Posts Tagged With: Saint Francis of Assisi

Religious Poetry: Saint Frances and Jacopone da Todi

Jacopone da Todi’s Religious Poetry
By Carly Besh
Jacopone da Todi was a vast array of constant divisions; from being labeled a mystic, a poet, a saint, and a heretic or even sane or insane is all now subject to interpretation. Even questions of his veneration are disputed, through the Romantic period he was judged as a ‘poeta mancuto’ meaning he was unworthy for the title of a poet, while later in the 20th century he was named a ‘grande poeta’ by our contemporaries. Jacopone da Todi’s corpus of works left a lasting impression on Franciscan religious poetry in Italian intellectual history. (Louise, 1996)

Jacopone was born circa 1230 in the town of Todi, which is settled atop the hills in Perugia. Born into a minor noble family, he did not endure many adversities during his adolescent years and was well cultured. With his education and rank he became a lawyer and notary, and enjoyed a decently well paying job. In his mid-thirties he was ready to settle down and found the young and beautiful Lady Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone. (Vettori, 2009) After a little time of marriage, as members of high aristocratic society they were dining out and the ceilings floorboards fell onto Lady Vanna, and killed her. Upon her death, he discovered she had been wearing a penitent’s hair shirt. This shock of her death, and the discovery that she was devout to God has been thought to trigger his conversion into a religious friar. (Bruce, 1982)

Jacopone was alive during a turbulent political and religious era in Italian history. Years prior to his birth, Saint Francis of Assisi was revolutionary in his creation of a new order following the words of Matthew 10:9; words that emphasized a person to renounce one’s earthly possessions and following a path of poverty. The first and second orders follow strict adherence to poverty, celibacy and obedience whilst the third order practiced the three fold rule of simplicity, chastity and obedience. St. Francis gained official recognition of his order of eleven disciplines by Pope Innocent III in the year 1209. Following Saint Francis death in 1226, his order was split into two factions, the “Spirituals”(I zelanti) and the “Conventuals”. (Hughes, Hughes, & Zolla, 1982)
The Conventuals were attempting to change the word of St. Francis and lower the extent of poverty that he had preached. They wished for the availability to small amount of ownership of property and use of material comforts. Jacopone quickly converted into the third-fold rule of simplicity, chastity and obedience after the death of his wife, but only after a couple of years was allowed to officially become a friar. While risky, Jacopone was outspoken on the Spiritual side and was clearly opposed to the new current pope, Pope Boniface VIII and the corruption of the Church. He was opinionated and spoke freely about his accusations of the new Pope’s greed for power. The blunt criticisms of Pope Boniface VIII lead towards Jacopone da Todi’s excommunication from the Catholic Church in 1298. The pope sent him to solitary confinement and due to his excommunication he has not been canonized or beatified by the Catholic Church. He was released in 1303 and upon liberation he resided in the convent of San Lorenzo of Collazzone where he passed away. His body was moved, and taken back to his hometown in Todi, and his remains are placed in the San Fortunato church. (Bruce, 1982)

Jacopone da Todi’s religious poetry corpus is mainly in the Italian vernacular, distinctly using the Umbrian dialect. He wrote around 100 poems, that were very personal and for the use of local friars. He is one of the more famous known poets before Dante Alighieri time, who also wrote in the Italian vernacular, and was made famous by his work called the Divine Comedy. Few texts are available of Jacopone works due to the controversy and difficulties determining his authorship. His poems are written in lauda, the form of sacred songs in Italian. Characterized by unique rhyming schemes, and stanzas. Most of his poetry writings take shape as free-form worship and are characterized by devotional praise. (Vettori, 2009)

According to Giuseppe Ungaretti, a contemporary modern Italian poet, Jacopone distinctively wrote into three different categorizes. (Louise, 1996)The first category was autobiographical poetry with links to the matter of death. This was most likely due to the sad untimely death of his wife. This sadness and grievance was portrayed in his early poetry. The second category which Ungaretti puts Jacopone’s work into is that of ‘political satire and lyrical verse’. These texts were written during Jacopone’s outspoken time, and where he ultimately landed himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The third and final category was that of ‘poesia pura’, meaning direct expression of the soul. He wrote these poems while imprisoned by Pope Boniface the VIII. (Vettori, 2009)

