Upper Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

Despite some International Gothic style elements, the Basilica outside is Romanesque; however, its interior is Gothic, characterized by vivid colors and sleek forms. The nave is unique, with a transept and a apse covered by high cross vaults.
Unlike the lower Basilica, the upper church is lit by large windows and a splendid rose window in the façade. The Basilica also boasts the largest collection of Medieval stained glass windows in Italy: the apse glass was the work of German makers and the nave glass was created by French and local artisans during the 18th century.

The upper band of the nave wall was kept simple and totally smooth to receive frescos recounting stories from the Bible to the poor classes and exalting Saint Francis. What makes this place famous, unique and precious are the amazing frescos; these masterpieces have made the Basilica one of the most important examples of 13th and 14th century art evolution in Italy and in Europe. Dating the frescos is not easy; they are tied to opposing factions of friars: “conventual Franciscans” and the “Spiritual” ones; the latter were against enriching with works of art Franciscan places of worship because of the lifestyle chosen by Francis. 

Two Chapters decided that the basilica would be “non-iconic”, in other words, free from divine images. However, Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, went ahead and collected donations aiming at decorating the church. In 1288 he declared it as a “papal chapel” and therefore erased any need for Franciscan sobriety. Some scholars contend that the decoration of the Basilica began nearly 20 years before. In any case, the oldest frescoes are found in the Lower Basilica.

Matteo d’Acquasparta, a Franciscan general, planned the decorations stating that the story of the Old and New Testament would be organized in the upper bands while the lower band, closer to the faithful, would hold the story of Saint Francis

Cimabue too was called in at the end of the 1200s to create a painting cycle: he was selected because of the fame he had in Rome and his arrival in Assisi was the first of a series of prestigious Florentine artists. He frescoed the transept and the choir walls: the majority of his frescos are unfortunately damaged today because of an oxidation process causing the white lead turning black, making images appear like photography negatives. The most interesting painting, in the left transept, represents the Crucifixion: the dramatic gestures of the figures draw attention towards the cross considered the fulcrum of Franciscan thought. 

According to Vasari and Ghiberti, the most illustrious witnesses of that period, it was Giotto who created the frescos on the lower wall sections of the Basilica, though some interpret Vasari’s phrase “the lower part” to mean the Lower Basilica. In the early 20th century some English scholars questioned the idea of attributing these frescos to Giotto; further doubts raised from recent restorations after the earthquake. According to these theories, Giotto’s style is recognizable only in the lower Basilica, the one place where the same technique used in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua can be identified. The question remains open; though, it is beautiful to imagine that the realism of gesture and physiognomy, the beauty of the scenes and the perspective depicted in the Upper Basilica are the fruits of a a Medieval artist and revolutionary genius. 

No matter what, the scenes have not all the same quality, definitive proof that they were painted by several hands, probably by numerous helpers who assisted Giotto with the massive undertaking. In any case, painting solutions are highly innovative: the use of chiaroscuro gives the paintings depth, architectural views set the scene and shape the spaces where characters move. However, the real revolution is that, for the first time, some of the figures turn their backs to the viewer! The whole central band of the nave is beautifully decorated with scenes from the life of Saint Francis: 28 scenes from the “Legenda Maior” by San Bonaventura, the official biography of the saint dating back to 18th century. 

The decoration is a magnificent narration of a great story unfolding like a cartoon along the walls, astonishing, even today. Faux curtains are painted on the lower section; the scenes are divided by painted architectural elements. Each scene measures a little over two meters in width and almost three meters in height, starting at the altar and proceeding clockwise towards the opposite wall and returning to the starting point.
Paintings tell the story of Saint Francis, from his youth to his death, including alleged posthumous miracles, alternating with historical episodes and legends about the saints.

When the frescos were first revealed they were shocking and revolutionary, representing a dramatic break from the Byzantine painting the public was used to see at that time: no gold, no fixed images, no symbols, incomprehensible to general public, just recognizable scenes showing everyday life, for centuries excluded from painting. The Saint Francis fresco cycle is divided into three groups: the first group narrates the story of Saint Francis before the birth of Franciscan order, the second deals with the Saint and his Order, the third shows the order carrying on the work of Francis after his death.

The first seven episodes recount his story from his conversion up to the approval of the Franciscan Rule; at the centre is the main group of panels illustrating the history of Franciscan order up until the death of Saint Francis. The last seven panels depict the funeral and canonization of the Saint, together with miracles attributed to him after his death. So, in the "Homage of a simple man”, you can clearly distinguish the piazza of Assisi with Palazzo Comunale and the Temple of Minerva; these buildings create a realistic background and were constructed according to precise measurements. One of the most famous frescoes is “Francis giving his cloak to a poor man”; here the white belonging to a horse and to columns has turned black because of oxidation; the background is a landscape depicted according to an archaic, Byzantine style.

Francis renouncing his worldly goods” is another famous scene; here the figures are divided into two clearly recognizable groups: one portraying his father, representing the past, the other portraying Saint Francis with his hand raised towards God, representing the future. Actually, the real revolution here are the two babies in the crowd: are the first babies painted in Medieval art which are not a portraying Jesus. 

One of the most famous episodes is "Christmas in Greccio”, another innovation by Saint Francis: the living nativity scene. He decided to commemorate the birth of Jesus using people in a little village in Rieti province! The scene is also an extraordinary documet: no painter had ever used so much realism. The viewpoint given the spectator was the same usually reserved to the priest; the tabernacle resembles those made by the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio; friars sing looking at a book stand and the cross hangs towards the nave while women, not allowed to enter, crowd at the door. 

Another very noteworthy scene depicts the wolf of Gubbio which after terrorizing the city was tamed by Francis and thanks to Francis, became accepted by citizens. The stories, each with a title below, are all set in the Medieval world. 
Figures move within urban and natural landscapes with a formidable realism. In all scenes Saint Francis is depicted free of the normal hierarchical techniques such as over-scaled, or frontally, but looks like everyone else, except for the halo. Painted figures also show the period fashions.

Giotto and Cimabue were not the only artists collaborating on the work: a Gothic master -a Frenchman or Englishman, and for this reason was called Maestro Oltremontana (Beyond the Mountain Master)- worked on the transept creating painting integrated with architecture; there were also two early-christian style Roman painters as well as an unidentified master. The latter may have been a painter from Assisi known as “Maestro della Cattura” and “Maestro di Isacco”; he painted Old Testament stories and has been identified as Arnolfo di Cambio, or even Giotto.

The Upper Basilica became the model for Franciscan Churches such as the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, Arezzo, Cortona, Naples and even Angers in France. The earthquake on September 26, 1997 caused deep lesions in the Basilica. 

Some parts of the vault cracked, killing four people; 130 square meters of Medieval frescoes were reduced to fragments. After two years of restoration work, aided in part by virtual imaging, frescoes were returned to their original splendor and the Basilica reopened.

Created: 09 Aug 2013
Last update: 27 Jun 2023

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