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Orvieto (Umbria), Italy

Church of San Francesco

 
 

The church of Saint Francis is one of the most important examples of Orvieto's religious architecture, for its history, style and grandeur.

Originally built with a single, very wide nave, today the church has a series of connecting chapels of Baroque origin in its interior, which have modified its overall appearance, making it more visually appealing but less in keeping with the original intentions.

The origins of the Franciscan ecclesiastical complex

When they arrived in Orvieto, the Franciscan friars chose the highest point of the cliff as the place where they could gather and concentrate on their prayers, precisely where Febei Square is now located.

The construction of the church began in the first half of the thirteenth century, perhaps close to the date of death of Saint Francis. According to tradition, it was the saint himself who wanted the construction of the ancient convent, now used as a municipal library.

The church is therefore to be considered as the second religious building in Italy dedicated to St. Francis, after the Basilica of Assisi.

The structure of the church of Saint Francis in Orvieto

Particularly impressive at the time, the church of Saint Francis was long regarded as a proper cathedral by the inhabitants of the city.

Its gabled façade is in Romanesque style with clear Gothic influences, which can also be found in the pointed arches of the portals.

Undoubtedly, the feature that immediately catches the eye of the observer is the presence of two side rose windows, interspersed with a central opening of the Baroque period, which perhaps replaced another rose window.

The large central portal, embellished by a large churchyard with a pebble staircase, is surrounded by sloping bands made of local stone, arranged according to a valuable two-tone pattern in white and red.

The style of the minor side portals is simpler, as they once had to have a frescoed bezel.

The interiors: from the origins to the eighteenth-century interventions

As mentioned, the current interior of the church is influenced by the substantial renovation work carried out over the centuries and most notably in the Baroque era in the 1700s.

The original quadrangular apse is still at the head of the nave, while the side altars wanted by the noble families of the time date back to the sixteenth century.

The large interconnecting chapels are one of the major additions to the restyling of the eighteenth century, the valuable stuccoes on the walls and the wooden choir are also from that period. In any case, it must be said that these stuccoes have almost completely covered the medieval pictorial heritage of the church and in fact today only one fresco remains clearly visible, recently rediscovered and renovated: the life of Saint Matthew.

The fresco on the life of Saint Matthew

This is a fourteenth-century fresco of great value, painted by Pietro di Puccio, which depicts three episodes from the life of the evangelist.

The first refers to the most famous episode, that is, his encounter with Jesus, who asked him to abandon his occupation as a tax collector and become an apostle. The illustrations relating to the domestication of two dragons and the episode in which the saint resurrects Iphigenia are not so common.

A curiosity is the fact that the painting had writings, which are almost illegible today, that reproduced the words expressed by the characters depicted: for this reason this fresco is also considered as a forerunner of the modern art of comics.

A place where art, history and faith blend together

The church of Saint Francis in Orvieto is not always open to the public, but those who have the opportunity to visit the interior can see the mixture of styles from different eras.

The exterior of the church, also because of its proximity to the current Cathedral, deserves a visit too, because of its deep historical and mystical content and because of the particularity of its style, imposing and original at the same time.