The Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is so much more than the mother church of the Franciscan Order. It’s really a living memorial to the teachings of St. Francis plus an accessible gallery to the extraordinary paintings by Giotto and Cimabue.
Note: I’ve written a separate blog about the hill town of Assissi.
As we approached the Basilica after a rain-drenched walk through Assissi, we were surprised to see soldiers guarding the church. We had felt protected as we strolled through the town, never realizing that soldiers guaranteed our safety. The soldiers were carrying out Operazione “Strade Sicure” (Operation Safe Streets) as part of activities in place throughout Italy.
The irony of soldiers guarding this area just steps fom a statue of St. Francis, spiritually exhausted, returning from war was not lost on us. We are grateful for these soldiers and all the men and women who protect us during our travels. Thank you!
We were advised to tour the Basilica late in the day in order to avoid crowds. But we arrived so late that guards were slowly closing down the church. We started in the top level — apparently, we should have started in the lower level — and had to make a mad dash to the lower level before it was closed. We had allowed for 30 minutes in each of the levels but that was just not enough time to take in everything. The exhausting run from the upper to the lower level in the pouring rain was absolutely, 100% worth the sprint: when we arrived in the lower Basilica, mass with a full choir was being sung in Latin! It was absolutely gorgeous.
But let me start with the Upper Basilica. As we entered the upper level, a monk in a small booth to the right sold us entrance tickets. A haphazard scatter of crowds walked up and down roped-off aisles, eyes aloft, admiring the frescoes that covered the walls of the church.
When we visited Giotto’s works in Padua, we entered a sealed chamber to normalize our breath, then we were admitted to the Scrovegni Chapel in small groups for just 15 minutes. This was done to protect the Giotto frescos. But large crowds wandered at will around the St. Francis Basilica frescos and no measures were taken to protect the art. The feeling seemed to continue the themes of St. Francis that people were more important than stuff. Nevertheless, there is a controversy about the protection, and even the restoration efforts, of the Basilica’s wall paintings.
There was also controversy for many years about whether or not the paintings in the Basilica were by Giotto or by a variety of other painters. During the restoration process in 2012, however, restorers discovered a signature of Giotto proving that at least some of the frescos were part of Giotto’s early body of work.
Despite the controversy, it was a thrill to see the cycle of 28 frescos up close. They depict the life of St. Francis – the cathedral was started the day after Francis was named a saint so the stories of Francis were vivid. I was not permitted to photograph the cycle; I think it was more because of crowd control than fear of damaging the paintings. So I refer you to wikimedia for a full telling with photos of the cycle.
When we arrived breathless to the Lower Basilica (guards closed the church for the day right after we raced through the doors), the guards put their fingers to their lips to indicate silence. We tiptoed into the Lower Basilica and we were greeted by a mass featuring a full choir with music. It was glorious!
Every surface of the Lower Basilica is painted with scenes from the Bible. The body of St. Francis is buried down a stairway discovered nearly 600 years after his death. We relaxed into the calm of mass, satisfied with a full day of peace and beauty thanks to St. Francis of Assissi.
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.”
— St. Francis of Assissi