The Body of Christ: A Visit to Orvieto

Mark Sargent

The Christ of Luca Signorelli's "Pietà" is ashen and cold. The blood from his side has already dried onto the contours of his ribs and abdomen. All around the ceiling and walls of Orvieto's Cappella Nuova, or "New Chapel," the murals are vibrant, even among the damned. Demons carry brightly dressed sinners off to hell or whisper into the ear of a regal Antichrist. The nude, athletic forms of the Christian faithful climb out of the soil on the day of Resurrection. 

But Christ, gray and rigid, awaits burial in a lower corner of the Chapel's wall. Mary Magdalene kneels beside him in her Renaissance robes, cradling his arm, but his fingers are stiff and unresponsive. His legs, slightly suspended, are already locked at the knees and ankles. Mary, his mother, runs only a gentle forefinger over his tangled hair, her eyes downcast, masked by grief. Death has taken her son far beyond the consolations of human touch.

I first entered the Cappella Nuova on a Sunday afternoon, two weeks before Easter, during a quick trip to see John and Susie Skillen and the Gordon students in Orvieto. The Cappella Nuova occupies an upper corner of the Duomo, one of the great gothic cathedrals in Italy. This was my first trip to Orvieto, and the frescoes on the walls of the Chapel soon commanded my attention, largely because they will be a focal point of the upcoming "Art and Eschatology" conference, an assembly hosted by the Skillens and the students in the Gordon program. During late May some of the most enthusiastic interpreters of the arts (Nick Wolterstorff and Dugald McLellan, among them) will convene to do what Gordon's students do for a full semester—to mine the past for the ore of Christian hope.

Signorelli's angular Christ was my prelude to Good Friday. Strangely, it was Christ's inconspicuous place on the painter's great panorama of apocalypse and human longing that moved me.   Images of the dying Christ blanket Italy, in metro stations, at church altars, in alley shrines, and among soccer scarves and leather goods at Rome's countless tourist kiosks. Scores of Christian generations have imprinted their own variations on the Savior's torture into village churches or on the urban landscapes. So pervasive is the Crucifixion throughout Italy that one almost inevitably acquires the discipline of disregarding it, of walking by without reverence or outrage. In its own modest way, the Gordon-in-Orvieto program seeks to recover something of what has been lost in convention and kitsch. Many of my best moments in Orvieto were at breakfast or dinner with the students when I heard stories of their daily discoveries. They also wanted to uncover something in Italian artistic tradition—if only a painter's stroke or tremor—that genuinely moved them.

On Sunday evening I joined the students as Susie Skillen led us in a service of remembrance. We gathered in one of the small assembly rooms at San Lodovico, the convent that has been home to Gordon's program for five years. Now ordained in the Episcopal Church, Susie takes the hour-long train trek on selected weekdays to Rome, where she serves an Episcopal congregation. Her bishop has recently encouraged her to open services in Orvieto, drawing on our students and several English-speaking expatriates in the region.   In a fine gesture of ecumenical good will, the Catholic sisters of San Lodovico have blessed the Protestant communion within their own walls. That evening, surrounded by images of the Virgin, we sang an old Anglican hymn about the bread of Christ. Susie's text came from John's gospel: "I am the resurrection and the life." Recounting the story of Lazarus, she spoke of a resurrected life not just as a distant promise but a journey of faith, like learning a new language in a foreign land. We celebrated the Eucharist, dipping the bread in a ceramic chalice, certainly apt for a city known for its underground kilns and the bright Hispano-Moorish designs that stamp its traditional pottery.

Still far from the tourist mainstream, Orvieto remains splendidly medieval. Set on a high plateau of volcanic remains, the old walled city rests on the site of an Etruscan settlement. On the western fringe of the town, the Convent of San Lodovico hovers close to the moss-laden walls that mark the sheer face of the cliff. Looking out from my own guest room I could see a neighboring monastery, a pasture and a few orchards in the valley below. At this height there is little to interfere with the view or the winter winds. From end to end, Orvieto is a maze of cobbled streets and sloping alleys, punctuated now and then by triangular piazzas and a few small, prosaic towers. There are some nineteenth-century buildings and modern restorations, but most of the homes in the town are ancient frames built from the bronze-toned tufa. After dark one evening, the students took me on a slow walk to hunt up the one open gelato shop in their ancient quarter. At noon, residents linger in the public squares or outside the cafés. Laundry dries in the sun; church bells still mark the fractions of an hour. The days stretch here, resisting tomorrow.

In time, you learn to read Orvieto's historical layers. Just outside the Convent, a long sequence of stairs and escalators descends to the parking lot at the city's footstep through a series of old tunnels, first carved centuries before Christ.   A short walk away, the magnificent facade of the Duomo is a virtual archive of Catholic history, a collage of both medieval and modern mosaics, scenes of Mary's birth and coronation, Christ's baptism, and the Last Judgment.   On Sunday morning I joined the Skillens and several students to worship in the thousand-year-old church of San Giovenale. The simple facade stares over the cliff's edge. Inside, the church's stone walls are adorned sparsely, just a few frescoes from the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, both high points in the Orvieto School of painting. Under the Torro de Moro—the tower named for a Moor once hung from its crest—the city's art gallery was sponsoring an exhibit of modern photographs. This summer Bruce Herman’s "Broken Beauty" paintings will be here, filling the multi-room gallery with another layer of reflection and witness. 

