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Assisi: St. Francis and the Basilica of St. Francis

Assisi, Italy

St. Francis preached a necessary message of love and simplicity at a time the Church government had become decadent. A basilica — divinely frescoed with Giotto’s realistic scenes of the saint’s life — houses his tomb and attracts pilgrim to this day.

Complete Video Script

An hour’s drive to the east takes us to the neighboring state of Umbria, famous for the town of Assisi and its beloved St. Francis, who had a huge impact on the medieval church.

The story of medieval Europe is the story of hard lives and a very religious world where people struggled and stressed about their relationship with God. Many thoughtful people entered monasteries and lived lives of quiet prayer and solitude in retreats like this.

Around the year 1200, Francis, a simple friar from Assisi, was one such person. He retreated to this hermitage for the solitude. And it survives to this day — with a handful of Franciscan friars living out his mission.

Behind a little chapel you’ll find the tiny, dank cell where Francis himself would retire for private prayer. In this beautiful setting you can almost imagine the much-loved saint preaching to the birds.

Francis lived in the hill town of Assisi. While the Basilica of St Francis, where he’s buried, dominates the town, we’ll visit that later. His story starts here, in the valley below, in the Church [Basilica] of St. Mary of the Angels. It’s a grandiose Baroque church. But stepping inside you realize it’s built around a humble little chapel.

As a young man, Francis was living in a way that attracted followers. He went to the Vatican in Rome, asked for the pope’s blessing to continue his work, and got it. Back in Assisi, he was given this fixer-upper chapel.

This is the actual chapel that Francis and his first followers rebuilt. And it was here, in 1209, that he established the Franciscan Order. Inside the chapel, pilgrims remember the very spot where Francis lived, worked, and died, and how — as it turned out — fixing up that little chapel was a metaphor for a Church in need of reform.

This chapel, so dwarfed by this enormous church, reflects the monumental impact this simple friar — a reformer well ahead of his time — had on Christendom.

With his teaching, Francis challenged the decadence of church government. He took Jesus’ message of nonmaterialism and simplicity seriously, challenging the wealthy and powerful around him. His “slow down and smell God’s roses” teaching drew a huge following.

Francis strove to be Christ-like. He taught by example. He lived without worldly goods and loved all of creation. A huge religious order grew out of his teachings, which were gradually embraced by the Church. In 1939, Italy made Francis one of its patron saints, and in 2013, the newly elected pope took his name…the first ever Pope Francis.

A visit to Assisi shows that Francis’ message of universal love has a broad and timeless appeal. In fact, Assisi routinely hosts inter-faith gatherings. And even nonreligious travelers become pilgrims of a sort as they explore the town and remember Francis.

Any pilgrimage site will be commercialized, and Assisi — which enthusiastically cashes in on the legacy of St. Francis — is no exception. The town overflows with Francis fans and a flood of Franciscan knickknacks.

But most visitors are day-trippers. So, to enjoy Assisi at its peaceful best, see it early or see it late. While the town center may be congested, just a few steps away you’ll find pockets of serenity. As you explore, gaze up. Balconies are tiny gardens. Medieval Assisi was densely populated — with several times the population of the town today packed within its protective walls.

The town’s main square is an inviting place to relax. As in many European old town centers, it’s pedestrian-friendly and almost traffic-free.

Assisi has been a spiritual center since pre-Christian times. The ancient Romans went to great lengths to make this first-century B.C. Temple of Minerva — with its stately Corinthian columns — a centerpiece of their city.

A Christian church was built into the ruined pagan temple in the ninth century. And its fine 13th-century bell tower soars above the crowds of the main square. But it seems most visitors are here for the story of St. Francis.

Francis was a big deal even in his own age. In fact, he was made a saint within a few years of his death. Immediately, pilgrims came from far and wide, making Assisi a thriving pilgrimage center, which it is to this day.

Assisi’s main drag leads from the town center toward the basilica, which holds the saint’s much-venerated remains. This 13th-century hospice gave pilgrims a place to rest. And along the way, pilgrims would stop here for a drink.

The street ends at the Basilica of St. Francis. This is one of the artistic and religious highlights of Europe. It rises where, in 1230, St. Francis was buried. For eight centuries it’s been one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom.

From a distance, you see the huge arches that support the basilica. Above these were the quarters for the hundreds of friars who once lived here. The arcades that line the square approaching the church are where medieval pilgrims were housed and fed.

The destination of so many pilgrims is the tomb of Francis, which lies deep beneath the basilica. Its humble elegance befits the saint who preached simplicity. The saint’s remains — in a stone box with iron ties — are one of the most important Christian relics anywhere.

Holy relics were the “ruby slippers” of medieval Europe. To the faithful, relics had power — they helped answer prayers, win wars — and ultimately, they helped you get to heaven.

The basilica rises in two levels above the tomb. It’s cohesive — an artistic and theological work of genius. With its fine art, it still functions as a splendid classroom. It was frescoed from top to bottom by leading artists of the 13th century.

In the lower basilica, Cimabue painted what’s considered the earliest and most accurate portrayal of St. Francis. Below, you’ll see five of Francis’ closest followers — clearly just simple folk.

The series of frescoes above the altar is by Giotto, the most powerful storyteller of his day. Three scenes represent the vows of the Franciscans: obedience, chastity, and poverty. Francis kneels in front of Lady Obedience, Chastity is in her tower of purity, flanked by two angels, and Lady Poverty is in her patched wedding dress. Francis, about to marry her, slips a ring on her finger as Jesus blesses the union.

And high above is Francis on a heavenly throne. After a life of earthly simplicity, he enjoys glory in heaven.

In the 13th century, Giotto’s art was radical — unprecedented in its realism. He portrayed holy people expressing emotion as never before. Here, in this Crucifixion scene, one angel turns her head sadly at the sight of Jesus, and another is in such anguish she scratches her hands down her cheeks. Mary, until this fresco generally portrayed in control, has fainted in despair. The Franciscan friars, with their passion for bringing God to the people, found a natural partner in Europe’s first modern painter, Giotto.

The upper basilica, built a bit later than the lower, is considered the first Gothic church in Italy. It’s brighter, illuminated by 13th-century stained glass — the oldest in Italy, and covered with frescoes by Giotto and his assistants. The nave shows 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis — a mix of documented history and folk legend.

Here Giotto shows a nearly naked Francis — the rich kid tossing his fancy clothes to his father — befuddling high society by trading a life of luxury for one of simplicity. But ultimately, even the pope recognized that Francis could restore a church and society in great need of reform.

In a land torn by war, Francis promoted peace. He preached by example and made the gospel’s teaching more accessible to common people. Francis’ message of nonmaterialism challenges the wealthy and powerful to this day.

And perhaps the most endearing scene in the basilica shows Francis preaching to the birds. Francis loved nature as well as humanity. The variety of birds represents the diverse flock of nature and humanity all worthy of one another’s love.