Works under the first category include “Love, beloved Love, why have You left me”, “Why do you wound me, cruel charity…?” which are both carefully written in meter, and rhyme yet the pitch and tone is fairly inconsistent. His most famous piece of poetry that I believe would fit into this category would be “Lady of the Heaven” that is written in the form of a dialogue between the Virgin Mary and Jesus during his Crucifixion. This is well known since it was instrumental in the development in medieval dramas along the Italian peninsula. (Hughes, Hughes, & Zolla, 1982)

For the second category on political satire and lyrical verse, Jacopone stays on the same subject of Crucifixion and the Virgin Mary in the poem titled, “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” which is deeply moving with verses such as ,“Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son” It has been a focal point in Jacopone’s works, one of the few that has been popularly set to music by various composers. Examples of his work in the third category, classified by ‘poesia pura’, would be like the title” Lady Poverty, burning with charity, Vast is your dominion!” which focuses on the trueness of poverty and how simplicity brings your sinner soul closer to the Divine. (Louise, 1996)

Jacopone da Todi’s life works have been influential to this day, from Dante to influencing the creation of medieval dramas, to the countless friars and laymen he inspired with his rhythm and verse about the Celestial and metaphysical. Though pushed to the side by academics and intellectuals for many years, he is resurfacing and his poetry is in increasingly gaining popularity. From varying perspectives and reviews, such as ‘poeta mancuto’ and ‘grande poeta’ he remains a much disputed poet. His rhythm and rhyme will continue to leave his readers in awe, and give life to his deeply passionate personality and shed new life unto his loving dedication as a friar, and his exemplary service to God.
Bruce, L. J. (1982). Jacopone Da Todi’s Mystical Pathology . British Medical Journal(Clinical Research Edition) , 285 (6357), 1803-1804. Retrived May 2,2014 from Jstor:
Hughes, S., Hughes, E., & Zolla, E. (1982). Jacopone da Todi “The Lauds”. New York, New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul and Apostle in the State of New York.
Louise, K. V. (1996, June). Jacopone da Todi, Poet and Mystic: A Review of the History of the Criticism. 22 (2), pp. 46-57. Retrieved May 2,2014 from Jstor:
Lucchi, L. d. (1922). An Anthology of Italian Poems 13th-19th Century. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Vettori, A. (2009, February 20). Jacoponde da Todi. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from The Literary Encyclopdia:


The Works of Saint Francis of Assisi

by Brooke Tomsula

Born in 1182 A.D. St. Francis was baptized as Giovanni Di Beradone. His father a merchant who regularly travel to France maintenance Francis. He was raised in an extremely catholic home and attended Catholic school. Well in the military service he was captured by the rival and was imprisoned for a year in Perugia. When released he suffered a year of sickness. During this time he fled to God for comfort and thus the Saint began his simple life entirely devoted to God.

Throughout the second half of St. Francis his life he produced many works, which we are fortunate enough to still have. The majority of his works focus on two major themes: the love of God, and turning from the attractions of this world. The collection of his works includes: 28 Admonitions, letters, and prayers, which are in forms of poetry and hymns. Two of his handwritten works are on a small double-sided parchment, which include The letter to brother Leo and  Praises of God and the blessing for brother Leo. Three of his works were written in the Umbrian dialect. They include: The Canticle of the sun, The exhortation of St. Clair and her sisters, and The prayer before the crucifix. There are also letters and six personal prayers in his collection.

The most personal and emotional of his prayers was written on the parchment, given to Brother Leo. Praises of God and the Blessing of Brother Leo. It read;

May the Lord bless you and keep you;

May he show his face to you and be merciful to you.

May he turn his countenance to you and give you his peace.

May the Lord bless you, Brother Leo.

It was given to Brother Leo after he believed he had disgraced God, and was extremely depressed. In the rest on the letter it refers to honorable attributes, which mean so much more to God.

