Assisi with the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels) in the background. 1040158
I left Siena and Tuscany and headed to Assisi in the region of Umbria. The train ride to Assisi offered a beautiful panorama of the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.
I think this is the estate I photographed from the top of the Facciatone (stone wall) in Siena.
What can I say about Assisi? Siena was a trip to the past, it looks as if nothing has changed for nearly a thousand years; I expected Assisi to be more touristy & more modern. But, coming into Assisi is like flying into mythology and Christology; it is mysticism and antiquity, Roman ruins and craggy hills, but more than anything else, it’s Saint Francis of Assisi. I didn’t know much about St. Francis or St. Clare so I came woefully unprepared.
Stepping into the city requires slamming on the brakes, instead of rushing at a hundred miles an hour, one must go back to the 13th Century and the speed of walking barefoot through the wooded hills. Francis is everywhere, all roads lead to something St. Francis built.
The train station is below the town, just across the tracks from the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels), this church is located on the Porziuncola, where the small church given to St. Francis by the Benedictines and where he began his Order of Franciscans is located. I didn’t know that, though, as I stood in the sweltering heat trying to find my bus, the only people around were taxi drivers who insisted a bus wouldn’t get me where I needed to go. Finally, a few other people came to the bus stop who were happy to help me find my bus. The bus dropped me half way up the slope with nothing nearby except an underground parking lot; I felt abandoned. I forgot that my hotel concierge had told me there was an escalator inside the parking lot that would take me the rest of the way up the hill. So, wearing my heavy backpack and dragging my wheeled suitcase behind me, I climbed the very steep and curving, round about road ¾ of a mile up to my hotel. My GPS was very helpful until we reached the hotel when it wanted me to turn where there was no turn. Hot, sweaty and cranky, I called the hotel—fortunately, I was almost outside their door.
I was standing next to this fountain
The hotel was just to the right of the fountain.
This is the Hotel Pax, built in the 12th Century, it’s a charming and delightful little hotel. The hosts were by far the most friendly and helpful of anywhere I visited; which was perfect since there was much to see in Assisi and I didn’t want to miss any of it.
I nearly collapsed in their lobby; they assured me the water from the fountain would revive me, it comes from aqueducts straight down from the Alps; it was refreshing, the people of Assisi are proud of their pure, delicious water.
Next door to the hotel is this little niche.
These lovely surprises dot the architecture all over Italy.
My room was delightful, there was a little stone stairway leading from the bedroom up to the little bathroom and I had frescoes on my ceiling. I could have been in one of the historical costume dramas I like so much.
Before we can understand Assisi, it’s essential to understand St. Francis (1182-1226)
and St. Clare (1194-1253).
Photo by By Simone Martini – The Yorck Project
Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, St. Francis, was born during the Middle Ages in 1182 and lived until the beginning seeds of the Renaissance were planted. Some say Francis ushered in the Renaissance with his love for his faith, for beauty, and for all living things because people began to notice nature and to see the beauty of faith; the Renaissance idealized faith, beauty. integrity, dignity and learning. Francis was revolutionary for his time because he asked if there wasn’t more to life than scraping out a living, materialism and self; could we be happier if we focused our attention outside of ourselves?
Francis lived a life of comfort and relative freedom, his father, Pietro di Bernardone, a successful silk merchant, was in France when his son was born, so his mother, Pica de Bourlemont, named him Giovanni. Pietro loved France and simply called his son Francesco (the little Frenchman). Francesco enjoyed the privileges that his station in life allowed a restless young man of his time. He joined a military expedition to Perugia in 1201 where he was taken captive and held for more than a year, he became ill during this time and began to consider the emptiness of the life he was living. Still, when he recovered, he quickly resumed his old habits and friendships. His ambition for glory led him to the military life, he joined the Neapolitan States in opposition to the governor in 1205, but he grew ill a second time in Spoleto and heard a voice tell him to go back to Assisi; he did so at once. It was then, that he seemed to lose his fervor for the life he had led before the illness, he seemed to yearn for the life of the spirit. When his friends teased him about his absentmindedness, asking if he were about to be married, he replied “Yes, I am about to take a bride of surpassing fairness”, he was referring to Lady Poverty who would soon become his constant companion – noted by both Dante and Giotto. He lost interest in lavish clothes and raucous parties and began to spend more time in contemplation and prayer. One day, while riding across the Umbrian plain, he came across a leper, the disgusting appearance of the leper caused him to draw back in revulsion, but he eventually got control of himself, dismounted and embraced the beggar, giving him all the money he had. Similarly, during a pilgrimage to Rome, disappointed by the meager offerings at the tomb of St. Peter, he emptied his purse at the shrine. He, then, traded his luxurious clothing with those of a poor beggar and spent the rest of the day fasting with the beggars at the door of the basilica.