Although students meet the past at every turn, they are now in Italy during the public soul-searching over the Catholic future and the beginning of a new papacy.   By all reports, John Paul II was a man who belonged equally to the past and to the future. In the aftermath of Vatican II, he resisted the progressive tides to ordain women, approve contraception, or expand moral license for scientists. Yet, far better than most leaders, he understood the power of the media and ventured where the Church saw its future—into Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines, into old Communist and colonial powers where Catholicism now enjoys the daylight. On his funeral bier he wore the weathered shoes that had gathered the dust of many nations. With these soles he entered synagogues, mosques, and animist huts—and challenged capitalists and socialists alike. Last Friday, the red-and-white national flags and Solidarity banners that filled St. Peter's Square were a farewell from Polish mourners, those unlikely to see another pontiff from their homeland. But other flags around Saint Peter's also affirmed that this papacy had enlarged the pontiff's world. Orthodox clerics, rival politicians, Jerusalem rabbis, Arab imams, and Hindu priests gathered for the liturgy that prepared John Paul's body for the grave. Now, in the secrecy of the Vatican, the conclave of cardinals must consider more than the preservation of ancient privilege and the Roman rite. They must anticipate how a new pontiff's voice will resound in the corridors of Western parliaments and presidencies and calm the storms of interfaith rage. They must consider how the new pope will transpose the Gospel message for the faithful in the varied cultures of the southern hemisphere. What we saw last Friday on CNN—the dispersion of communion wafers among the public in Saint Peter's Square blended with live clips of mourners in Warsaw, Guatemala and Japan—were images of global intimacy, the iconography of modern media.

Although far removed from the glare of CNN, Orvieto itself lives with its own history of preservation and transposition. The Duomo is the keeper of one of the deepest Catholic mysteries and the spark for one of the most ecumenical and egalitarians traditions in the history of the faith.   In the late thirteenth century, a Bohemian priest named Peter of Prague undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, largely to overcome doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation. According to tradition, it was not Rome that restored his faith, but the crypt of Saint Christina in the town of Bolsena, a waystation on his journey home. There, while at mass, he reportedly saw blood dripping from the Host, soaking the Eucharistic altar cloth. Pope Urban IV—who was in residence in Orvieto at that time—heard reports of the miracle and commissioned the building of a great basilica to house the bloody relic. In the Duomo, just across the transept from the Cappella Nuova, the Chapel of the Corporal preserves the cloth that, for Pope Urban and centuries of Catholic devout, contains the literal blood of Christ. 

The story of the Miracle of Bolsena inspired the Pope to inaugurate a new tradition, the Feast of Corpus Christi, or the "Body of Christ," now celebrated in June. Ever since the Pope's famous decree of 1264, the Feast of Corpus Christi is the day when cardinals, priests and the Catholic faithful process through Orvieto, walking behind the "reliquary," or the gold-and-silver cabinet housing the blood-stained cloth. Saint Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas were once asked to write hymns for the occasion. Within a half a century, Corpus Christi observances had spread through Europe to the British Isles, where they inspired a tradition of "miracle" or "mystery" plays that recounted biblical history. To bolster participation from the community, the British churches gave away generous indulgences. As many as one hundred days could be sliced off one's stay in Purgatory by attending a Corpus Christi mass. That bought plenty of enthusiasm—and some occasional trouble. The Corpus Christi pageant soon became a festive and communal affair, part Rose Parade, part Mardi Gras. Flowers and lights decorated the "Route of the Holy Sacrament" and trade guilds competed for the most elaborate torches and displays. The Church even passed laws to prevent clergy from bickering over their place in the procession. At some point, the guilds began to construct still-life displays of biblical scenes to carry along in the pageant, and rather quickly these still-life tableaus evolved into short plays. The guilds, proud of their crafts, began to claim certain plays for their own. Ship-builders, for instance, reenacted the story of Noah. Individual scripts from these play cycles have been discovered in many towns, but there are full play cycles that endure virtually intact—especially, the great cycles from the British towns of Wakefield and York.

