Pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi – Part 2

10th – 17th June 2014

Sunday 15th June – Assisi

After an early start we arrived in Assisi with about 20 minutes to spare before our 11am Mass.  We had Mass in the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli which is a huge basilica built between 1569 and 1679 containing the Porziuncola (“little portion”), a tiny stone chapel, now restored, used frequently by St Francis when it was situated in a wooded area (this basilica is now surrounded by the modern town of Assisi).  It was here that the young Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor and thus started the Franciscan movement.

After checking into our hotel which was in the ancient town of Assisi, at the top of the hill, there was plenty of time to explore the town (which is really only the size of a village).

Santa Maria Maggiore was founded in the 10th century.  The church was the cathedral of Assisi before 1036, when the church of San Rufino took over the position.  The present building dates to the 12th century.  The nave, semi-circular apse and sacristy still have remains of frescoes from the 14th and 15th century. A late-Medieval 9th century sarcophagus lies to the right of the entrance. The crypt dates back to the previous church and leads via a passageway to the so-called House of Propertius, with its Pompeian style wall paintings. Remains of the old Roman city walls are visible from the adjacent gardens.

Temple of Minerva stands in the main square of Assisi.  It stood in the forum of Roman Asisium, and was probably built soon after the Perusine Wars (41 BC).  It is the most complete survival of its kind after the Pantheon in Rome, and it survived for the same reason: it was later adapted as a church.      Today it is known as the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Church of San Pietro.  The foundation of this abbey outside the Roman walls of Assisi is closely linked to the martyrdom of St Victorinus and his companions in the 3rd century:

  • One of the companions was beheaded and another two were thrown into a well.  According to tradition, this was the so-called well of the two martyrs, which is now in that part of the monastery that houses the Museo di San Pietro.
  • St Victorinus was then beheaded by a bridge on the Tescio that became known as Ponte San Vittorino.  The Monastero di San Vittorino was on the site of the martyrdom of St Victorinus and originally housed his relics.   San Vittorino was documented in the 14th century as a priory dependent upon San Pietro, and the two monasteries were probably always closely linked.  

Monday 16th June – Assisi

Mass this morning was celebrated in the complex of the Basilica of St Francis.  We were privileged to be able to use an underground chapel called The Chapel of Peace within the private monestary grounds. 

The coach then dropped us up to the top of the town where we had a tour of the Basilica of St Clare.  This is a is a 13th-century church that houses the relics of St. Clare, friend and protégé of St. Francis of Assisi, as well as the miraculous crucifix that spoke to Francis.  Born to a count and countess in Assisi in 1193, Chiara (Clare) was a friend of Francesco (Francis) and followed his example against her parents’ wishes. At the age of 18 (1211), she left her stately home and ran off to meet Francis. Francis clothed Clare in sackcloth and cut off her hair, signalling her renunciation of the world. She took the veil of the religious life from Francis at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Assisi.  Clare pursued her new path unwaveringly, adopting the rule of St. Benedict tempered with Francis’s preaching of poverty. She soon gathered a large female following at San Damiano and Francis urged her to set up a convent there. She did so, and became abbess of the new community known as the Poor Clare’s. Clare’s mother and sisters later joined the order, and there are still thousands of members today.

The site of the house where St Francis grew up is now marked by the Chiesa Nuova (New Church).  A modern sculpture of St Francis’ parents stands outside the church. 

The Basilica of St Francis, begun in 1228, stands at the opposite end of the town to that of St Clare.  The complex is formed by two superimposed and independent churches. The Upper basilica – with its Gothic appearance, slender and luminous, is famous the world over for its beautiful frescoes painted in the late 1290s by Giotto and his School. Twenty-eight panels of the most extraordinarily intense blue background, they depict scenes from the life of St. Francis, in a narration that is moving and alive. Other Italian masterpieces join those of Giotto, including frescoes by Cimabue in the transept, cross vaults and apses.   The Lower basilica, meanwhile, is certainly darker and more austere, though it is decorated by yet more grand masterworks, particularly from the Florentine and Sienese Schools of the 1300s – Giotto and his inner circle, Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti.   The crypt is where the remains of the saint are interred.

The San Damiano Crucifix (mentioned above) is one of the best known and most highly venerated crucifixes in the world. In 1206 it was probably hanging above the altar in the apse of the abandoned Chapel of San Damiano (see below), just outside Assisi, in the Umbrian region of Italy. It would have been the central feature in the small, neglected chapel in which the Blessed Sacrament would have been reserved. A young man, Francis Bernadone, entered the chapel one day to pray. Kneeling before the crucifix, he heard a voice coming from it say three times, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”   It now hangs in a side chapel within St Clare’s Basilica.

San Damiano Convent is where it all began in Assisi. As the place where St. Francis first received his miraculous calling in 1205 and where St. Clare died in 1253, it is an important stop on the pilgrimage to the Franciscan holy city. The simple oratory is located in a beautiful setting just outside the walls of Assisi.   The place where St Clare died, and even the place where she sat in the refectory, are indicated by vases of flowers.  

Tuesday 17th June

Before heading back to the airport, we were able to celebrate Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Basilica of St Clare.  Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Baroque style (begun in 1541 and enlarged in 1663), partly frescoed in 1663 by the local painter Giacomo Giorgetti, a pupil of Giovanni Lanfranco. The nine wall paintings are attributed to the 17th-century painter Andrea Carlone.

Andrew Richardson