The 28 Admonitions were in a style that resemble the book of Proverbs and concentrate on issues that evolved through the growth of the Franciscan order. These I chapters cover topics such as: poverty, chastity, obedience and purity of heart. The first was completed in 1221. It was written to the Saints followers before the official formation of fryers was created. The Rule was never presented to the pope and is the longest and strictest of the 28. The last chapter of a is not the original writing that includes a goodbye message from the saint mirroring Christ’s farewell in the Gospel of John. The 22nd chapter of The Rule was written in 1219 during the time St. Francis believe it is going to die. It includes many of his Testaments. The Rule of 1223, this Admonition primarily deals with the requirements of poverty and seeking out forgiveness. This will was sent to the pope, seeing as it was written after the official establishment of the order, and was approved.

Among his many other works one of his most famous writings is the Canticle of the sun. Also known as praise of the creatures, this religious song is believed to be one of his first works and was originally written in the Umbrian dialect. Supposedly composed in late 1224 is believed that the saint was recovering from sickness in San Domiano when he compose the song. This work primarily rejects man’s worldly attractions and focuses on nature. He regularly acknowledges gods creations as his brothers and sisters, proclaiming his personal ideals of rejecting the materialistic world and affirming his love for “Lady poverty” above all. The song was sung in its entirety for the first time in 1226 A.D. by St. Francis and accompanied by his brothers Angelo and Leo, when the Saint was on his deathbed. The final verse was added just moments before it was sung welcoming “sister death”.

“Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.”

(St. Fransis, Canticle of the Sun)

There is a beautiful legend attached with this particular song. It is said that the Saint did not write the Canticle down himself due to an eye disease that left him blinded. This legend emphasizes that he uses his inner eye of mine to become even more aware of Gods gift of nature.

Through the writings of St. Francis we can understand his complete devotion to Christ, and the importance of the Passion of His Son. It is also very obvious how much he relied on the Holy Spirit and the enlightenment of God to help him and his order focus on eternity in a world of desire.

Categories: Central Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Assisi: Saint Francis’ Life and Giotto’s cycle of frescoes in the Basilica

Frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi

By Bettine Carey

In 1228, two years after his death, a basilica was built in the Rose City in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. This basilica was constructed in three parts: the crypt where Saint Francis’s remains are buried, a lower level and the upper level. The basilica was consecrated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV, after which the work on the frescos commenced. The walls of both the lower and the upper levels are covered in beautiful frescos completed by a variety of talented artists. Because of the lack of reliable documentation from the time period, there is some debate about who all the artists were, and which frescos they completed. This paper will look into the different artists who played a part in the completion of the frescos while acknowledging the controversies surrounding the ownership of the paintings.

 The Lower Level of the Basilica

Because of the hilly landscape of Assisi, the lower level of the basilica of Saint Francis was built into the side of the hill, giving it the feeling of being underground. The lower level of the basilica was completed in 1230, about ten years before the completion of the upper level. The ceiling of the lower level is painted a dark blue, giving the impression of a night sky overhead. The paintings on the walls of the lower level of the basilica are covered in colorful frescos, which add an air of lightness to the feeling of nighttime.

The frescos on the walls of the lower level of the basilica depict the life of Christ, the Virgin, and the life of Saint Francis. The completion of these frescos took place between the 14th and 17th centuries, during the Renaissance time period. The Renaissance was a period of mastering the art of perfection. The idea of the “perfect” Renaissance man was outlined in The Book of the Courtier, written by Baldassare Castiglione among other authors. A Renaissance man should be knowledgeable in many fields of study: literature, history, politics, art and so on. Renaissance artists practiced in many different mediums; painting, sculpture, architecture and more. Because of the wide range of mediums they were capable of working with, many artists were well known in more than one area of art. Many of the artists who painted the frescos in Saint Francis’s basilica were well-known sculptors, or architects in addition to painters. Only the best Renaissance artists were recruited for the decorating of important monuments. Because of the scarcity of documents regarding this time period, there is some uncertainty regarding the exact identities of the artists who contributed to the frescos in the Saint Francis basilica, but some conclusions regarding the specific artists can be drawn from the few documents and artistic comparisons available today.

