A look at Assisi, a small medieval town that is famous for its excellent cuisine and its most famous residents: St Francis and St Clare of Assisi
Italy is a fascinating country. United only in 1870 after centuries of being carved up into many principalities, the peninsula has been the cradle of civilisations for millennia. One of the most fascinating facts about the country is that its regions, and even its numerous cities, towns and villages, still retain their particular character. Tuscany is different than Umbria, while Piedmont and Naples are on different ends of a spectrum. This diversity — within not a very large area, and within the same people (well, Italian does have its regional variations), makes any visit to Italy exciting and charming.
In one of my recent trips to Italy, I decided to escape the splendour of Rome — great as it is, and escape to the mountains of the Umbrian region in central Italy. A few hours’ train journey from Rome, Assisi, a small medieval town, brings you to a different world. This small town is famous not just because it is very picturesque and peaceful and has excellent cuisine. It is also known all around the world for its most famous residents: St Francis and his companion St Clare of Assisi. It is said that after Jesus Christ himself, Francis has been the most important influence on the Christian religion. At the very least he was one of the most important thinkers and reformers of the last millennia. Francis’ way of life and his charisma, have had a deep and lasting impact on world and Christianity and brought to the fore a renewed emphasis on the poor and needy. Clare, who mirrored Francis’ work with men, in working with women, also transformed the way women participated in the church and in everyday life.
As one enters Assisi, one is simply drawn to the Basilica of St Francis, where the tomb of the saint is located. Even at midnight, the time I reached Assisi, there was a serene peace around the place and a sense of stillness and holiness. The basilica is composed of two churches, the upper church and the lower church, which command an imposing view on one side of a hill. Francis died in 1226, and shortly thereafter on July 16, 1228, he was made a saint, ‘canonised’ by the Pope in Assisi. The very next day the foundation stone of the basilica was laid which was designed by the master architect of the time, Jacopo Tedesco. The lower church was finished in 1230 and then on May 25 in the same year, the mortal remains of Francis were processed to the church and buried in its crypt. Interestingly, Francis’ followers were scared that someone might steal the saint’s body and so they hid the coffin so well that it was not found till 1818! It can now be seen and venerated in the crypt chapel. The upper church was started in 1239 and finished in 1253 when the pope consecrated both churches. Later, in 1288, Pope Nicholas IV raised the churches to the status of a ‘basilica,’ meaning his own personal church.
I only saw the basilica from the outside at night, and eagerly waited to return early the next morning to pay homage to the saint. The basilica is simply mesmerising from the inside. As one walks in, one is transposed to the thirteenth century. Elaborate frescoes depicting the life of both Jesus and Francis adorn the walls and paint a vivid picture of how Francis mirrored Christ in the world. While the main high altar and the side chapel are certainly remarkable and exude a certain serenity, one is immediately drawn to the unassuming staircase which leads to the crypt. Walking the few steps down one emerges in the crypt chapel where the coffin of the saint, containing his body, is immediately seen in front on a high pedestal. It is as if the entire basilica comes together in this simple sarcophagus. The eyes of the numerous pilgrims in the chapel look with hope towards Francis for the numerous prayers they have brought to his footstep. Reminding me of the sufi shrines in Pakistan, the Tomb of St Francis is testament to the power of mediation before God. Fallen humans often do not think themselves worthy to come into the presence of the Almighty and therefore use the intercession of His loved ones, His saints, to plead before God for them. As the beloved of God, they are heard, and their life gives us mortals a human example to follow. The fact that Francis, while being a human being, so greatly mirrored Christ in his daily life, gave others the hope—and the way, to follow the righteous path too. Hours simply passed by while praying in front of the tomb soon I realised that it was midday!
One of the most fascinating facts about Italy is that its regions, and even its numerous cities, towns and villages, still retain their particular character. Tuscany is different than Umbria, while Piedmont and Naples are on different ends of a spectrum.
