Summer of 1228. Less than two years from his death, Francis of Assisi is canonised and is about to become one of the most famous men and saints in the world. Elia of Cortona, friar of the monastic order founded by the Saint, was in open disagreement with his brothers. He maintained that the death of Francis left an unfillable void in the Church. The memory of his values and deeds had to be passed on from generation to generation until Judgement Day, and not one bit of his glory was to be forgotten. Elia knew very well that every memory fades away eventually, therefore it was necessary to break the Rule – Francis’ own will – which imposed humbleness and poverty to the order as well as rejecting any sum of money unless it was for “the needs of the ill or to clothe other friars”. Elia knew that in order to keep Francis’ extraordinary message intact through the centuries, it had to be conveyed through the beauty and grandiosity of his mausoleum, the very same features that allowed the temples, tombs, and memory of the greatest figures in history to be here today. Despite betraying the Rule was a source of great sorrow to Elia, he was convinced that it was the only way. And so it was. When you admire the Basilica of Saint Francis in all its glory, its marvellous decorations, you shall take a second to think that they are the result of the spiritual labour and resilience of a man with huge responsibilities, going through a never-ending struggle with himself and others.
Two years later, the construction of the lower Basilica was probably well under way, because the body of the saint – which until then was kept in the Church of S. Giorgio, now replaced by the Basilica of Saint Clare – was moved inside it. It is not certain when the works for the upper Basilica began, but we know that the finishing touches were completed in 1267. The complex, consisting of two different churches, one above the other, and the Sacro Convento, is built according to Francis’ wishes – at least this one was observed ‒ on a prominence known as Hill of Hell. This name was given because, before the Basilica was built, the hill was a lugubrious peripheral area of the city used for capital punishment. Since the first stone was laid, its name changed to Paradise Hill.
The Basilica attracted artists and master builders from all over the world for its construction. Elia of Cortona chose the finest and most modern materials available at the time for his master project. He commissioned the Comacine Masters, who moved in large numbers from the North of Italy, to work exclusively on the Basilica. They brought along innovative techniques never seen before. They imported the use of the Gothic Style from Europe, for instance. The Basilica is one of the very first buildings in Central-Southern Italy that blends Gothic architecture with the then predominant Romanic style. But how can the Gothic influence be recognised?
Take the Milan Cathedral, a perfect example of Gothic architecture, if you compare it with the Basilica of Saint Francis you will certainly not find many similarities. In fact the “Gothicness” of the Basilica is not to be found in its structure, short, squat and mighty as most Roman churches, but in its architectural details. For example the arches of the pointed vaults and windows; the ribs, which are elements that serve both a decorative and structural purpose splitting the vaults equally; the presence of rose windows on the façade and the enormous and luminous stained glass windows, amongst the oldest in the world. These are evidences of an unmistakable Gothic influence. The The Comacine Masters, who had come to Assisi for their long-term assignment at the Basilica, must have liked the city, since some of them decided to stay permanently and worked on other buildings, leaving their mark across the city. Walking through the streets of Assisi, on the façades and epistyles of certain buildings, you can spot the coat of arms of their corporation, depicting an open compass on top of a flower, such as the one on the Loggia dei Comacini in Via S. Francesco, the street that connects the Basilica to the City Square.
In the XV century, the cult of Saint Francis was peaking and the current square was built to replace the courtyard in front of the Basilica, at that point too small to contain the multitude of pilgrims pouring into the city to celebrate the saint. This immense mass of people attracted an equally huge crowd of merchants and peddlers who were going as far as occupying the space inside the Basilica with their stands. The Pope ordered to also fix the square in front of the lower Basilica, so the merchants could place their stands, in an orderly fashion, under the arches.
The remains of Francis were buried in a very deep and secret spot to protect them from marauders and relic collectors, so secret that it was eventually forgotten. In 1818 the Pope gave order to probe the terrain under the altar of the lower Basilica and, after 52 nights of digging, when all hope seemed lost and doubt was starting to creep in, one worker hit a hard block of granite with his pick. The sepulchre of the saint was finally found.
The following year Assisi was swarmed by pilgrims like never before and later, the crypt below the lower Basilica was built to give an appropriate home to the saint’s body, adding another level to the complex.
When visiting the two Basilicas, their different auras can be clearly perceived: the lower Basilica, with its underground crypt, is darker and more secluded; the upper Basilica is more luminous, graceful, and celebratory. There is of course a reason. The lower Basilica was dedicated to the saint’s life on earth, a life of sacrifice and deprivation; the upper basilica should represent the sanctity and glory of Francis’ celestial afterlife. This was Elia’s idea: in order to perpetuate Francis’ greatness the Basilica itself had to be part of the narration. The life and values of Francis, through the emotions sparked by the architecture as well ass the messages conveyed through paintings, decorations, and colours, had to be immediately understandable to any devotee, even the illiterate.
But there was more: moving from the lower Basilica to the upper one, another transition can be clearly noticed, and it concerns the paintings. You can experience an epochal shift through art, from the Greek-Byzantine approach – and its oriental influences and flavours – to a typically Italian style, which will accompany the geniuses of this world in conceiving one of the most important cultural movements in history: The Renaissance.