In the nave of the lower level of the basilica, an artist who was never named, simply called the Master of Saint Francis, painted five scenes comparing events from the life of Saint Francis to episodes from Christ’s life. The comparison between Saint Francis and Christ is continued to the right of the alter in the form of images showing the infancy of both figures. It is thought that the artist Giotto di Bondone completed this painting, although no one knows for certain. Other artists who contributed to the decoration of the lower part of the basilica are Lorenzo Lorenzetti, Cesare Sermei di Orvieto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Dono Doni, and Giacomo Giorgetti.

The lower level of the basilica of Saint Francis is also home to the remains of the Saint. Due to the fear of tomb raiders, Saint Francis’s body was buried in the crypt and sealed off until around 1818 when they were finally rediscovered. There are other bodies buried with Saint Francis in the crypt, his first four followers: Friar Leo, Friar Masseo, Friar Rufino, and Friar Angleo.

 The Upper Level of the Basilica


The sidewalls of the upper level are covered with frescos of events from Saint Francis’s life. It is thought that the artist Giotto di Bondone painted these frescos, although there is some controversy surrounding this topic. Giotto di Bondone was born in 1266 or 1267 near Florence, Italy. Because of the lack of documentation from that time period, much of Giotto’s life is subject to debate. Customary to the tradition, Giotto started his artistic career as an apprentice; he may have been apprenticed to Cimabue, although it is not certain because of the lack of documentation. Around 1290, when Cimabue traveled to Assisi to make his contribution to the frescos of the lower level of the Saint Francis basilica, Giotto went with him. It was during this time period that the frescos in the upper level of the basilica were supposedly painted by Giotto.

An alternative perspective believes that instead of Giotto, three other masters painted the Franciscan frescos. Those three masters were the Master of Legend of St. Francis, the Master of Obsequies of St. Francis, and the Cecilia Master. Regardless of who the artists were, the frescos in the Saint Francis basilica remain to this day one of the greatest cycle of frescos of the time period.

In 1228, in conjunction with the commission of the basilica of Saint Francis, Thomas of Celano was commissioned to write a book on Saint Francis’s life. As per usual for books about Saints during that time period, Tomas’s work was filled with half-truths and various versions of the truth of Saint Francis’s life that would portray the saint in the best light. Despite the inconsistencies in the text, Thomas of Celano’s work remains one of the most informative texts regarding the life of Saint Francis. The frescos in the upper level of the basilica of Saint Francis are all based on events that took place in Thomas of Celano’s book.

The 28 frescos that line the walls of the upper level of the basilica of Saint Francis depict events from the saints life that tell the story of his journey through a life of poverty and holiness. The cycle of frescos also serves as a template for how the Franciscan Friars should live their lives. Art scholars think that Giotto, or his school, painted 25 of the 28 frescos, the other three were painted by the Saint Cecilia Master.

In addition to the decorations in the great hall of the upper level of the basilica, the transept, cross vaults, and apses also boast beautiful frescos. These frescos, 34 in total, show events from the Old and New Testament of the Bible. The artists responsible for these works of art include Cimabue and his school, Giotto, and Jacopo Torriti.


The frescos in the Basilica of Saint Francis are exemplary of the traditional style of art during the 13th to 17th centuries, documenting the life of not only Saint Francis, but also Christ and the Virgin. The importance of these frescos goes beyond the face value. They represent the history of Saint Francis, the life of Christ, the devotion of the Virgin, they provide current Friars with a template for how they should live their lives. The art in the basilica of Saint Francis will remain influential to Italian culture for many years to come.

Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis. (n.d.). Italian Tourism Official Website. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis. (n.d.). Italian Tourism Official Website. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from
Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites. (n.d.). – UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Assisi: San Francesco. (n.d.). ARTstor Library. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from
Burr, D., & Halsall, P. (1996, January 1). Medieval Sourcebook: Thomas of Celano: Lives of St. Francis. Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved May 2, 2014, from
Giotto di Bondone. (2014, April 28). Wikipedia. Retrieved May 3, 2014, from
Potter, P. (2002). Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337). St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1290). Emerging Infectious Diseases, 8(12), 1531-1531.
Saint Francis cycle in the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi. (2014, January 17). Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from
The Basilica of St Francis and the Sacro Convento. (n.d.). Assisi OnLine. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from



