Church of St. Francis of Assisi

Published date: 09/07/2024
  • Location: St. Francis Of Assisi, Assisi, Italy., San Francesco I, Basilicate, Italy
The 13th-century priest St. Francis of Assisi made a huge impact on the medieval church. His decision to renounce his worldly goods and lead a simple life as a wandering preacher earned him immense respect and helped to counter the widely held belief that many priests were overly privileged and clearly corrupt and that the church was more interested in accumulating worldly wealth than in the spiritual well-being of its followers. Francis felt a special kinship with the poor, so it is ironic that he should have been buried in one of Italy’s most sumptuous churches.

Francis was so popular that he was canonized just two years after his death, before he had even received his official funeral. He had hoped to be buried in a pauper’s grave on the Colle del Inferno (Hill of Hell, so called because criminals were executed there), but he could never have envisaged that he would be honoured with an enormous double church—the Basilica di San Francesco. The Lower Basilica was completed in just two years (1228–30), although this speed may have been ill-advised, because the entire structure had to be underpinned in the 1470s. The dating of the Upper Basilica is less clear, but it was certainly completed by 1253 when both churches were consecrated together.

After Francis’s death, his body was held at the church of San Giorgio until it could be interred in the new foundation. Even then, the precise burial place was kept secret for fear that his relics would be stolen—a shocking reminder of the riches that the pilgrimage trade could generate. The saint’s remains were rediscovered only in 1818, when they were installed in a new crypt. The church, meanwhile, was lavishly decorated with frescoes by all the major artists of the day, including Giotto. (Iain Zaczek)

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