Therefore, following the plan Elia had for us, we are going to start our visit from the lower Basilica, or Basilica Inferiore. The only nave is decorated with the oldest frescoes of the church, the Bizantine influence is evident and can be recognised by their static nature and less realistic figures, which serve a symbolic purpose. Many of the frescoes on the vaults have a dark blue background dotted with golden stars, while the ribs are decorated with geometrical motifs. The right part of the transept features one of Cimabue‘s oldest and finest works: Madonna in trono con S. Francesco (Madonna on the Throne with Saint Francis). It is said that it was so beautiful that the painter who was hired to redo the vault a few decades later refused to touch it. Luckily! Because this is the most faithful portrait of Francis ever painted. It corresponds perfectly to how his aspect was described by his contemporaries. The scenes of the back wall include some frescoes depicting the miracles of Saint Francis. One of them portrays the Death of the boy in Sessa, died under the ruins of a collapsed building and resurrected by Francis after the mother prayed for his help. The fresco, painted by Giotto’s Workshop, is said to feature portraits of Dante and Giotto himself, who appears on the left side of the grieving crowd crying with a hand on his chin. On the left part of the transepts there are some frescoes by other prominent artists such as Pietro Lorenzetti with his Crucifixion. On the left side of the nave sits one of the most beautiful chapels of the church, the Chapel of Saint Martin, frescoed by Simone Martini, painter of the Sienese School and one of the very few contemporaries who could compete with Giotto. In his frescoes we can find a refined and faithful reproduction of the aristocratic and chivalric styles and costumes of the XIV Century. The reliquary on the High Altar contains a rib belonging to John the Baptist. It was placed there by the will of Pope Innocent IV. The left transept leads to the sacristy and then to the secret sacristy, where are kept – among other relics – the original bill of approval of the Rule promulgated by Pope Honorius III in 1223 and some of Francis’ personal belongings. The stairs on the left of the nave bring to the majestic Cloister of Sisto IV, where exhibitions and events are frequently held.
From the middle of the nave, we take the small flight of steps on the right and descend into the crypt.
The chapel of the crypt as we see it today was built between 1925 and 1932. The tomb still contains the original urn where Francis’ remains were placed by Elia. Four of the saint’s faithful disciples are also buried here: the Blessed Rufino, Leone, Masseo and Angelo. No words can describe the atmosphere and sensations one feels in the presence of the Saint’s grave, whether your are religious or not.
In the Basilica Superiore you will have a chance to enjoy Cimabue‘s finest frescoes, including the Crucifixion, on the left part of the transept. Unfortunately the white lead paint darkened due to oxidation, giving the artwork a sort of photo-negative look. Despite this, the great evocative force of the subject is unaffected. Giorgio Vasari, one of the leading art historians in Italy, give us a very accurate picture of how these frescoes must have looked like before: “I do believe that such work, truly grandiose, and rich, and impeccably executed, must have left the world in awe at the time […] and I, seeing it again in 1563, thought it was magnificent, wondering how in such darkness could Cimabue see so much light”.
One of the pupils who helped Cimabue work in his fresco was a certain Giotto di Bondone; yes, that Giotto! How about the student becoming the master? He’s considered by many one of the fathers of Renaissance. His mastery and innovative style are clearly evident in the Basilica’s frescoes, especially in the Stories of Saint Francis series, which cover the lower part of the nave. We recommend taking a few moments to fully appreciate the famous “Sermon to the birds”; then move to the “Pope Innocent III Confirms the Franciscan Rule”, depicting Francis and his order kneeling before the Pope as the Saint hands him the list of precepts. In the original work Francis was standing, but the Curia forced the Florentine artist to change his painting at the last minute. Regardless of how revolutionary Francis’ ideas were, he still had to submit to the power of the Church. Then again the “Greccio Nativity Scene”, telling the story of the first nativity scene in the world, wanted by Francis. Observe the friars singing in the choir: for the first time in the history of painting, a person’s teeth are shown. Then move to the upper part of the nave’s left wall, where Giotto painted the “Deposition of the Cross”. Look at the expressiveness of the incredulous and desperate faces who stare at Christ’s helpless body and compare them with the faces painted by Cimabue. Let’s say that for a XIV Century person, walking into the Basilica and seeing Giotto‘s painting would be a similar experience to standing in a church with 3D and holographic paintings for us today. That was the closest reproduction of reality that they had ever seen.
Form inside the Basilica you can gain access to the Sacro Convento (Holy Friary), which is contemporary to the Basilica and housed the papal residence. The structure doubled as fortress and is heavy and sturdy. Due to the continuous expansion works carried-out throughout the years, additional external supports were required. So the 52 majestic bearing arches were added, their construction began in 1300 and lasted for over a century, they can be seen from miles away. The papal residence is also home to the Museum of the Treasure, an important collection of sacred medieval art and jewellery started in the middle of the XIII Century by the will of Gregory IX. Some of the most beautiful and precious objects donated to the Franciscan Order throughout the Centuries are kept here, including the Guccio di Mannaia’s Chalice, sacred missals and breviaries, and the Perkins collection, given in the 1950’s by the art historian Frederick M. Perkins, which include beautiful tables painted byPietro Lorenzetti, Lorenzo Monaco, and Sassetta.