The Life of St. Francis

By Francesca Marino

Legend has it that in the Italian city of Gubbio there once lived a terrifying and ferocious wolf that ate the citizens and animals living in the town. Many people left Gubbio due to their fear of the wolf. A very passionate and brave man decided this could not go any further; this brave man chose to go forth and confront the wolf. When the wolf was found the man made the sign of the cross and asked if the wolf would please no longer cause any harm to the citizens and animals of Gubbio and in return they would always make sure the wolf was well fed. The man then stood in front of the town, with the wolf at his side, and claimed the wolf had done evil only out of hunger but did not intend to cause harm. The brave man then made a pact between the wolf and the citizens of Gubbio to be brothers with one another and since then no harm was ever caused by the wolf again. This brave man is no other than Saint Francis of Assisi.

Saint Francis of Assisi was born with the name Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone during 1182 in the town of Assisi located in Umbria, Italy. The exact birthdate of St. Francis is not known. He was one of seven children in a very wealthy silk merchants family. Francis’s mother, Pica Bourlemont, had Francis baptized under the name Giovanni but his father, Pietro Bernardone, quickly decided to give him nickname Francesco, meaning “the Frenchman”, which was then shortened to Francis. Due to the families wealth Francis was provided with a life of luxury.

Francis lived a rather spoiled youth, one very typical to a young man from a merchant’s family. Everyone loved him and attended to all his meticulous needs. Francis spent his adolescence at wild parties that surrounded his life in sin; nothing Francis said or did was rooted by good intentions. He achieved to live up to all his fathers expectations. Francis was a good businessman and invested his love in France, which is exactly what his father wanted but all this did not satisfy Francis, he wanted more. Francis wanted to go to war; he set out to fight as a knight in battle when Assisi declared was on Perugia.

The first war did not meet Francis’s expectations, he soon found himself with chains around his ankles in a gloomy dungeon. Francis was captured as a prisoner and used for ransom where he was not released until a year later. In attempt to take on war again Francis set out as a knight for the Fourth Crusade. This is where he received his first, unexpected, calling.

On the first night out at war Francis had a dream where God told him that he had everything all wrong and should return home immediately, and so that is exactly what he did. Despite all the shame and humiliation he received from his father and peers for giving up in battle Francis aimed his goals towards something greater. Francis realized he had lost his zest to life and then began to invest an immense amount of his time in prayer and set out to build a powerful relationship with God; the vision deepened his ecclesiastical awakening.

Francis then took part in a pilgrimage to Rome; on this journey he joined the poor in begging at the doors of churches. One evening at the church of San Damiano while Francis was praying he heard Christ on the crucifix speak to him saying “Francis, Francis, go repair My house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins.” (Thompson 1) Francis took this vision from Christ too literally; he thought Christ wanted him to repair the church that he was physically in at the moment. So he gathered fabric from his fathers shop and sold it to get money to repair the crumbling church. When Francis’s father heard what he had done, he considered it an act of theft and punished Francis by forcing him to stand before the Bishop of Assisi and the town to return the money. Here Francis not only returned the money but also stripped off all his clothes. He then turned to the crowd and said “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’” (Dominic) During the following months Francis lived as a beggar in the region of Assisi.

Francis vowed to give up all his possessions and take on a life of poverty when he heard a sermon about Mathew 10:9. He now had nothing but everything he could possibly need. Francis then began to preach about devoting his life to God and to show obedience towards the church. One by one people began coming to Francis, they desperately wanted to live the life Francis was living. “His companions came from all walks of life, from fields and towns, nobility and common people, universities, the Church, and the merchant class.” (Brand 144)

Once Francis gained followers he began to see the purpose and reasoning as to why God has brought him to this point in his life. In 1209, Francis and his eleven followers went to Rome to request permission from Pope Innocent III for a new religious order. When Francis and his beggars arrived to Rome the Pope was so shocked by their appearance they were immediately thrown out. A few days after the friars arrival the Pope then had a dream about a “…tiny man in rags holding up the tilting Lateran basilica.” (Montgomery 1) The Pope saw this as a sign from God and immediately after this envision Francis was called back by the Pope and grated permission to preach. On April 16, 1210 the Franciscan Order was founded.

