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Resurrection of the Flesh
Katie Kresser, Ph.D.May 16, 20244 min read

Beauty and Tradition: The Cultural Legacy of a Eucharistic Miracle

Readers of the Magis Center blog will be familiar with the remarkable science around Eucharistic miracles. In these rare instances, consecrated hosts transform into literal human flesh or sometimes bleed. Scientific tests performed on some miraculous specimens consistently reveal an AB blood type and flesh resembling human heart tissue. These astounding results, accompanying sometimes shockingly visceral manifestations, can be hard for the modern mind to comprehend. But they seem to be an insistent sign pointing to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the harrowing nature of Christ’s sacrifice.

The Beauty and Tradition of Orvieto, Italy

This past month, I have been privileged to teach an art history course in Orvieto, Italy, to an ecumenical group of Christian students. Though many of these students are not Catholic, they are deeply curious about Catholic liturgy and history. And one thing that has stoked their curiosity is the power of a local Eucharistic miracle.

Orvieto, Italy, is the home of an altar cloth (called a corporal) upon which a Eucharistic host allegedly bled in the year 1263, assuaging the doubts of a priest struggling with his faith. The miracle occurred in the nearby town of Bolsena, but the corporal was soon taken to Orvieto—a fortified city perched high on a plateau. It was here in Orvieto that the Pope would take refuge in times of danger, and it was here that the cloth was brought for safety.The Corporal of Bolsena

The Corporal of Bolsena, displayed in the Chapel of the Corporal, Orvieto, Italy. Photo by the author.

Remarkably, when the miraculous cloth was brought to Orvieto in 1263, a young monk named Thomas Aquinas was teaching here in one of the most important and long-standing Dominican institutes. (The Church of Saint Dominic, where Aquinas worshipped, still stands, even though much of its bulk was destroyed by the Fascist Italian government in the 1930s.) The Pope consulted Aquinas about the miracle, and the feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated worldwide today, was the result.

Legacy of a Eucharistic Miracle: A Religious Awakening

As with many Eucharistic miracles, skeptics have doubted the traditional accounts. Starting in the 1990s, in fact, many in the scientific community had concluded that the Bolsena-Orvieto miracle didn’t involve blood at all but rather a type of red bacteria that could grow on both bread and cloth.

In 2015, however, the Bishop of Orvieto-Todi allowed the cloth to be examined by scientists using the most advanced methods. These investigators' conclusions were at odds with the 20-year-old speculations of the scientific community: the stains on the cloth, it was revealed, were indeed blood. In addition, the cloth was determined to be of an appropriate age, material, and quality to serve as a corporal in the 13th century. The 2015 scientific team did not type the blood on the fragile cloth, but we can hope that further tests will reveal more about this mysterious blood and its connection to other Eucharistic miracles.

Legacy of a Eucharistic Miracle: A Religious Awakening

Meanwhile, the ancient town of Orvieto has been eternally marked by this relic in its midst. As with many Eucharistic miracles, the miracle of Bolsena-Orvieto helped stir a fervent religious awakening in the 13th and 14th centuries that left behind a significant cultural legacy. These include not only the new feast of Corpus Christi but magnificent poetry from St. Thomas Aquinas, beautiful frescoes and panel paintings, and one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom.

Coming upon the Orvieto Cathedral in the late afternoon

Coming upon the Orvieto Cathedral in the late afternoon. Photo by the author.

Legacy of a Eucharistic Miracle: The Cathedral

The Orvieto cathedral, with its majestic facade and its vast, stately interior, was built to be a fitting home for the Eucharistic relic and the faithful who flocked to it. The cathedral also contains one of the most underrated and theologically profound fresco cycles of all time, treating the theme of the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and the ascent of the righteous into heaven. In this profoundly fleshy series of paintings by the Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli, the serious dignity and deep responsibility of being human is on full display, with the glorious, resurrected Christ watching over it all. Indeed, the great Michelangelo visited this fresco cycle as he worked on the Sistine Chapel—a profound meditation on flesh and suffering—and it clearly inspired the more famous artist. Thus, the miracle of Bolsena rippled outward for hundreds of years and impacted the heart of the Vatican, High Renaissance culture, and far beyond.

Luca Signorelli, Resurrection of the Flesh

Luca Signorelli, Resurrection of the Flesh (part of a larger fresco cycle), 1502 / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Legacy of a Eucharistic Miracle Today

Today, the altar cloth of Bolsena sits on display in its beautiful chapel in the Orvieto cathedral (see above). Every year, it is shown between Easter and Pentecost, after which it is again protected behind closed doors (its fragile cloth is vulnerable to UV light). Solemn, humble, and unprepossessing, the Corporal of Bolsena reminds us not only of Christ’s sacrifice but of the gentle, earthy willingness of God to descend into our physical world again and again to meet us where we are. Amidst great Renaissance and Baroque splendors, this humble piece of cloth reminds us of the humility of Jesus as a baby, a wandering preacher, a condemned criminal, and an innocent victim. Such rich and beautiful paradoxes are a hallmark of Christian culture through the centuries, speaking to every dimension of the human experience.


Katie Kresser, Ph.D.

Katie is a Professor of Art History at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. Originally from Indiana, Katie earned her undergraduate degree from Indiana University, and her graduate degrees from Harvard University. She is the author of two books and several scholarly essays and has curated numerous exhibitions. She lives in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard with her husband and two kids, where she enjoys walking, beachcombing and making music. She is continually fascinated by the human creative process and its capacity to open windows onto the spiritual.