On 7 May 1337 goldsmith Ugolino di Vieri received the first payment for his masterpiece, the reliquary of the Santo Corporale of Bolsena. Payments are recorded for the following two years, reflecting the long process of creating an artwork as complex and monumental as this.
The work was commissioned by the Bishop and Canons of Orvieto Cathedral to celebrate a miracle which had taken place in the nearby town of Bolsena in 1263. A priest in the town had become increasingly sceptical of the religious dogma of transubstantiation, namely the real conversion of the wine and bread used at Mass into the body and blood of Christ at the moment of their consecration. As the priest was celebrating the Eucharist one day, the consecrated host started bleeding on the corporal, the linen cloth used to cover the altar at this point of the celebration. Awed by the supernatural event, the priest described it to Pope Urban IV, who recognised it as a miracle and ordered the preservation of the blood-stained corporal as a relic.
Conceived to contain the square corporal, Ugolino di Vieri’s reliquary abandoned the circular or polygonal shape typical of earlier objects of this type. Instead, it adopted a flat, rectangular structure which evokes an altarpiece or the façade of a church. The gables crowning the object are in fact very similar to those of Orvieto cathedral’s own façade.
The iconography of the reliquary is as innovative as its form. It is decorated with 32 scenes representing the Passion of Christ and the Miracle of Bolsena in colourful basse taille enamel. The former narrative is illustrated with scenes copied from the famous Maestà altarpiece painted by Duccio di Buoninsegna for Siena Cathedral in 1308–11. Instead, the miracle had never been represented in art before, and Ugolino had to invent a completely new iconography to represent the event. Proud perhaps of his great achievement, Ugolino inscribed the reliquary with his name and with its date of completion.
On the day of Corpus Christi, 1338, a solemn procession transported the completed reliquary from Ugolino’s workshop to the cathedral. The procession evokes the similar celebration held for Duccio’s Maestà in 1311, as narrated by an anonymous Sienese chronicler:
On the day on which [the Maestà] was carried to the Duomo, the shops were locked up and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Comune, and all the populace and all the most worthy were in order next to the said panel with lights lit in their hands, and then behind were women and children with much devotion; and they accompanied it right to the Duomo making procession around the Campo, as was the custom, sounding all the bells in glory out of devotion for such a noble panel as was this.
In Orvieto, Ugolino’s reliquary is still paraded every year during Corpus Christi celebrations.
Reliquary of the Santo Corporale, gold and silver with basse taille enamel, 1.39×0.63 m, 1338 (Orvieto Cathedral). Source: Scala/Art Resource, NY
Detail of the Reliquary showing scenes from the Miracle of Bolsena. Source: Sailko on Wikimedia Commons.
Façade of the Duomo of Orvieto. Source: Hans Peter Schaefer on Wikimedia Commons.
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà (back, conjectural reconstruction by Lew Minter), tempera on panel, 1308–1311. Source: Web Gallery of Art.
Reference: Geddes, Helen. “Ugolino di Vieri.” Grove Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000086908.