Orvieto: San Domenico

The San Domenico.

The church of San Domenico can be found in the quiet northern part of Orvieto’s city centre. Not much remains of the original church from the thirteenth century. In the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, parts of the church were demolished and the building was basically truncated like a piece of Italian salami. We may lament this destruction of cultural and religious property, but a visit to the church is still highly recommended. The San Domenico has a couple of interesting frescoes and a splendid funerary monument that was made by the Florentine sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/10).

Dominicus de Guzmán, the Spanish founder of the order of the Dominicans, passed away in 1221. In 1234 he was canonised by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). Two years previously his followers had been granted an older church in Orvieto that was dedicated to Our Lady of Peace (Santa Maria della Pace). In 1235 this church was demolished and a new church dedicated to Saint Dominicus was built on the same spot. The building was consecrated in 1264 by Pope Urbanus IV (1261-1264). Urbanus was a pope who, during his relatively short pontificate, resided mostly in Orvieto and Viterbo, for the simple reason that he was not welcome in Rome. Consecrating the San Domenico must have been one of his last deeds, for the very same year Pope Urbanus died in Deruta, south of Perugia. He was not the only pope to take up residence in Orvieto in the second half of the thirteenth century. The presence of the Holy Father was obviously beneficial to the city and its churches. The San Domenico was no exception to this rule: in the adjacent monastery the famous Dominican friar Saint Thomas Aquinas taught theology for a couple of years. His teacher Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) was said to have also stayed at the monastery for a while.

Interior of the church.

When the popes departed again, Orvieto’s importance suffered a quick decline. At the end of the fourteenth century the San Domenico was even temporarily abandoned. In 1680 the church was given a Baroque-style makeover, which did not just affect the interior of the building, but also the building itself. Half of the nave was demolished and the aisles were converted into chapels. The rest of the nave was levelled in the 1930s to make space for the Caserma Monte Grappa, the barracks situated next to the church. As a result, what is left of the San Domenico is basically just the transept and choir. In other words, the San Domenico is an amputated church. The entrance is now in the right side of the transept. One enters through a door that is set into a nice portal with a fresco. The portal and fresco date from the fifteenth century, but both elements were originally part of another church. A remarkable aspect of the present ‘façade’ of the church is the alternating use of white travertine and bluish-grey basalt. These colours match very well with the other stones, which are sand-coloured.

Tomb of cardinal Guillaume de Bray.

After entering the church, the highlight of the San Domenico can be found immediately on the left. Here stands the proud tomb of cardinal Guillaume de Bray, who died in Orvieto on 29 April 1282. A Frenchman, De Bray owed his appointment as a cardinal to the aforementioned Pope Urbanus IV, who assigned him the church of San Marco in Rome as his titular church. At the time of his death cardinal De Bray was serving Pope Martinus IV (1281-1284), who also had close ties to Orvieto and was even crowned there. Shortly after his death the cardinal was given a beautiful funerary monument made by Arnolfo di Cambio. The San Domenico must have originally had three more tombs of cardinals, but these were all lost during the 1680 remodelling operation. Cardinal De Bray’s tomb had to be reassembled in the twentieth century and we cannot be entirely certain whether all the parts are in the right places. Some elements of the tomb have not been preserved, for instance bits of the splendid Cosmatesque decorations and the canopy that the monument once had.

Fortunately there is still a lot to admire. In the middle we see the cardinal’s effigy resting on a bed. Two men are opening the curtains. The Cosmatesque decorations behind De Bray are still completely intact and below him the two shields with the familiar fleur-de-lis identify the deceased as a Frenchman. One level above the cardinal’s effigy we see a long text in Latin that ends with the words HIC OPUS FECIT ARNOLFUS, so that there need not be any discussion about the identity of the man who crafted the monument. Above the text we see a Madonna and Child seated on a beautiful throne. The statue of the Madonna is in fact a reused Roman statue from the second century. On either side of the text are three other statues. On the left a kneeling cardinal De Bray is introduced to the Madonna by Saint Mark. This saint was obviously included as a reference to the church of San Marco in Rome being De Bray’s titular church. The statue on the right represents Saint Dominicus.

Tomb of cardinal Guillaume de Bray (detail).

Tomb of Guillaume de Bray, upper part.

Murder of Peter of Verona – Pietro di Nicola Baroni.

The chapels in the choir are dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas and another Dominican saint, Peter of Verona, also known as Saint Peter Martyr. He was a preacher and inquisitor who was involved in the war of the Church against a heretical sect called the Cathars. In 1252 Peter was murdered by an assassin and then canonised the next year by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254). The two frescoes in the chapel that is dedicated to him date from about 1430 and are in good condition. They are attributed to the local painter Pietro di Nicola Baroni. The left fresco shows how Peter and his companion are murdered. While his skull is being smashed, Peter manages to write something on the ground, presumably the words Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem. The right fresco features a Madonna and Child. Her throne is flanked by four saints: Dominicus and James on the left and Anthony the Abbot and Peter of Verona on the right. The latter still has the knife with which he was killed in his back. The frescoes in the chapel of Saint Thomas are less interesting. Nevertheless, a slightly damaged Crucifixion from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century is quite good. The choir also has some work by Cesare Nebbia (ca. 1536-1622).

A polyptych by the great painter Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) from Siena once stood on the high altar of this church. It was stolen during the Napoleonic era and later returned. Unfortunately two of the seven large panels and an unknown number of smaller panels have disappeared. There is still some discussion about the correct composition of the polyptych. Obviously the Madonna and Child should be positioned in the centre. Saints Dominicus, Peter and Mary Magdalene belong on the left, as they are looking towards the right. The exact order of the panels is not entirely clear, but the Museum of the Duomo (where we can now admire the polyptych) has placed Mary Magdalene on the left wing. Below her jar of ointment we can see a kneeling bishop. The only saint belonging to the right of the Madonna and Child is Saint Paul, for the simple reason that he is the only figure looking towards the left. An intriguing little detail is the fact that he is holding his Epistle to the Romans in his left hand: on it we see the text AD ROMANOS. As was mentioned above, two panels have gone missing. It is reasonable to assume that Peter of Verona was featured on one of them, as a counterpart to Saint Dominicus on the other side.

Polyptych – Simone Martini.

Much of the information about the church used in this post came from the Key to Umbria website and from Italian Wikipedia. My Dorling Kindersley travel guide on Umbria provided some additional information.


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