Later, back in Assisi, while praying before a crucifix in the battered wayside chapel of San Damiano, he heard a voice say “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.”
This is the crucifix Francis was praying before when he heard the voice, it is found in the Basilica di Chiara.
Francis immediately went to his father’s shop and bundled together a large amount of drapery and rode quickly to Foligno where there was a market at which he sold both the fabric and his horse in order to obtain the money needed to restore the church of San Damiano. When the priest at San Damiano refused to accept the gold Francis brought him, Francis flung the gold aside in annoyance. Francis’ father was incensed at his son’s actions so Francis hid in a cave for nearly a month. When he emerged from the cave, he was gaunt from hunger, squalid and dirty; he was followed by a hooting rabble who threw stones and mud at him, thinking he was deranged. Finally, his father dragged him back to his home, beat him, bound him and locked him in a dark closet.
His mother released him when his father was out of town, he immediately went to the priest at San Damiano for sanctuary, but his father quickly brought charges against him with the city consuls; the priest restored the gold Francis had left at the church to Francis’ father but Bernardone refused to be content until his son relinquished his inheritance. Francis was more than willing to follow his father’s wishes, he announced that since he was now in the service of God, he was not under civil jurisdiction, he was then taken to the bishop whereupon he removed all of his clothing and gave it to his father, saying, “Hitherto I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.'” According to Dante, this was the moment Francis became wedded to his beloved bride, Lady Poverty, in whose name he surrendered all worldly goods, honors and privileges.
Fresco from the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi
After wandering throughout Umbria, he came back to Assisi, where he roamed the city begging for stones with which to restore the church of San Damiano, gradually, he rebuilt the old church. He, then, restored two other churches, St. Peter’s and St. Mary of the Angels, some distance away in an area called the Porziuncola. During this time, he was also very active in works of charity including nursing lepers.
In 1208, he was serving at Mass when the Gospel reading included the passage in which Jesus told the disciples to travel with neither gold nor silver, nor shoes nor staff nor more than one tunic and they were to exhort sinners to repentance. Francis believed this message was sent particularly for him, he gave away what little he had left: his shoes, cloak, pilgrim staff and empty wallet. He obtained for himself a coarse woolen tunic of “beast color” and tied it on with a knotted rope, he then went forth into the countryside exhorting people to repentance, brotherly love and peace. Gradually, he began to gain the admiration of the people of Assisi and to draw others to him. In seeking God’s will for the lives of himself and his followers, Francis retired to a church and randomly opened the Gospels three times, each time it opened to an exhortation from Jesus to give up all things and follow him; “This shall be our rule of life” he determined and led his followers to the public square where they gave away all of their possessions. After this, they obtained rough habits like that of Francis and built small huts near Francis’ Porziuncola. Later, with their rule ready, the “Penitents of Assisi” as they called themselves, headed for Rome to obtain papal approval of their new fellowship. Legend has it that Pope Innocent III rudely rejected the rag-tag group of mendicants who came before him.
But, through the intercession of the Bishop of Assisi, and a dream in which the pope saw the “Poor Man of Assisi” holding up the tottering Laterin, the Pope finally gave verbal sanction for the rule Francis had submitted and granted them permission to preach repentance everywhere. Before they left Rome, they received the ecclesiastical tonsure and Francis was ordained a deacon.
In 1211, the Benedictines gave the Friars Minor, as Francis called his small band of followers, the little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels in Porziuncola; they went on to build the first Franciscan monastery by erecting small huts of straw, mud and wattle, enclosed by a hedge. They went forward, two by two, singing with joy and calling themselves the Lord’s minstrels. They worked in the fields when they could get work, when they could not, they begged for their needs. Gradually, Francis became extremely influential and people of all ranks of life flocked to him and his little band of friars.
During Lent of 1212, a great and unexpected surprise came to Francis; Clare, a wealthy young heiress of Assisi, sought him out and begged to be allowed to enter the new lifestyle he had founded. Following Francis’ advice, the eighteen-year-old Clare secretly left her father’s house on the night of Palm Sunday and went to the Porziuncola where Francis cut her hair, clothed her in the habit of the Friars Minor and received her into the life of poverty, penance and seclusion.
A highly romanticized image of Clare escaping her parents’ home to join the friars.
Clare stayed with some Benedictine nuns near Assisi until Francis could provide for her and for her sister, Agnes, and the other young ladies who joined them. He established them at San Damiano’s at a home near the chapel he rebuilt with his own hands. The Benedictines gave this church and accompanying structures to Francis as a home for Francis’ spiritual daughters, called the Second Franciscan Order of Poor Ladies who would eventually be called the Poor Clares.
During the autumn of that same year, 1212, Francis’ determination to convert the Saracens led him to sail to Syria, but he was shipwrecked on the coast of Slavonia and forced to return to Ancona. He spent the following spring evangelizing central Italy, then, in 1214, he set out for Morocco in order to preach to the infidels and, if need be, to shed blood for the Gospel. But, while in Spain, he became violently ill and was compelled to return to Italy.