In 1209, while Francis was preaching in the church of San Ruffino in Assisi, Clare of Assisi stood in the crowd. Fracis’s words touched her deeply and helped her realize her calling. Francis and Clare began to work together and they then established the Order of Poor Ladies, which is now known as Poor Clares. This Order for women gave women the opportunity to seek out a life similar to those in the Franciscan Order.

Shortly after the Poor Clares grew very large and the Third Order of Brothers and Sisters of Penance was formed for those who could carry out the principles of Franciscan life in their day-to-day lives.

In 1219 Francis set off for a journey to Egypt where he hoped to covert the Sultan of Egypt, where a crusader army was located. Here it is documented that Francis unhesitatingly entered into a fire and came our suffering no burns. This incident is illustrated in the 13th Century Fresco Cycle, done by Giotto, which is located in the Basilica of Assisi today.

Francis soon had another vision, in this one he saw the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. This vision was unlike his others and because of it he received the stigmata. Saint Francis is the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion. The wounds weakened Francis and brought his life to a peaceful end on October 3rd, 1226.

In my mind, Francis stands out and shines bright in particular related to other saints due to his love of nature. Francis felt that nature is God’s creations and nature was not only something he liked to admire but felt that it was a part of his brotherhood. It is a powerful thing to ponder how St. Francis considered a hawk his brother just as much as he did the Pope. It has been noted that Francis was capable of communicating with animals in ways that go beyond the average human capability. For example, how Francis was able to communicate with the wolf of Gubbio.

On July 16th, 1228 Saint Francis of Assisi was proclaimed a saint by pope Gregory IX. St. Francis is known as the patron saint of animals, the environment, and is one of the two patron saints of Italy. October 4th is the national ‘Feast Day’ a holiday created in the honor of Saint Francis where the Catholic church holds ceremonies to bless the animals. Along with being an Italian Catholic friar and preacher he also is documented as being the first Italian poet. It is amazing to imagine the accomplishments he made during one lifetime. Saint Francis of Assisi impacted the teachings of the Catholic Church in ways that will never be forgotten. St. Francis continues to be a prominent role model in my life, as I wish to approach life by finding value in love and nature not in possessions.


Works Cited

Brand, Peter, and Lino Pertile. The Cambridge History of Italian

    Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Dominic, Dustin. “St Francis of Assisi Full Movie.” YouTube.

YouTube, 10 May 2013. Web. 05 May 2014.

Montgomery, Brian. “St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels –

Catholic Online.” St. Francis of Assisi – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.

Paschal, Robinson (1913). “St. Francis of Assisi“. Catholic Encyclopedia.

New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Ruth, Margaret The Word made flesh: a history of Christian thought

September 25, 2009.

Thompson, Anne B. “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction |

Robbins Library Digital Projects.” The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects. E. Gordon Watley, n.d. Web. 05 May 2014.



By Khyra Wilhelm

Assisi is a small town settled high in the slopes of Mount Subasio in the the central region of Umbria, and has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy due to its historical, cultural and religious significance.[1] Saint Francis was a man of great importance in Italy, who lived and died in Assisi, and to whom the city’s most important monument is dedicated: the Basilica of Saint Francis. He was regarded by his followers with incredible devotion and reverence due to his religious instruction and his character, which is embodied in the construction of the basilica. The basilica is important not only as an artistic and architectural triumph, but because it is largely reflective of the importance of Saint Francis and his life work.


Saint Francis was born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi. As a young man Francis enjoyed the easy, luxurious life of a privileged family and is often cited as a “free-spending playboy” in his youth.[2] During the battles between Perugia and Assisi in which he fought, Francis was captured and after a year as a prisoner of war he was ransomed by his rich father.[3] The following year was spent recovering from a sickness that Francis had contracted during his time of imprisonment, which led to an intense introspective period.[4] After his recovery Francis left Assisi with the intention of joining the Fourth Crusade as a knight but returned, much to the scorn of his father and friends, after experiencing religious visions of Christ and Mary.[5] Upon his return to Assisi Francis took to the streets preaching and soon had many followers. If not a knight, Francis’ father expected his son to work for the family business, but Francis renounced all legal claims to the family fortune, stripped off his expensive clothes and adopted a life based on that of Jesus and the Apostles, a life of poverty.[6] It was during this time that Francis began to write; these poems were religious in nature and the first to be written in the Italian language, instead of Latin, giving the poor access to religious literature.[7] As he traveled, Francis preached of poverty, repentance and compassion for the poor and sick.

