Despite the crowds, the hilltop town of Assisi has a tranquil feel suited to its pious history. Except for electricity wires and the whir of cameras, it is easy to assume that you could stroll past the introspective brown-robed figure of St Francis shuffling the medieval cobbled laneways of Assisi. The Catholic pilgrimagetown includes a rich Roman history and fine medieval fortress making for a rich treasure trove of sights to explore.
Born to a wealthy merchant, Francis abandoned his lifestyle, embracing poverty and chastity after receiving a vision in 1204. Preaching repentance and founding the Franciscans, Francis inspired many including Clare (Chiara) of Assisi who founded The Poor Clares (Order of St Clare).
The Basilica of St Francis (San Francesco) celebrates the saint’s life in a glorious dual-church Gothic construction. The Upper Church contains an uplifting high-vaulted interior richly lit and adorned with spectacular frescoes. Most significant are Giotto’s (whether he painted them is still disputed) mesmerising 28 frescoes detailing St Francis’ life from “Homage of a Simple Man” through to “Liberation of the Heretic Peter“, the ascribed miracle which granted St Francis his sainthood. “Sermon to the Birds” reminds us that St Francis considered the importance of all animals (all Giotto’s frescoes can be viewed here). It is generally accepted that Giotto didn’t paint the last few frescoes, a guide able to indicate the subtle differences in brushwork and artistry that raises the doubt.
In a hot show of disrespect, Napoleon stabled his horses in the Upper Church destroying valued Franciscan documentation on the artistic commissions for the various church paintings.
A further 32 frescoes details stories from the Old Testament showing that St Francis preferred a simpler life, the characters (including Christ and Mary) in the paintings looking distinctly more Italian and less angelic and stylised to perfection.
The darker Lower Church contains numerous further frescoes and the high altar under which St Francis is buried. A small side chapel includes various relics from St Francis’s life including his shirt, sandals and fragments of his writings. The crypt contains a tall stone tower containing the venerated body of St Francis.
At night, the basilica takes on a somewhat heavenly appearance, gentle lighting on the white building giving an angelic look to the church complex.
While the friars manically try to manage the large gatherings of folks and enforce their policies on quietness, modest dress standards and no photography, find a peaceful corner and simply look around. With priceless art covering its walls and fine views over the valley below, the churches manages a serenity unlike most others.
Surely St Francis, one of Christianity’s finest practitioners would look down upon Assisi and his basilica with pride.
Come back and explore the rest of Assisi next week.
Art image courtesy of Web gallery of Art