Assisi’s Basilica San Francesco:
We had been walking around the fabulous ancient hill-top town of Assisi as part of our journey along the Via Francigena.
We followed the cobble-stoned road up to Piazza S. Francesco and entered the Lower Church of the Basilica San Francesco, the numero uno site in Assisi. This basilica ranked as the second most visited church after St. Peter’s in Rome. Leaders of the world’s religions meet here for summits. The Basilica was built on the site where Francis had chosen to be buried, an area known in his time as the Colle d’Inferno, the Hill of Hell, a place used for public executions.
The building of the basilica began in 1228 prompted by the wishes of Pope Gregory IX and Friar Elias, who Francis had chosen to lead the Order. To pay for the construction, Elias began selling indulgences across Europe to the horror of his more conventional Brothers. He also renamed the Colle d’Inferno the Hill of Paradise. It took two years to complete the Lower Basilica. As soon as it was ready, Francis’ body was received into the church and Fr. Elias bolted the door. He buried the body deep in the rock below the church to protect it against grave robbers and only he knew where the body lay. Six years later the Upper Basilica was completed, over the top of the Lower Church.
Almost six hundred years later in 1818, after excavations beneath the altar and careful examination of the remains found there, it was officially recognized by Pope Pio IX, that the remains were those of Francis.
Entering the lower church was like walking into a friend’s velvet-like embrace. I felt calm and soothed. The ceiling and arches were richly decorated in dark, mysterious colours. Candles stood quietly, each indivual flame illuminating this amazing place. Occasionally, a voice would be heard over the loud speakers, “Shhh, silencio,” to remind the many visitors to refrain from speaking or at least to lower their voices to a whisper. There was a sense of being in a large cavern, bringing to mind the caves and hollows that Francis and his companions prayed in as they searched for enlightenment.
Down in the crypt was the tomb of St. Francis, surrounded on four corners by the tombs of his close friends and fellow Brothers, Leo, Angelo, Masseo and Ruffino. Just up the stairs from the crypt was a large niche, enclosed by glass which housed Francis’ shirt and sandals.
We climbed a staircase to the Upper Church, which had a grander interior, Gothic styled and luminous. It was on these walls that Giotto’s students had painted frescos depicting the life of Francis. Students from the school of Cimabue had painted stories from the Old and New Testaments. Everywhere in this medieval sanctuary were pictures designed to tell a story for people who could not read.
If you get the chance while in Italy, do yourself a favour and visit Assisi. They also have great food there.