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Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 43.0748 N 12.6058 E
No:344        (list of all attractions)
Values:Art, Architecture, History
Address:Europe, Italy, Umbria, Perugia Province, north-western part of Assisi town
Name in Italian:Basilica di San Francesco
UNESCO World Heritage status:Part of "Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites", 2000, No.990
Architectural style:Romanesque, Italian Gothic
Architect:Elias of Cortona
Year of construction:1228 - 1253
Branch of Christianity:Catholics
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Italy
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi / Roberto Ferrari, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

The construction of the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi caused strife among the followers of Francis of Assisi - the magnificence and luxury of this enormous building contradicted to the celebration of powerty by St.Francis.

Nevertheless basilica today is one of the most important church buildings worldwide, with outstanding collection of beautiful frescoes and stained glass.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Upper Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Upper Church / b.roveran, Flickr, CC BY 2.0


Like many medieval towns of Italy, the history of Assisi started thousands of years ago. This well fortified town developed on the slopes of Asio hill, and, possibly was started by Umbrians, taken over by Etruscans, then Romans. Fortification walls and buildings were constructed mostly of local granite.

Today Assisi is charming, interesting town, rich with medieval and Renaissance architecture and artworks, it has been a place of key importance for the development of European art.

As one approaches the town, there opens a view on magnificent basilica. It is devoted to the best known son of Assisi - Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Lower Church, frescoe of St.Francis preaching to the birds
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, St.Francis preaching to the birds, frescoe in the Lower Church / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

St. Francis of Assisi

The life and character of Francis of Assisi has often been compared to the life of Christ and many of his followers believed that he is the second Christ.

At his youth Francis led a life of rich, spoiled offspring of wealthy family. But, while participating in war, he had a vision, which changed his life. Francis deliberately started to live in poverty, he teached peace, tolerance and love to everything what has been created by God, including animals and plants.

Francis has multiple followers and sometimes around 1210 they established a new order - Franciscan Order, which later became one of the most influential Christian orders. In a way Christianity was reborn through his efforts, religion regained its ideals and these ideals have been outstanding up to this day.

This great man died in 1226 and soon after, in 1228 was pronounced a saint by his friend, pope Gregory IX.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, facade of the Upper Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, facade of the Upper Church / Blackcat, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Construction of basilica

It was clear that Franciscan order needed a convent and church. Franciscans wanted also to commemorate their inspirer by building a new church in Assisi - the city where he was born and buried.

Pope Gregory IX laid the cornerstone of mother church of the Order of Friars Minor (one of three Franciscan orders) on July 17, 1228, in the next day after the canonization of St. Francis. Construction was started in the site of the initial burial of St. Francis, in cliffside.

St. Francis wanted to be similar to Jesus, who was killed and buried outside Jerusalem, like a criminal. Francis was buried outside the city walls, in Collo d'Inferno - Hill of Hell. This was the place, where gallows were placed and criminals put to death.

Gregory IX though saw the future of Franciscans in a different way and wanted to show his support to this order through construction of a splendid church.

Construction was led by Elias of Cortona - one of the earliest followers to St.Francis. Elias of Cortona did his work with excellence and created a magnificent, ornate basilica, which was completed in 1253 - surprisingly soon, if compared to other major churches of Europe. In many ways it defined the local, Italian adaptation of Gothic style in architecture and art.

In 1239 there was built a Romanesque belltower next to the church.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Lower Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Lower Church / Dennis Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Splendour or powerty?

The construction of the mother church of Franciscans demonstrated the split between the followers of St. Francis - many saw that construction of such expensive and pompous church contradicts the life and gospels of St. Francis.

This split became a reality - Franciscan Order divided. Proponents of strict rules and powerty were named zelanti and Fraticelli and were persecuted by the Church in the coming centuries.

Nevertheless this splendid building in some way defined the ruling tendency in Franciscan Order in coming centuries. Franciscan Order became politically influential, many Franciscan churches now belong to most ornate structures worldwide (e.g. Church and Convent of San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador or Igreja de São Francisco in Porto, Portugal).

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Upper Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Upper Church. Gunnar Bach Pedersen / Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Later history of basilica

Already in 1230 the body of St. Francis returned from its temporary place of burial (Basilica of Saint Clare of Assisi) to the basilica. Since then it became one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Italy.

In 1288 the church got the status of Papal Church. Later - in 1474 - impressive colonnades were built around the square. Church in the 15th century was used as a summer residence of the popes.

Much later - in 1818 - the remnants of St. Francis were rediscovered below the floor of basilica and some decades later there was built a crypt. Now the burial place of saint can be visited.

Another great man in the history of Christianity - pope John Paul II - brought together 160 religious leaders of different world religions in the basilica in 1986, in the World Day of Prayer of Peace. This happened once again in 2002, when 200 religious leaders participated.

Tragedy happened in 1997 - earthquakes killed two Franciscan friars and two construction specialists inside the basilica, structure was heavily damaged and valuable frescoes by Giotto were lost. Some years later basilica was renovated.

Two churches in one basilica

Basilica has interesting peculiarity - it consists of two floors - Lower Church and Upper Church. Both have cruciform plan and each of them was consecrated as a separate church.

Lower Church and the grand monastery (Sacro Convento) at it basically were complete by 1239. Upper Basilica was constructed later - it was started after 1239 and completed in 1253, when both churches were consecrated by Pope Innocent IV.

Both Upper and Lower Churches are decorated with frescoes by many famous painters, including Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti, possibly Pietro Cavallini. These frescoes make this basilica an outstanding monument of Italian art.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Lower Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, Lower Church / Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Lower Church

This part of basilica was designed in the earlier - Romanesque style, with semicircular cross-vaults and barrel vaults. The entrance portal though is shaped in Gothic style, with gorgeous rose window above it. Lower Church contains the crypt of St. Francis.

Here are the oldest frescoes in the basilica, made by unknown artist. On the right side are five frescoes depicting the Passion of Christ and on the left side - five scenes from the life of St.Francis. Thus Franciscans in a way interpreted St.Francis as a second Christ.

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Upper Church
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, interior of the Upper Church / Starlight, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Upper Church

Upper Church has white-washed brick facade and Gothic doorway and Romanesque rose window above it. Its architecture has more Gothic forms than the architecture of Lower Church. Especially impressive are the beautiful Gothic windows with stained glass - some of the best examples of Italian glasswork from the 13th century.

The interior of the Upper Church is important monument of early Gothic art and architecture. Gorgeous is the ceiling, which is adorned with sky color frescoes with golden stars.


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