The Basilica of Saint Francis is comprised of two separate churches on different levels, the Upper Basilica and the Lower Basilica, as well as a crypt, in which the body of Saint Francis is interred. The basilica is situated on the far west end of the city, atop a hillside previously called the Colle d’Inferno, the Hill of Hell, because it was where criminals were put to death on the gallows. This land was property of the Papacy and, after the death and canonization of Saint Francis, was donated for the construction of the church; thereafter the hill became known as the Colle di Paradiso, or the Hill of Heaven.[8] The basilica was decorated by numerous late Medieval painters from Roman, Tuscan, Florentine and Sienese schools, built in both Romanesque and Gothic styles, and for this reason it is a beautiful example of the development of art during the Italian Middle Ages.[9] The Basilica of Saint Francis has played a significant role in establishing the most typical characteristics of Italian Gothic architecture and uses the fresco as the main artistic feature and medium for conveying religious messages, rather than stained glass.[10] For this reason, the basilica has influenced the development of art and architecture within Italy.[11] The frescoes inside the Basilica were painted by Giotto, Cimabue (Giotto’s master), the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini, arguably the greatest painters of the 13th and 14th century.[12] Assisi has become an important pilgrimage site, for both its religious and spiritual significance as well as its artistic and architectural significance.


The Upper Basilica is open and expansive, with soaring Gothic columns and decorated in bright colors. It contains the world famous frescoes painted by Giotto and his school in the late 1290s–twenty-eight panels in rich detail surround the room in the lower part of the nave depicting the life of Saint Francis according to the Legenda Major, the 1266 biography of Saint Francis by Saint Bonaventure.[13] Beginning on the right with “Francis Honored by the Simple Man,” and continuing clock-wise, viewers follow the progression of the life of Saint Francis, his funeral, posthumous miracles and canonization. Although these frescoes are thought to be the work of Giotto, the true authorship is still disputed as to whether the frescoes were completed by the master or his students. The upper part of the nave contains a cycle of thirty-four scenes from the Old and New Testament, painted by followers of Cimabue and the Roman School. The works of Cimabue can also be seen in the cross vaults, transept and apses. The main entrance and the facade of the Upper Basilica was built between 1280 and 1300 in a Gothic style with a large, ornate rose window above the door. This rose window and other stained glass within the church are among some of the best examples of Medieval glasswork in Italy.[14]   

In stark contrast to the light and spacious Upper Basilica, the Lower Basilica is darker and more austere. The lower part of the church reflects the Romanesque style and was designed by Brother Elias, one of Saint Francis’ first and most loyal followers, to resemble a huge crypt, giving it a low-hanging ceiling with ribbed vaults and hues of dark blue with golden stars.[15] An unknown artist began the frescoes of the nave in 1260, making these the oldest in the church. It was also decorated by the grand masters of the Florentine and Sienese schools of the 1300s, including Giotto and his inner circle, Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti.[16] Five scenes from the Passion of Christ decorate right side while the left depicts five scenes from the Life of Saint Francis; in placing the two stories side by side in this juxtaposition Saint Francis is compared to Christ.[17]

Saint Francis died on October 3rd, 1226 and the following day construction of the basilica began. It is believed that plans for construction had already begun prior to both his death and his canonization in 1228 by Pope Gregory IX. However, after his death, the body of Saint Francis was secretly buried by Brother Elias and the other friars in the Basilica of Saint Claire for fear that followers would raid the tomb and spread his body as relics.  After the completion of the Lower Basilica in 1230 the body was moved to the secret crypt in the Basilica of Saint Francis and was only rediscovered in 1818, then opened for pilgrims to visit the burial place of the saint. The construction of the Upper Basilica began in 1239 and lasted until 1253. At the completion of both churches, Upper and Lower, Pope Innocent IV consecrated the site and later, in 1288, the church was raised to the status of a Papal Church by Pope Nicholas IV. The popularity of the church increased in the years after its construction and from 1270 to 1350 side chapels were added for noble families, destroying the preexisting frescoes in the opening of the walls. In 1934 Saint Francis’ most faithful brothers–Brother Rufino, Brother Angelo, Brother Masseo and Brother Leo–were entombed in the corners around the alter. More recently, in 1997, the Umbria region was struck by two earthquakes that destroyed many venerable buildings, including the vault of the basilica, which crumbled into 3,000 pieces and killed four people.[18]

