Key to Umbria: Orvieto

San Domenico (1235-64)

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San Domenico:  Main page    Monument to Cardinal de Bray  Petrucci Tomb and Chapel

The Dominicans took over an existing church here in 1232 that was dedicated as Santa Maria della Pace.  In 1235, Pope Gregory IX granted indulgences and also requested subsidies from the Commune  in order to finance the construction of a new church on the site.  This seems to have been the first in Italy to be dedicated to St. Dominic (who was canonised in 1234).  The Dominicans held a general chapter here in 1245. 

The Dominican Fra Costantino Medici, the author of a Legenda Sancti Dominici (1246-7), was bishop of Orvieto in the period ca. 1250-6.  In 1254, he promulgated an indulgence for those celebrating the feasts of St Dominic and of the newly-canonised St Peter Martyr at San Domenico.

This church and the adjacent convent became particularly important during the period that Pope Urban IV and the papal curia spent in Orvieto in 1262-4.  The German St Albert the Great apparently stayed at San Domenico at this time.  His pupil, St Thomas Aquinas, taught theology at the convent in 1261-5, and it was during this period that he composed the Office of Corpus Christi at the behest of Urban IV to celebrate the miracle of Bolsena. 

Urban IV consecrated San Domenico in 1264, although it is possible that its nave was not completed until ca. 1285.  The carving of the capitals in the choir (the only part of the church that now survives - see below) suggests that this part of it was rebuilt in the late 13th century.

Four cardinals who died in the 13th century while the papal court was in Orvieto were buried in the church :

  1. Hugh of St Cher (Ugo di San Caro, in 1263), the first Dominican cardinal, at the court of Urban IV;

  2. two members of the court of Pope Gregory X:

  3. Annibaldo d' Annibaldi della Molara, another Dominican cardinal (in 1272);

  4. Eudes de Chateauroux (in 1273); and

  5. Guillaume de Bray (in 1282), at the court of Pope Martin IV.

All four must have had important monuments, but only the last of these (see the page on the Monument to Cardinal de Bray) survives.

The relics of the Blessed Jane (Giovanna, Vanna) of Orvieto, a Dominican tertiary, were translated to San Domenico in 1307.  Although she had been dead for some 15 months, her body was apparently uncorrupt.  Pope Benedict XIV confirmed the cult of the Blessed Jane of Orvieto in 1754.  Her relics were translated to her native Carnaiola in 2000.

The roof of the church and convent were destroyed by fire in 1311, and the  complex was abandoned again for an unknown reason in the period 1380-1401.   The church was remodelled in the Baroque style in 1680, which involved the demolition of half of the nave and the adaptation of the aisles into side chapels. 

However, the most catastrophic event came in 1934 when the Fascist government destroyed the nave of the church and adjoining convent to make way for the Accademia Femminile di Educazione Fisica (a girls' school for physical exercise that later passed to the military), which is to the left in the photograph below. 


The current façade was originally the wall of the right transept.  Its bifore window survives.  

The pillars and huge arch that originally connected the crossing to the nave can be seen (both outside and inside) on what is now the left wall.   The use of alternating white and black stone in the piers of San Domenico foreshadowed the more extensive use of this motif on the Duomo.

The Gothic portal (1421), and the fresco in its lunette of the Annunciation, came from the church of Santo Spirito degli Armeni in 1934. 


As you enter, the what was originally the wall of the left transept now provides the backdrop to the high altar.  The original square apse and four apsidal chapels on the right, and the closed arch that originally connected the crossing to the nave is on the left. 

The demolished body of the church comprised a nave and two narrow side aisles, all of the same height.  This was typical of 13th century Dominican architecture, and was designed to facilitate preaching to large congregations.

The choir was moved from the crossing to the apse and the floor level of the apse was raised in ca. 1580.  As noted above, further modifications were carried out in 1680: half of the nave and almost all of the Gothic funerary monuments in the church were destroyed at this time.  The rest of the nave was destroyed in 1934.  Thus, the present high altar is on what was the back wall of the left transept, and the original apse is halfway along the present nave, on the right.

[Relics and portraits of St Agnes of Montepulciano, Blessed Daniella of Orvieto???]

Cappella di San Tommaso

This chapel (the apsidal chapel to the right of the apse) is dedicated to St Thomas Aquinas.   The 17th century wooden case on the left houses the remains of the so-called cathedra of St Thomas Aquinas (i.e. the seat from which he taught theology during his stay in the convent).  Pope Pius XI verified the authenticity of this relic in 1934.

