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Sacro Corporale

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Relic of the Sacro Corporale during the annual

procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi

Miracle of Bolsena

Fresco (1508-13) by Raphael:

Pope Julius II meditates on the miracle of Bolsena

Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatican Palace

This important relic is associated with a miracle that, according to tradition, took place in 1263, during Pope Urban IV’s stay in Orvieto.  A priest, Peter of Prague was making a pilgrimage to Rome in order to resolve doubts that assailed him in relation to the doctrine of Transubstantiation.  He stopped to celebrate Mass at the ancient church of Santa Christina at Bolsena, and as he consecrated the Host, it bled and stained the altar cloth. 

He rushed to Orvieto and presented himself before the Curia and told Urban IV about the miracle.  Urban IV sent the Bishop of Orvieto to collect the Holy Corporal (the stained linen altar cloth).  He duly returned with the relic at the head of a solemn procession and Urban IV led the people out from the city to meet it.  He duly commissioned the Office of Corpus Christi from the future St Thomas Aquinas.

Belief in the miracle persisted and was not confined to Orvieto: for example, it was represented among the frescoes  that Pope Julius II commissioned from Raphael in 1508 for the Stanza di Eliodoro of the Vatican Palace (illustrated above).  Julius II had visited Orvieto and prayed over the relic in 1506.

Feast of Corpus Christi

Juliana of Cornillon, a beguine of Liège, had a recurring dream in which the moon appeared with a small piece missing.  In ca. 1228, Christ appeared to her and told her that the moon was the Church, and that the missing portion represented a feast that was missing from the Church calendar.  She therefore began to campaign for a new Eucharistic feast that would celebrate the miracle of Transubstantiation, the presence of the body of Christ in the consecrated Host.  Bishop Robert of Liège consulted the Dominican scholars in Paris, and on their advice instituted the new feast in the diocese.  It was held five days after Trinity Sunday.

In September 1263, Urban IV (who had been a priest in Liège in 1246) issued the bull Transiturus, which extended the feast to the whole church.  He celebrated it at Santa Maria Prisca, probably on the 19th June 1264 (i.e. not on the date that had been established in Liége).  St Thomas Aquinas, who held the chair of Theology at San Domenico at that time, composed the Office.

Urban IV made no reference to the Miracle of Bolsena in the bull Transiturus.  However, the story emerged or re-emerged at Orvieto early in the 14th century, based on a now-lost document that was written after 1317.  The earliest surviving copy of this document dates to ca. 1563, and this formed the basis of two inscriptions describing the miracle and its aftermath:
  1. in Santa Christina, Bolsena (1573), which no longer survive; and

  2. in four inscriptions (1601) in the Cappella del Corporale of the Duomo, Orvieto, two of which are illustrated here.  

The bull was not widely disseminated, probably because of disputes within the Church relating to the underlying doctrine.  The earliest recorded celebration of it at Orvieto after 1264 was 1337, although it was probably celebrated there as elsewhere after 1317.  The celebration of 1337 involved an extended public holiday and a procession through the city that marked it as the most important religious feast in Orvieto.

The procession still takes place each year on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.  During the procession, pride of place is given to the Sacro Corporale. 

Sacro Corporale   


                          Reliquary (1337-8)             Tabernacle (1358-63)                     Present reliquary

The location of the Sacro Corporale (the altar cloth stained with the blood of Christ) during its first decades in Orvieto is unknown.  It was probably venerated in Santa Maria Prisca and then (after ca. 1297) in the new Duomo, but it is not mentioned in any surviving documents (nor is it illustrated in any surviving art) until the emergence of Ermanno Monaldeschi as Lord of Orvieto in 1334, when his brother, the Dominican Beltramo Monaldeschi, was its bishop.

As noted above, the feast of Corpus Domini was  probably celebrated annually in Orvieto as elsewhere from 1317.  However, the earliest surviving reference to this celebration in Orvieto dates to 1338, when it involved an extended public holiday.  At this point, the Sacro Corporale, which was housed in a magnificent reliquary, was taken in procession around the city.  The inscription on the reliquary states that Bishop Beltramo Monaldeschi, the Archpriest Angelo, the papapl chaplain Ligo and a number of named canons of the Duomo had commissioned it from “magistrum Ugolinum et socios, Aurifices de Senis” (Ugolino di Vieri and associates, goldsmiths of Siena) in 1338, during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XII.  It was probably manufactured in Siena, and associated payments are documented in the period 1337-9. 

The double-sided reliquary replicates the arrangement of the facade of the Duomo.  The eight enamels in the upper and middle registers of the shutters on the front constitute the earliest surviving narrative depiction of the Miracle of Bolsena and formed the basis for future representations, including the frescoes of this subject in this chapel (see below).  The other four enamels on the front and the twelve enamels on the back depict scenes from the Passion, and those around the base depict scenes from the early life of Christ.  

A new chapel in the Duomo, the Cappella del Corporale, was built in 1350 to house the Sacro Corporale.  In 1358, a certain Nicolò da Siena was commissioned to design a tabernacle in which it could be exhibited on the altar: it is usually assumed that Andrea Orcagna (who was capomaestro at this time) directed the project.  Fittings were commissioned in 1363, presumably to hold the finished tabernacle in place.  A set of keys was commissioned for the tabernacle in 1366, together with a set of stairs, presumably to facilitate access to it.  The relic is now housed in a more portable reliquary in this tabernacle, while the original reliquary is displayed to the left of the entrance to the chapel.

16th Century Remodelling of the Duomo 

One of the main causes for Protestant dissent in the 16th century was the rejection of the mystery of transubstantiation.  In response, the Council of Trent (in its13th session in 1551) reaffirmed "that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood ... which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation".  This reaffirmation was particularly important in Orvieto, the home of the Sacro Corporale.  It is therefore unsurprising that the earliest phase of the remodelling of the Duomo at this time was driven by the desire to stimulate the veneration of the Host.  The way that this was effected is set out in the page on the 16th Century Remodelling of the Duomo.

Read more:

G. Freni, “The Reliquary of the Holy Corporal in the Cathedral of Orvieto: Patronage and Politics”, in

  1. J. Cannon and B. Williamson (Eds), “Art, Politics and Civic Religion in Central Italy, 1261-1352”, (2000) Aldershot, pp 117-78 (and particularly pp 121-4 for the relic and the feast of Corpus Domini)

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