Although every building in Assisi celebrates Saint Francis, the city’s cathedral is dedicated to San Rufino. Rufino was the bishop of Amaziah, Turkey. In the 3rd century, when he arrived to Assisi preaching the Gospel, he was indicted for his religion and thrown in the Chiascio river with a stone around his neck.
The cathedral was built above the forum belonging to the ancient Roman city of Asisium or perhaps above a pagan temple dedicated to Bona Mater (the Roman goddess of Nature and Fertility). The story goes that townspeople fought out the saint’s body -found here in 412 with the Bishop Ugone, who wanted to move it to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The citizens took position against the move and started a real “tug of war” with the saint's coffin. The sixty bishops’ men were beaten by only 7 Assisi citizens. The victory was seen as a miracle by everyone, even by Ugone, who then decided to renovate the small basilica. The last renovation, still visible today, was started in 1140; however it was consecrated 100 years later by Pope Innocent IV
The piazza in front of the church has an unusual funnel shape aiming to exaggerate the perspective and enhancing the splendid, austere and impressive façade with its three doors guarded by sculpted lions and griffins. It represents a masterpiece of Umbrian Romanesque architecture, similar to the Spoleto Cathedral, and is decorated with foliage reliefs, allegorical figures and mythical beasts.
A 12th century bas-relief over the central doorway portrays Christ sitting on a throne surrounded by the sun, the moon, a nursing Madonna and Saint Rufino. In the band above the doorways animals are sculpted, corbels are supported by human and zoomorphic heads; four animals jut out from the gallery above. In the middle of the façade are three rose windows with the sculpted symbols of the Evangelists surrounding the central one.
On the left side of the façade is the imposing bell tower with a perfectly preserved Roman cistern at its base.
The cathedral has three naves. Its style is no more as it was originally, since the interior was completely renovated in 1571 by architect Galeazzo Alessi. At the beginning of the right-hand nave stands an ancient baptismal font: as the story goes, Saint Francis and Saint Clare were baptised here and perhaps, in 1197, even Emperor Frederick II.
Inside 10 altars alternate with statues representing prophets; on the opposite side there are two statues dating back to 1800 portraying Francis and Clare. The Chapel of Blessed Sacrament on the right side is Baroque; the apse holds a magnificent carved wood choir dating back to 1520 and a large 19th century organ.
No doubt the most evocative place is the Crypt: it was created during the renovation carried out by Bishop Ugone and lies on the site of the former Ancient Basilica’s presbytery. 11th century church decorations are still visible here, including a bishop’s chair and, by the high altar, a Roman sarcophagus dating back to 3rd century holding Rufinus’ relics.