More specifically, the chapel commemorates a vision that he was said to have had here while meditating before the Crucifix on the miracle of Transubstantiation:

  1. St Thomas heard Christ speaking to him from the Cross:

  2. "Bene scripsisti de me Thoma; quam ergo mercedem accipias ?"

  3. (You have written well of me, Thomas (a reference to the Office of Corpus Christi); what reward would you have?)

  4. To which Thomas replied:

  5. "Non aliam Domine nisi te ipsum"

  6. (None other than Thyself, Lord).

(It has to be said that this miracle was also claimed to have happened in Naples).


             Crucifix speaks to St Thomas Aquinas             Crucifix                        St Thomas Aquinas

                                   (14th century?)                           (12th century)                        (14th century)

Detached fresco (14th century?)

This damaged detached fresco [on the left wall] depicts an image of Christ on the cross that speaks to St Thomas.

Crucifix (12th century)

Thcrucifix on the altar is said to include the image of Christ that actually spoke to St Thomas.

St Thomas Aquinas (14th century)

In this damaged fresco on the right, St Thomas meditates before the Crucifix, his breviary open at the Office of Corpus Christi.  [Is he pointing to the Sacro Corporale?]

Crucifixion (14th or 15th century)

This fresco in the aedicule to the left on the right wall depicts the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist.  There are figures of saints on the sides of the aedicule:
  1. St Peter (on the left); and

  2. St Paul (on the right).

Monument to Vincenzo Aviamonti (1553)

The funerary inscription between the Crucifixion and the fresco of St Thomas Aquinas (above) commemorates Vincenzo Aviamonti.  It is set between two damaged frescoes that formed part of the monument:
  1. a Pietà, in which Christ rises from the tomb wearing the crown of thorns; and

  2. two putti with a coat of arms, presumably those of the Aviamonti family.

Cappella di San Pietro Martire

This is the apsidal chapel to the left of the apse.

Frescoes (ca. 1430)


Two frescoes in the Cappella di San Pietro Martire are attributed to Pietro di Nicola Baroni:

  1. the Martyrdom of St Peter Martyr (ca. 1430), to the left on the left wall, which depicts the murder of the saint and his companion; and

  2. the fresco (1430), to the right on the left wall, which is dated by inscription, and which depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned and:

  3. St Dominic (carrying the lily of purity);

  4. St James (with his pilgrim's staff);

  5. St Antony Abbot (with his pig); and

  6. St Peter Martyr (with the knife that killed him still in his back).

Original Apse

The Petrucci Tomb has recently been returned to the floor of the apse.  The openings on each side of the back wall lead down to the related Cappella Petrucci (also described on the page on the tomb).

Altarpieces (16th century)


                                                     Madonna del Rosario                  Visitation

Two altarpieces in San Domenico are attributed to Cesare Nebbia:

  1. The Madonna del Rosario (ca. 1575) on the left wall was commissioned for the altar of the Compagnia del Rosario.  It depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned with SS Dominic and Catherine of Siena: the baby Jesus presents a rosary to St Catherine.

  2. The Visitation (16th century) on the right wall was commissioned for the Missini family, to which the donor at the lower right presumably belonged.

Art from the Church

Panels from the San Domenico Polyptych (ca. 1321)

These five panels in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo are the only ones that survive from a polyptych from San Domenico.  The central panel bears the signature of Simone Martini and the date MCCCXX... (1320 or soon thereafter).   The polyptych also probably had panels in an upper register and a predella below, but these have been lost. 

The gallery displays the surviving panels thus:

  1. SS Mary Magdalene, Dominic and Peter on the left; and

  2. St Paul on the right. 

If (as seems likely) this is their original disposition, there must have been two other panels in this register depicting saints (probably of SS Peter Martyr and Catherine of Alexandria, to the sides of St Paul) looking to the left.  The lovely figures of SS Peter and Paul are markedly more lifelike than the others, which have suffered from over-restoration and may in any case have been workshop productions. 

A kneeling bishop, presumably the donor, is depicted in the panel of St Mary Magdalene.  The chronicle of the church says that  Trasmondo Monaldeschi, Bishop of Sovana, who was devoted to St Mary Magdalene, paid for the high altar of the church, and it is reasonable to assume that he also commissioned this polyptych.