Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli
(St. Mary of the Angels)
Arriving in Assisi, the flat area where newer parts of the city are situaed opens up on an immense piazza overlooked by the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Such an impressive worship place is one of the first stages and piligrim destinations; it also hosts events and pacifist demonstrations linked to the ecumenical aspects of Assisi. The church was designed by architect Galeazzo Alessi in collaboration with Vignola.
A gold statue of the Madonna stands out against the sky on the top of the church.
Santa Maria degli Angeli has a crux immissa plan and three naves. Despite its imposing size, it has an essential and basic style aimed at focusing attention on the art work kept inside: the Porziuncola, the small church, beloved by Saint Francis is inside, being one of the most important Franciscan sites. Originally, the area where the small church was built was outside the city limits, and it was called “Santa Maria degli Angeli”, same as the Basilica named after it. Between 16th and 17th centuries, the Basilica was built with the aim to enclose and protect the small worship place.
According to a legend, the Porziuncola was built in the 4th century by a group of hermits from Palestine using stones coming from Monte Subasio. It is a tiny space measuring just 7 by 4 metres with a small apse. In 576 it was the home for the friars of Saint Benedict. The Porziuncola was the third church Francis refurbished after he had a vision and it became his favourite place. There, Clare renounced temporal goods embracing a life of poverty; there Francis died on the evening of 3 October 1226.
The small church retains its 1300s structure, including its white and pink marble roof. Restoration works after the 1997 earthquake uncovered the original floor hidden since the 16th century.
Despite its small size, the Porziuncola has always been the destination for a large number of pilgrims; many of them travelling there just to obtain a plenary indulgence (forgiveness of all sins) achieved solely by entering the small church. It is not by chance that the entrance door is out of proportion compared with the tiny building: it was widened in 1900 to provide easier access to the increasing crowds of pilgrims.
The church exterior is completely decorated and on the right side has a stone inscription, attached to it: it is the oldest document belonging to Franciscan order. It was originally on the grave of Pietro Cattani, one of Francis’ first companions. According to a legend, upon Pietro’s death, crowds of devoted people flocked to his tomb disturbing the friars praying, so that Francis urged his friend to be as obedient in death as he had been in life and to stop performing miracles. And so it was.
The little church is decorated by frescoes dating back between the 14th and the 19th centuries, depicting sacred images and stories about Saint Francis. The fresco in the apse representing the Crucifixion is all that remains of a much larger work -perhaps by Perugino- continuing on the convent walls later torn down. One of the chapels in the basilica was built on the spot where the convent infirmary was, precisely where Francis died in 1226.
Inside the Basilica, beyond the cloister, there is a famous rose garden which survived over the years to tell one further miracle: one night Francis, to punish his body for having given in to temptation, rolled over in the rose garden; however, he wasn’t injured because the rose thorns miraculously disappeared as they touched his body!
The Basilica is even more famous than one might think: one of the largest cities in the United States, founded by a Franciscan order, is named after it: “El Pueblo de la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles sobre la Porciuncula de Asís" or “The City of the Church of Our Lady of Angels on the Porziuncola in Assisi”, actually the original name of Los Angeles.