Looking for St. Francis? Go to Assisi and look anywhere.
Rarely does an entire geographical region resonate with the presence of a person who walked its way long ago.
But in Assisi, Italy, you can feel the company of not one, but two former citizens everywhere you go. Never mind that Saints Francis and Clare died in the 13th century.
Of course, seeing a profusion of Franciscan priests and religious in their familiar brown or gray robes — and, always, their sandals — helps to remind you that this is no ordinary place. And that Francis, whose feast day is Oct. 4, was no ordinary man.
The fragile-looking Francis, as depicted by Giotto and other artists throughout the centuries, is hardly ever depicted as the dashing knight he was before Christ called him to “rebuild my Church, which is falling into ruin.” At first, Francis thought God wanted him to repair the chapel in San Damiano in which he'd received the mysterious calling via a large, painted crucifix. But gradually he came to see that his mission was much bigger — at which point he exchanged all he had, including his belongings and his bright future in the secular world, for a life of uncompromising commitment to Christ. Soon, he was known as Father Francis to his band of like-minded brothers. To the people of Umbria, he was il poverello, the “little poor one,” who went about preaching the Gospel more with how he lived than with what he said.
For a brief refresher course in Francis’ life, as well as a look at some of the early Renaissance's finest art, start with the upper church of the Basilica of St. Francis. You'd never know it today, but in1997, a powerful earthquake devastated the Assisi area. Lives were lost, and thousands were left homeless. Many buildings were ruined and, along with them, priceless works of art. The basilica itself was dealt a heartbreaking blow when Franciscans lost their lives and some of the finest frescos became a heap of rubble. Dedicated, brilliant restorers have reconstructed many of the damaged frescos and the basilica reopened in time for the Jubilee year 2000.
After basking in the brilliance of the stained glass and the majesty of the columns, follow the cycle of frescos, from the school of Giotto, which depicts 28 episodes from Francis’ life. Among the best known are Francis giving away his cloak, listening before the San Damiano crucifix, renouncing all worldly goods, creating the Christmas crib, preaching to the birds and receiving the stigmata.
Now visit the beloved lower church, which seems only the more precious for the damage it suffered in the earthquake. Your eye is likely to catch on a familiar face beaming out at you from a fresco by the great Cimabue (Chee-ma-BOO-ay): Francis with halo and stigmata alongside the Madonna and Child. Here, too, are scenes from the Nativity and Flight into Egypt (school of Giotto) that you may also want to look for in reproduction in the church's gift shop. The magnificent artistry of Simone Martini shines from a polyptych that includes Francis, an ethereal Clare and others.
In the Chapel of San Martino, an exquisite painting of Saints Clare and Elizabeth, along with the life of St. Martin, are among Martini's gems.
Close by, the tomb of St. Francis is moving in its Franciscan simplicity: There lie the mortal remains of the seraphic saint.
Other Franciscan sites lie outside the town, but before leaving its heights, stop at St. Clare's cathedral — where, if you are fortunate, cloistered nuns will be singing. Here you'll see the famous San Damiano crucifix, the most famous of all painted crucifixes for what it communicated to Francis. Relics of the two saints — including the tunic she embroidered for him, and her own — are touching remembrances, and in the crypt, the wondrous Clare herself was buried.
Less than three miles away, on the plain below Assisi, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels houses one of the most holy places in St. Francis’ life. You may wonder what is special about this large church at first, but inside you will see the Portiuncula, or the “little portion,” enclosed for its protection. This small chapel and its grounds, once owned by the Benedictines, were given to Francis and his initial 12 followers. Alongside the little chapel, on each side, the brothers built huts for themselves. From here, they went daily out to the road to preach the Gospel.
Outside the Walls
It was to this clearing that St. Clare, 18-year-old daughter of a noble family, fled to join this new movement of Christians. The brothers led her by torchlight through the woods to a convent, where she lived until the Poor Clares order was founded.
Nearby stands the Chapel of the Transito, containing the original hut that served as an infirmary. St. Francis spent his last hours here and died on Oct. 3, 1226, after being placed on the bare ground, as he had wished.
Outside Assisi's walls, in the hills, stands San Damiano. This is where Francis prayed passionately for guidance, and a voice from the crucifix (now in St. Clare's) told him to repair the Church. Later, at San Damiano, Francis received the stigmata and composed the “Canticle of the Creatures.” By then, he was nearly blind.
Built against the rock of Mt. Subasio, this peaceful hermitage saw Francis and his followers often, in prayer and meditation. This hermit-age or retreat may make you feel that way, too. Bring along a little book of his prayers, which take on a life of their own here.
The mystical love that created Franciscan Assisi still touches us today. The “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) seems to echo in all Francis’ works and words: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Within this setting, it is difficult to imagine the good earth trembling so that even part of the main basilica in Assisi collapsed.
Perhaps, as one of the friars suggested, God is again asking us to rebuild his Church.
Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.
- October 3-9, 2004