Lower Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
Because of the hill slope, you enter the Lower Basilica from the left side of the nave, through an impressive 13th century doorway.
The Tau, Francis’ dearest symbol, is still associated with the Franciscan order. It is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and resembles a cross. It is no coincidence that the Church’s plan is Tau-shaped.
The Basilica of Saint Francis was built where the saint wanted to be buried: the hill below the city, called Collis Inferni (Hell Hill) because convicts used to be buried here. Francis was sanctified in July 1228, just two years after his death; the very next day, the construction of the impressive basilica which was to house his remains began. The work was supervised by one of his followers, Brother Elias. From that day on, the hill was called Collis Paradisi (Paradise Hill). The Basilica has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Most likely the building was originally an extremely simple rectangular hall in accordance with the Franciscan model. The body of the saint was placed in a sarcophagus below the high altar with his dearest companions placed in the four corners of the crypt.
Frescos along the transverse branch date back to 17th century. The central nave narrates Saint Francis’ story and the life and Passion of ChriSaint. These were probably created by an Umbrian master and were partially lost when the side chapels were built. One fresco on the right depicts Mary Magdalene; it was created by Giotto in the early 1300s. According to Jacopo da Varazze’s “Golden Legend”, Giotto brought to Assisi the new fresco technique he had developed in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (along with numerous helpers, given the amount of work). Perhaps a large part of the work was delegated to his helpers, further spreading the master’s style among the churches in the area.
The presbytery hosts in the central area an impressive Gothic papal altar, exactly above the tomb of Saint Francis. Above this, the work of a Giotto-inspired painter depicts the Saint and the allegories of “obedience”, “poverty”, and “chastity”; the pillars of the Franciscan order.
All the presbytery walls are completely covered with frescos by major Italian painters of that period: on the right wall, Cimabue created the Virgin in Maiesty with the Child, four angels and Saint Francis; on the left wall, Giotto depicted the crucifixion; Pietro Lorenzetti the childhood and the passion of Christ and finally, Simone Martini painted the Madonna with Child among the saints.
Another chapel has several objects that belonged to the saint and are venerated as relics. A staircase in the middle of the nave leads to one of the most moving places: the crypt where the body of the saint is kept. It is an absolutely austere place, just as Francis wanted it. Next to the stairs is the tomb for the noblewoman Jacopa de’ Settesoli, Francis’ dear friend and supporter. The sarcophagus holding the Saint’s body is above the altar, protected by a grate; around him are his four closest friends. The tomb is illuminated by a simple oil lamp fueled with oils coming from all the regions in Italy.