The mystery plays became one of medieval Europe's most notable literary traditions, the harvest of the medieval Church seasoned with a little raucous democracy. In time, the English mystery cycle, like Christianity itself, has flooded the world. Even in the medieval era, the Wakefield cycle included a short play about Thomas of India. As early as the fourteenth century, English guilds could not tell the story of Christian history without recounting the spread of the apostles' witness into Asia. Shakespeare borrowed motifs from the plays. Mel Gibson's high-stakes film "The Passion of the Christ" cuts Pilate some slack, a concession that can be traced back to the mystery play tradition itself.   Today, in Tokyo, the Wakefield cycle is blended with Noh theatre, the deliberate, nearly silent mannerisms of Japanese drama. On a stage in Sao Paulo, a group of "saltimbancos," or acrobats, tell of Jesus' travels and death in the northeastern backwoods of Brazil. In one South African version, Mary Magdalene assumes the guise of a township mother, weeping over the violence in a nearby shanty. Each year, on all continents, Jesus is born on city streets and dies a hundred times on the steps of the cathedrals.

Last spring, under the guidance of New York director and Gordon alumae Karen Conrood, several mystery dramas were produced in Orvieto, along with cooperation from John Skillen, Mark Stevick and others. This is an example of what John envisions as a "studio for art, faith and history" in Orvieto—a gathering of artists, scholars and students who seek to create something new out of the heritage of the past. Five plays—framed by the story of the road to Emmaus—were performed in the streets around San Giovenale. On my Sunday walk to church, John and Susie took me down the Via Filippeschi, alongside the town's "Sistema Proporzionale," a large plywood wall designated for political posters. Centuries ago the poet Dante, furious about the politics in the "whorehouse" of "slavish Italy," interrupts his journey up Mount Purgatory to rail against the cowardly Filippeschis and other contentious clans in medieval Orvieto and beyond. Just off the Via Filippeschi, John pointed to his own underworld, the steep descent of the Via del Caccia, site of last spring's play about the "Harrowing of Hell." The sanctuary of San Giovenale provided the setting for the grandest of the Old Testament dramas—the story of Abraham's readiness to slay his son. In the medieval cycle, the sacrifice of Isaac was played as a precursor of the Crucifixion, complete with anachronistic allusions to "Christ's blood." Just beyond San Giovenale's portal, last spring's players performed John's own adaptation of the Noah play, known for its humorous banter between the shipbuilder and his wife. "The Second Shepherds' Play"—the other great comedy from the cycles—took yet another sportive turn when Mark Stevick infused the shepherds’ language with idioms from Gloucester fishermen. 

This spring, once again, Orvieto's residents will gather to watch the mystery cycle. It is as if the English literary genre—molded anew by American hands—has come home, returning to the very site from which the Corpus Christi tradition took wings. As a Protestant, I may not embrace the mystical literalism of the Bolsena miracle, but there is something invigorating knowing that our program rests at the hinge of Orvieto's past and future. In our modest way, by helping our own students discover Italy's artistic legacy, Gordon-in-Orvieto is seeking to rekindle local interest in the town's heritage. Artwork from our students and faculty is now on display in Orvieto gardens and galleries. Sculptures by Jim Zingarelli's and Shelley Bradbury's students fill the garden at San Lodovico. One local bank has invested in the eschatology conference and the mystery plays. At a time when the communion of saints belongs increasingly to the cable and web, there is need for drama as a communal and spoken event, a procession of actors and audience through the public and sacred spaces of the town. Even then, the plays are no mere antiquarian's retreat, but also a sign in their own right of the worldwide faith. They are fruits of a medieval tradition, flung far from their Italian source, now filled with the idioms and gestures of a modern Anglo-American language and culture. They are, in their own way, testaments and inventions from one corner of the global communion of Christian pilgrims—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and seeker alike. 

In just a few days it was hard to grasp all of the possibilities for Gordon in Italy, but those prospects were enough to keep my mind turning, even during my jet-lagged nights or the spare hours I had to stroll through the damp streets. Dusk was always a good time for a walk, as the Umbrian landscape absorbs the darkness. One evening I made the short descent from the Convent through the Via della Cava—the "way of the quarry"—to the oldest gate in the city, a great arc first hewn by the Etruscans out of the tufa rock. As I left the old town, I clung to the path along the base of the rain-soaked stone. That trail provides superb vistas over the valleys beyond. Except for the steady stream of the distant autostrata, lights appeared in pockets, marking the small villages that have endured for nearly a millennium.   Spring seemed imminent, though still at bay. Snow patches lingered on the northern hill slopes. In almost every direction, I could see small villas and several rolling vineyards, still skeletal in the sharp March wind. Now and then, the wind stirred one of the empty wet cigarette packets along the path, about the only debris you will ever see on Orvieto's grassy fringes or cobblestones. Thick labels with health warnings all but mask the brand names on Italian cigarettes, though the smell of nicotine still pervades the cafés and shops. At the foot of the volcanic plateau, archeologists have uncovered the Etruscan necropolis, a subterranean neighborhood of burial houses, a virtual "city of the dead," with roads separating the rows of chamber-tombs. 

On the surrounding hills there are several olive groves, framed by fences or earthen mounds. Some of the hoary tree trunks have thickened, but often you will see new stalks springing out of the stumps, covered with rich humus by botanists eager to reinvigorate the historic groves. If tended well, the old stumps will not die. A new generation of stems and branches will once more seize life from the ancient roots.