Behind the basilica is the friary Sacro Convento, made up of numerous Romanesque arches and buttresses that provide support for the entire building. The friary came into operation early in its history, in 1230, but construction continued over a long period, giving it a blend of styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. Given that the church was situated on a hillside and therefore had limited space for expansion, the main supporting wall was forced to stretch in the opposite direction, toward the city. This great wall resembles a fortress from the valley below. Today the friary has been converted into a museum containing works of art and relics donated by the pilgrims that have flocked to the city over the centuries.[19]


Saint Francis was a man extremely dedicated to God and to others; he believed that one must give from the heart, give love to those that have no love and peace for those who have no peace. Saint Francis was not a man to bargain with his faith and believed that truly following Christ meant leaving everything behind for spiritual devotion, because in order to be spiritually rich one cannot be materialistically rich. He believed in obedience to Christ, dedication to Poverty, and giving one’s life over to Chastity. People of all styles of life were drawn to Saint Francis for “his repudiation of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the church, his love for nature, and his humble, unassuming character earned him an enormous following throughout Europe, posing an unprecedented challenge to the decadent Papacy.”[20] In a period of clerical corruption and “dissatisfaction with opportunities for spiritual life and the expression available within the existing ecclesiastical and social structures,” Saint Francis embodied the belief that an ordinary layman could have a direct relationship with God.[21] Saint Francis brought about a changing of ideals in religion during the Middle Ages and represented a new movement toward personal religion. Saint Francis’ followers were drawn to the nature of his character–dedicated, committed, compassionate, selfless, and humble. Furthermore, “the short period of [the basilica’s] construction, rare for a church of this size, is often explained as a measure of the great love that the people of the time had for St. Francis.”[22] Even in the early 15th century pilgrims from all over Europe were making their way to Assisi to honor the saint. The creation of this great monument, the short period of its construction, the care taken to protect the body and the numerous important artists that decorated the church all point to the influence that Saint Francis had. The basilica is a reminder of the importance of Saint Francis, not only in his life and work, but among his followers as well.



“Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis.” Italian Tourism Official Website. Accessed May 5, 2014.      basilica-of-st-francis.html.

“Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power. Accessed       May 5, 2014.

“Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Last modified March     7, 2014.’Assisi.

Whatley, Gordon E., Thompson, Anne B., and Upchurch, Robert K.“The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction.” University of Rochester. Accessed May 5, 2014. http://    life-of-                                                                         saint-francis-introduction

Winke, Rebecca. “Saint Francis Basilica in Assisi.”, Italy Travel. Accessed May 5,      2014.

Zamora, Antonio. “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city.” Scientific Psychic. Accessed        May 5, 2014.


[1] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[2] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[3] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[4] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[5] [5] Antonio Zamora, “Assisi – a picturesque medieval walled city,” Scientific Psychic, accessed May 5, 2014,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[8] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis,” Italian Tourism Official Website, accessed May 5, 2014,

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[14] Winke, Rebecca,“Saint Francis Basilica in Assisi,”, Italy Travel, accessed May 5, 2014

[15] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[16] “Assisi and the Basilica of St. Francis,” Italian Tourism Official Website, accessed May 5, 2014.

[17] “Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, last modified March 7, 2014,’Assisi.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi,” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power, accessed May 5, 2014,

[21] Gordon E. Whatley, Anne B. Thompson, and Robert K. Upchurch, “The Life of Saint Francis: Introduction,” University of Rochester, accessed May 5, 2014,

[22] “Assisi: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi,” Sacred Sites: Places of Peace and Power, accessed May 5, 2014,

Categories: Central Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at