Just eighteen months after the death of Saint Francis on 4 October 1226, Pope Gregory IX ordered the building of a church dedicated to the saint. Construction of the church, which is built into the side of a hill, began in 1228. There are, in fact, two churches, known as the Upper Church and the Lower Church, and a crypt, where the remains of the saint are interred.
Both the Upper and Lower Churches are decorated with frescoes by artists from both the Florentine and Sienese schools, including Cimabue, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti. There is also much debate about the possible involvement of Giotto, although most scholars now think it unlikely.
Nave of the Upper Church
The nave of the Gothic-style Upper Church is decorated with twenty-eight frescoes depicting events from the life of Saint Francis. They have been variously attributed, including to Giotto and to a Roman artist named Pietro Cavallini, both on the basis of style, although there is no evidence of either artist being in Assisi.
In September, 1997, two earthquakes hit the Assisi region and there was widespread destruction. While a group of specialists and friars were inspecting the damage to the Basilica of Saint Francis, an aftershock shook the building, causing the collapse of the vault. Two Franciscan friars and two of the specialists were killed. Many of the frescoes in the Upper Church were damaged and those where the vault had collapsed were almost completely destroyed. The church was closed for two years for restoration.
Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis. Upper Church.
Saint Francis preaching to the Birds
Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata
In the transept and apse of the Upper Church are frescoes by Cimabue. However, the oxidization of the lead-based paint over time has meant that they have degraded considerably.
Cimabue ‘Crucifixion’ (1277 – 80)
The Lower Church was constructed first and was built entirely in the Romanesque style. It consists of a central nave with several side chapels with semi-circular arches. The nave is decorated with the oldest frescoes in the church by an unknown artist known as Maestro di San Francesco. They feature scenes from the Passion of Christ on the right side, with scenes from the Life of St. Francis on the left.
Maestro di San Francesco ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’
Maestro di San Francesco ‘Deposition of Christ from the Cross’
Maestro di San Francesco ‘St. Francis preaching to the Birds’
To the right of the high altar in the transept arm of the church is a ‘Maesta’, by Cimabue, a depiction of Mary and the Christ child surrounded by angels and flanked by St. Francis.
Cimabue ‘Maesta’ (1278)
The south transept is decorated with six scenes from the ‘Passion of Christ’ by the Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti. The frescoes include a particularly emotional ‘Deposition of Christ from the Cross’, a monumental ‘Crucifixion’ and a ‘Madonna and Child with Saints John the Evangelist and Francis’.
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Crucifixion’ (c.1320)
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Deposition of Christ from the Cross’ (c.1320)
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and John the Evangelist’ (c.1320)
The first chapel on the left of the nave is the San Martino Chapel, dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. It was decorated between 1317 and 1319 with ten frescoes depicting the saint’s life by another Sienese artist, Simone Martini.
Simone Martini ‘Chapel of St. Martin’ (1320 – 25)
Simone Martini ‘St. Martin with Donor kneeling’ (1320 – 25)
Simone Martini ‘St. Louis, King of France and St. Louis of Toulouse’ (1320 – 25)
Simone Martini ‘St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis’ (1320 – 25)
The Chapel of the Magdalene contains a series of frescoes with scenes from the life of Mary Magdalene. These were attributed to Giotto in the past, although this is now thought unlikely. Some believe that Giotto may have been involved in the planning of the series but that the painting was carried out by his workshop.
‘Mary Magdalene with the Donor, Cardinal Pontano’ (1320s)
‘Noli me tangere’ (Touch me not) (1320s)
‘Raising of Lazarus’ (1320s)
Tomb of Saint Francis
The crypt below the Lower Church contains the tomb of Saint Francis. However, there is no sarcophagus, rather his remains are interred inside a stone pillar. Its location remained unknown for six-hundred years, until, in 1818, Pope Pius VII allowed the lower basilica floor to be excavated. After digging for fifty-two days, the tomb was rediscovered under iron bars.
Tomb of Saint Francis