Walking around the town of Assisi gives one goosebumps since it is literally like walking in the exact steps of Francis — with many of the same buildings and sites as he would have seen them. The town square, the Roman Temple which is now a church, and several of the alleyways in town, are largely the same as in the time of Francis. The medieval layout of the town makes one feel like one is walking with the great man, observing, thinking and contemplating with him.
After the basilica, I walked uphill to the Church of St Damiano. It was here in 1205 that once when Francis was in prayer Jesus spoke to Francis from the cross saying three times, ‘Francis, go and repair my church which, as you see, is all in ruins!’ After this Francis, who came from a rich family, gave up all worldly goods and began to preach and serve the poor as his vocation. It was very surreal to stand at the same spot where this incident happened, in the same small church, which led to a major religious, and also secular, transformation in the world. No one would have ever thought that one incident in a small remote village church would shake the world in the years to come, transform the Catholic Church, positively affect relations between Christianity and Islam, and become the benchmark of several ideas we now take for granted.
The convent attached to St Damiano was of the Poor Clares, an order established by Clare of Assisi, who diligently followed Francis and his teaching. In her convent Clare observed radical poverty where her nuns did manual labour, slept on floors, were barefoot, and observed near-complete silence. They also could not own any possessions whatsoever. This form of communal living was certainly radical for its time and several people, including popes, tried to dissuade Clare from it. However, Clare persisted, and finally won the approbation for her rule of life from the pope.
Clare lived all her life in this small convent, next from where the mission of Francis initiated. Clare outlived Francis and became even more famous by warding off two successive attacks on Assisi — one in 1240 and another in 1241, through her prayers and advocacy. A simple cross and candle mark the spot where Clare died in 1253 after a long illness, in an empty room — exactly like how it was centuries ago.
Even though Clare died in the Convent of St Damiano her remains were transferred to the Church of St George where the body of St Francis had temporarily been buried before being transferred to the basilica. Here Clare was buried in a chapel and later an imposing Basilica of St Clare was built on the spot commemorating the saint. Just like the body of Francis, Clare’s body was also hidden, and was only found in 1850, and was then transferred to a newly built crypt chapel in 1872 where it can be venerated today. The basilica also houses, in a side chapel, the original cross which spoke to Francis in 1205. One simply has an overwhelming experience by simply seeing that piece of wood, which represented something so powerful that it transformed the life of Francis, those around him, and of countless people around the world in the centuries following.
Another walk through the fields of Assisi leads one to the majestic Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. This sixteenth-century church was built over the spot where the young Francis understood his vocation and laid the foundation of his movement – the Order of Franciscan Minors (meaning ‘small’). It was here that the small band of followers became a formal religious order and then spread throughout the world, becoming the largest religious order in the world. The basilica is built over the ‘Portiuncola’ church (literally, ‘small piece of land’) where Francis lived as a beggar and centred his preached. Later in 1226, Francis died at the same spot, making it the holiest shrine for his worldwide order.
Beyond the religious significance, Assisi also points out two very important aspects of Francis’s life. While walking around the hills of Umbria, Francis composed canticles to the Sun and Moon, and spoke to the birds and animals. His concern for the environment, focus on animal rights, perhaps made him the first modern environmentalist in the world. Even today on his feast day, October 4, there is a traditional blessing of animals in many churches around the world, reminding people of the importance of all creation—humans as well as animals, for God and in our lives.
Francis was also the pioneer of interreligious dialogue in the world. In 1219, Francis met the Sultan, Malik Al-Kamil, of Egypt and fostered peace between the Christian West and the Islamic world, leading to an end of formal enmity after the Crusades. Francis therefore stands as a symbol for a medieval world which was modern in its outlook, and which remains critical for us today to learn and engage with.
I left Assisi after just under twenty-four hours, but with renewed hope, energy and zeal. The example of Francis, certainly difficult to emulate, surely gives us a pause in our daily lives to consider God’s wonderful creation and the least among us. We might not be able to change the world, but we must start by changing ourselves, as Francis always said.
The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]