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Basilica of St. Francis – Assisi, Italy

One of the greatest Christian shrines in the world, the Basilica of St. Francis is visited by a vast number of pilgrims throughout the year.

It is the burial place of St. Francis, and building work began two years after the saint’s death in 1226. Over the following century, its Upper and Lower churches were decorated by the foremost artists of the day, among them Cimabue, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Giotto, whose frescoes on the Life of St Francis are among the most renowned in Italy.

ST. FRANCIS

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The highly revered St. Pranas was born in Assisi in 1182 to a rich family. During his mid-20s, he decided to reject his family’s wealth and live a life of poverty, chastity, meditation, and prayer. He looked after the sick and extended his care to birds and animals. His humble spirituality soon attracted numerous followers and he established a religious order, the Friars Minor, in 1209. The order was orally recognized by Pope Innocent III the same year, and in 1223, it was officially confirmed by Pope Honorius III. A Franciscan order of nuns, the Poor Clares, was founded in 1215. St. Francis died in Assisi in 1226 and was canonized two years later. He was made the patron saint of Italy in 1939.

THE EARTHQUAKES OF 1997

In 1997, two strong earthquakes hit Umbria, leaving 11 people dead and tens of thousands homeless. A large number of centuries-old buildings were also badly damaged. The eastern part of the province was the most affected, with the basilica in Assisi suffering the worst structural upheaval. In the Upper Church, the vaults in the two bays collapsed, shattering ancient frescoes by Cimabue, and others attributed to Giotto. However, the great St. Francis cycle (frescoes by Giotto) survived, as did the stained-glass windows. Painstaking restoration followed, and the church reopened to the public in November 1999.

GIOTTO’S FRESCOES

The work of the great Tuscan architect and artist Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) is often seen as the inspirational starting point for Western painting. He broke away from the ornate, but highly formalized, Byzantine style to visualize naturalness and human emotions, placing three-dimensional figures in convincing settings. The St. Francis cycle was painted “al fresco” by spreading paint onto a thin layer of damp, freshly laid plaster. Pigments were drawn into the plaster by surface tension and the color became fixed as the plaster dried. The pigments reacted with the lime in the plaster to produce strong, rich colors. The technique is not suited to damp climates, but had been used for centuries in hot, dry Italy.

St Francis

Cimabue’s simple painting (c. 1280) captures the humility of the revered saint.

Crypt

This contains the tomb of St. Francis, who was buried here in 1230.

Frescoes by Lorenzetti

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The bold composition of Pietro Lorenzetti’s The Deposition (1323) is based around the truncated Cross and focuses the viewer’s attention on the twisted figure of Christ.

Cappella di San Martino

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The frescoes in this chapel on the Life of St. Martin (131 S) are by the Sienese painter Simone Martini. This panel shows the Death of the Saint. Martini was also responsible for the fine stained glass in the chapel.

Choir

Built in 1501, this features a 13th century stone papal throne.

Lower Church

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Side chapels were created here in the 13th century to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims.

Facade

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The facade and its rose window are early examples of Italian Gothic architecture.

View of the Basilica and Friary

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For centuries, Assisi has been dominated by the humble figure of St. Francis, whose followers have filled the beautiful medieval hilltown with churches, monasteries, and shrines.

Upper Church

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The soaring Gothic lines of the 13th-century Upper Church symbolize the heavenly glory of St. Francis. This style also influenced later Franciscan churches.

Biblical Frescoes

Faded paintings, attributed to Roman artists, line the walls above Giotto’ s Life of St. Francis.

Frescoes by Giotto

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The Ecstasy of St. Francis is one of 28 panels that make up Giotto’s cycle on the Life of St. Francis (c. 1290-95).

THE POETRY OF ST. FRANCIS

In order to reach a wide audience, St Francis preached and wrote in his native tongue, instead of using the Latin texts of the Church of Rome. He wrote simple, lyrical hymns that everyone could understand. In the Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures), a milestone in Italian vernacular poetry, he praised all of God’s creation.

KEY DATES

1228: Building work begins on the Upper and Lower churches of the Basilica of St. Francis.
September 1997: An earthquake damages the basilica; the vault collapses and frescoes in the Upper Church are shattered.
October 1997: Restoration work begins on the basilica. It is completed in November 19 99.
2000: The Basilica of St. Francis is added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

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