A Pilgrimage to Orvieto

Though I once lived in Rome for four years and have had the good fortune to return numerous times, I had never visited the lovely town of Orvieto, only an hour or so away by train. Happily, I recently had occasion to remedy that grievous fault.

The town traces its origins to Etruscan times and is situated upon a high bluff that commands the surrounding region of Southern Umbria. It is reached by a funicular that provides sky-borne access to the town and further charms the pilgrim. For indeed, it was a pilgrimage that we were on – brief, but rich and grace-filled.

I traveled with a young priest, newly ordained, who, though himself Italian, had also never visited Orvieto. Part of the attraction of coming was that here, during his time teaching theology at the Dominican priory, Thomas Aquinas composed the Office for the newly established feast of Corpus Christi. The wonderful poem-hymns, “Pange, lingua” and “Lauda, Sion,” issue from the heart of the “poet of the Eucharist” as Thomas has been called.

The former poem hymns the glorious body and precious blood poured out for the salvation of the world. The latter closes by lauding the living Christ: “you who feed us mortals here below, make us fellow-guests, coheirs, and companions, with the saints in heaven.” Both present experience and future hope are central to Thomas’s celebration of the Eucharist.

The great scholar of Saint Thomas, Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., writes of Thomas’s achievement in these hymns: “full of the memory of the passion, the celebration is entirely turned toward the eschatological achievement, since it is the pledge, the pignus, of future glory.”

The highly intellectual Aquinas of the Summa Theologiae exhibits in these prayer-poems, not only intellectual desire, but intense affective yearning. Perhaps nowhere is this union more harmoniously and concisely expressed than in his antiphon for the “Magnificat”:

O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory is given us.

It is more than fitting, therefore, that in the magnificent, yet spare Duomo of Orvieto, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel houses the relic of the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena: the blood-tinged corporal that strengthened the Eucharistic faith of a German pilgrim priest. Though no sure connection has been established between the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi and the supposed miracle, their proximity in time and place, together with the office composed by Aquinas, show how popular piety, liturgical celebration, and theologically substantive poetry can conspire to proclaim Christ’s real presence.


But another “miracle” awaits the pilgrim visiting Orvieto. For in the other chapel of the Cathedral, the so-called “Cappella Nova,” are the extraordinary frescoes by the early Renaissance painter, Luca Signorelli. His great depictions of the Preaching of the Anti-Christ, of the Last Judgment, and of the Resurrection of the Flesh clearly inspired Michelangelo’s own masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel.

The depiction of the Anti-Christ is an astonishing imaginative feat: the figure bears close resemblance to Christ, yet in subtly, distorted fashion. And, as he mouths the words that the Devil is whispering into his ear, he lures his hearers into the very vices that degrade the flesh.

By contrast, the Signorelli fresco that displays the Resurrection of the Flesh is a glorious affirmation of human dignity and destiny. To stand contemplating the resurrected bodies of the just is to revel in man’s and woman’s true freedom, expressing itself in unbounded joy and generous communion. The newly resurrected are shown shaking off the skeletons of confinement and emerging upright into the new creation. They assist one another in their ascent and embrace each other in chaste and life-giving fellowship.

Along the borders of his great frescoes, Signorelli has painted figures of literature, both classical and more contemporary. One in particular seems singularly appropriate: Dante Alighieri appears, composing his Commedia. Appropriate not only for his poetic exploration of Inferno and Paradiso, but also for his genial insight into the constitutive features of both conditions. The monumental “egos” of Inferno dwell in searing isolation; while the joyful inhabitants of Paradiso exult in mutual praise and communion.

Dante intuits that the resurrection of the flesh is not an optional “add-on” to a self-sufficient soul, but is intrinsic to the self’s personal fulfillment and beatitude. For the body sacramentalizes the self with its identity-forming relationships. The affective desire of the saved souls for the resurrection of the flesh finds expression in the words Dante places in the mouth of Solomon, in the Canto of the Sun. Solomon speaks of the surpassing glory that will accompany the resurrection of the flesh. And the whole choir of holy ones, by their “Amen!” voice their yearning to be fully clothed with their resurrected bodies.

Then, in some of the most poignant lines in the whole Commedia, Dante comments:

“forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme,
per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari
anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme.”

“Not perhaps for themselves alone, but for their mothers,
for their fathers, and for others whom they loved
before they all became eternal flames”

(Paradiso, XIV, 64–66: Hollander translation).

Remembering Signorelli’s penetrating vision, and with Solomon’s words still resounding in our hearts, the new priest and I celebrated the Eucharist together in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. For me personally a particularly moving moment of the celebration came as I heard him, in the memento for the dead, speak the names, “Giulia e Francesco” – my mother and father.

On this All Souls Day, we pray for the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, not only for ourselves, but, with tender love, for “our mothers and fathers, and all who are dear to us.”


*Image: The Resurrection of the Flesh by Luca Signorelli, 1500 [Duomo di Orvieto]

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).