Legend has it that sometime near July 1216, during the pontificate of Honorius III, Francis received the concession of the famous Porziuncola Indulgence. As the story goes, while Francis was praying near the Porziuncola, Christ appeared to him and offered whatever favor he may desire. Because Francis’ constant hope was the conversion of poor sinners and because he wanted the Porziuncola to be a sanctuary where many might be saved, he begged a plenary indulgence for all who confess their sins and visit the little chapel. Jesus agreed to Francis’ request on the condition that the pope should ratify the indulgence. Francis immediately set out for Perugia in search of Pope Honorius III. In spite of much opposition from the Curia, the pope granted the indulgence with just the restriction that it could be for only one day each year, he set August 2nd in perpetuity as the day of receiving the Porziuncola Indulgence, il pardono d’Assisi.
Later, in 1219, Francis, still determined to reach the infidels, took eleven companions and set sail for Saint-Jean d’Acre and they were present at the taking of Damietta in northern Egypt during the fifth crusade, after preaching to the Christians, Francis fearlessly went over to preach to the infidel camp where he was taken prisoner and led to the sultan. The sultan treated Francis with kindness and agreed to treat his Christian prisoners with the same courtesy.
In 1223, Francis devised a new way to celebrate the Nativity, he reproduced in a church at Greccio, Christ’s manger at Bethlehem, thus, he is credited with beginning the devotion to the crib, and the first nativity scene. Christmas was a favorite time for Francis and he tried to get the emperor to establish a special law that men should provide well for beasts and birds, as well as for the poor, so that they all could celebrate the joyous season.
From the upper Basilica of St Francesco.
“Early in August, 1224, Francis retired with three companions to “that rugged rock ‘twixt Tiber and Arno”, as Dante called La Verna, there to keep a forty days fast in preparation for Michaelmas. During this retreat the sufferings of Christ became more than ever the burden of his meditations; into few souls, perhaps, had the full meaning of the Passion so deeply entered. It was on or about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September) while praying on the mountainside, that he beheld the marvelous vision of the seraph, as a sequel of which there appeared on his body the visible marks of the five wounds of the Crucified which, says an early writer, had long since been impressed upon his heart. Brother Leo, who was with St. Francis when he received the stigmata, has left us in his note to the saint’s autograph blessing, preserved at Assisi, a clear and simple account of the miracle, which for the rest is better attested than many another historical fact.” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/St._Francis_of_Assisi)
“After the reception of the stigmata, Francis suffered increasing pains throughout his frail body, already broken by continual mortification. For, condescending as the saint always was to the weaknesses of others, he was ever so unsparing towards himself that at the last he felt constrained to ask pardon of “Brother Ass”, as he called his body, for having treated it so harshly. Worn out, moreover, as Francis now was by eighteen years of unremitting toil, his strength gave way completely, and at times his eyesight so far failed him that he was almost wholly blind. During an excess of anguish, Francis paid a last visit to St. Clare at St. Damian’s, and it was in a little hut of reeds, made for him in the garden there, that the saint composed that “Canticle of the Sun”, in which his poetic genius expands itself so gloriously.”
“On the eve of his death, the saint, in imitation of his Divine Master, had bread brought to him and broken. This he distributed among those present, blessing Bernard of Quintaville, his first companion, Elias, his vicar, and all the others in order. “I have done my part,” he said next, “may Christ teach you to do yours.” Then wishing to give a last token of detachment and to show he no longer had anything in common with the world, Francis removed his poor habit and lay down on the bare ground, covered with a borrowed cloth, rejoicing that he was able to keep faith with his Lady Poverty to the end. After a while he asked to have read to him the Passion according to St. John, and then in faltering tones he himself intoned Psalm cxlii. At the concluding verse, “Bring my soul out of prison”, Francis was led away from earth by “Sister Death”, in whose praise he had shortly before added a new strophe to his “Canticle of the Sun”. It was Saturday evening, 3 October, 1226, Francis being then in the forty-fifth year of his age, and the twentieth from his perfect conversion to Christ.” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/St._Francis_of_Assisi)
Francis insistence on kindness at all times and to all creatures, included pleading with the people of Gubbio to feed the wild wolf that had ravished their flocks, because “brother wolf” did it from extreme hunger. Many legends from Francis’ life leave us with images of birds and beasts attracted to Francis’ gentle ways and entered into friendship with him. There is even a legend that claims the little birds listened so devoutly to his roadside sermons that Francis chided himself for not thinking to preach to them earlier. He loved nature, he communed with flowers, springs, fire and greeted the sun when it rose.
There is much more to Francis’ life, but I’m afraid I’ve gone on too long even now. To learn more, check out this link to my source for this information:(https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/St._Francis_of_Assisi