara. Following is the text of her presentation, together with photos. Please also see http://www.corteostoricoorvieto.it.
Territory and Miracle
Orvieto has a rich and complex history that includes Etruscans and Romans, and during the Middle Ages it was one of the most important Papal cities outside of Rome. By the middle of the 1300s, the city-state of Orvieto was at the height of its political and religious power. It had dominion over a vast area that extended from the shores of Lake Bolsena in the south to Orbetello on the west coast and as far north as Monte Amiata, in present-day Tuscany.
In 1263, Pietro di Praga, an itinerant priest on a pilgrimage to Rome, was having a crisis of faith and asked to give mass at the Santa Cristina church in Bolsena, approximately 20 kilometers from Orvieto. During the mass, the host spontaneously began to bleed, staining the altar cloth and the floor below his feet. Pope Urban IV, who was in Orvieto at the time, received the altar cloth and deemed it a miracle, proving that the Host was indeed the body and blood of Christ, and not something symbolic.
On August 11, 1264, the Pope issued a papal bull, formally instituting the Feast of Corpus Christi to be celebrated universally throughout the Catholic Church. He gave the privilege and responsibility of writing the liturgy for the Feast of the Eucharist to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who at the time was studying in Orvieto. Over the centuries, an inescapable bond has been created between the Corpus Domini Procession, the sacred altar cloth, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
The Cathedral of Orvieto (or Duomo in Italian) was built to celebrate the Eucharistic miracle known as Corpus Christi. Initial work began on the cathedral in the late 13thcentury and today it is considered the “golden lily” of cathedrals in Italy, known worldwide for its beautiful mosaics and frescos.
The first official procession of the sacred altar cloth took place in 1338 on the day of the Feast of Corpus Domini. Since the Middle Ages until now, every year Orvieto re-enacts the historic Procession where the faithful of all languages and cultures come to sing the praises of the mystery of the Eucharist.
In 1951, Orvieto began performing plays in front of the Duomo celebrating the miracle at Bolsena. In 1977, the miracle plays were replaced by a procession through the streets including the Historic Procession (Corteo Storico) that also includes medieval characters such as political and religious leaders, noblemen, guild representatives, and soldiers. The historic and religious procession today includes 400 participants and authentic, vibrant costumes and props. These works of art have all been made by hand by local master craftspeople.
The Corpus Domini Procession reminds us of the civil and military power and the religious authority of the medieval city-state of Orvieto.
From 1337 to 1338, the Chapel of the Reliquary was built in the left transept of the Duomo in order to display and honor the sacred altar cloth. The chapel was commissioned by Bishop Monaldeschi and designed by Ugolino Divieri of Siena. The chapel walls are painted with frescos depicting the miracle of Bolsena.
The vessel that houses the altar cloth is a glorious work of art made of silver and is in the shape of the façade of the Duomo. The front displays episodes from the life of Mary and the back contains scenes from the life of Jesus.
Quarters / Neighborhoods
Orvieto is divided into 4 quarters. The divisions are along the lines of the two main streets in town, which are Corso Cavour and Via del Duomo. Where these two streets meet, at the center of town, is the Torre del Moro, known to tourists as the Clock Tower.
Each of the 4 neighborhoods has its own emblem and colors. Serancia’s symbol is a cross in red and white, Olmo’s symbol is a tree in green and white, Stellas’ symbol is a star in yellow and blue, and Corsica’s symbol is a castle in yellow and red.
The Corteo Storico owes a debt of gratitude to the creative genius of Lea Pacini, a woman who devoted her life to creating the splendid Procession as we know it today. Her passion and vision were unparalleled, and she directed all aspects of the event until 1992.
She initially borrowed costumes from Florence and then through the years, she raised funds to make them locally, each piece designed to reflect the historical accuracy of the people of Orvieto in the Middle Ages. All 400 costumes, shoes, and props are lovingly and meticulously maintained throughout the year.
The Lea Pacini Association was officially created on February 9, 1991, and provides the guiding principles for the management and organization of the Procession.
History of Orvieto
In the 13thcentury, Orvieto was a stronghold for the Catholic Church in central Italy; however, there were constant battles between those people supporting the Pope, known as the Guelphs, and those people supporting the Holy Roman Emperor, known as the Ghibellines. Therefore, certain political institutions were established to govern the territory. These included the Council of 400, the Captain of the People, and the Magistrate of Seven Men. It was also an extraordinary time of urban and demographic expansion, as well as building of homes and churches, culminating in the initial construction of the Duomo in 1290.
As a result of the costs of fighting between the two local families, the Guelph Monaldeschis and the Ghibelline Fillippeschis, the power of the city-state of Orvieto was diminished. Dante Aligheri wrote about this long-standing conflict in the 6thcanto of Purgatory in his Divine Comedy. Adding to the difficulties of the times was the Bubonic Plague of 1348.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto during a sacking of Rome. He asked the architect Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane to design a well in order to get water up to the top of the rock in the historic part of Orvieto. The well he designed has a double helix with one path going down and a separate one coming up. The is the famous Pozzo di San Patrizio, or St. Patrick’s Well.