San Francesco, Assisi - Lower Church


  The nave consists of three bays, with chapels leading of from them. It was originally decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ and the life of St Francis, but when the chapels were built around 1300 these were badly damaged and only fragments remain. The fragments are of considerable interest, however. Very little art survives from the mid thirteenth century, and these, by an unknown artist known as the Master of St. Francis, prefigure in style the later work of the Giotto school and, some say, may have strongly  influenced it. The arrangement of the various images is of great interest too, and I'll look closely at this. In this section of my site I have stressed the importance of understanding the context for any piece of religious art. These early frescos, battered though they may be, are one of the best examples I can offer. 

The scenes of the Passion of Christ appear on the right, the most sacred side. They are paired with scenes from the Life of St Francis on the left. Some of the connections between the two are clear enough; others are not.  Let's look at a paired list and see what we can make of them, then get some help from Thomas of Celeno.

Right hand side: the Passion of Christ

Left hand side: the Life of St Francis 

Bay 1 (Nearest the Narthex)                     
Christ being stripped of his garments before Crucifixion
The Crucified Christ Entrusts the Virgin Mary to the Care of St John        
                        St Francis renounces worldly goods  
                       Pope Innocent  III dreams of  St Francis  
Bay 2 

                 Deposition of Christ                                                                                                   St Francis preaching to the Birds
                 Lamentation over the body of Christ                                                                             Stigmata of St Francis
Bay 3 
                 The apparition of Christ at  Emmaus                                                                           Verification of the Stigmata
 Bay 2 is the tricky one, so let's look at Bays 1 and 3 first. 
  The legend of  St Francis tells us that in renouncing worldly goods he removed his clothes and gave them back to his father - a clear parallel with the stripping of Christ.  The second is a little more difficult. 
   The Virgin Mary is seen as a symbol of the church, placed in the safe hands of John the Evangelist.  The importance of the Virgin to the Franciscans started early. Thomas of Celano reflects this when wring about the place the order was founded, the Porziuncola near Assisi:
   This location, according to the ancient inhabitants, was called by another name, Santa Maria degli Angeli . . . There stood on this spot a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who, for her humility deserved, after the Son, to be ruler of all the Saints.  On this spot began the Order of Friars Minors. . . .  The Holy Mother loved this place more than any other, and commanded the monks to worship it with special devotion.  (Second Life, Book 1 Ch XII)

What about Pope Innocent's dream?  Thomas tells us this. Francis is before the Pope, hoping for approval of his new movement:
The Pope listened with wonder. . .   He remembered a dream he had a few days before.  He had dreamed that the Lateran Basilica was about to collapse, and that a holy man, small and humble, had propped it on his shoulders, so that it would not fall.  "Well, he thought, this is he who with both words and actions, will support the Church of Christ." (Second life, Book 1 Ch XI)

  Christ asks John to care for the Virgin Mary, who stands for the church. Innocent's dream passes that responsibility on to Francis. 
  In the third bay the parallel is more straightforward, though the condition of the Passion image has made positive identification difficult. It shows Christ at Emmaus, after the crucifixion:

  But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe. John 20 24/25

A clear match with the scene of the verification of Francis's stigmata. 
   Why only one pair in the third bay?  This was the position of iconostasis - the western side of the bay would not be visible from the nave. 

  As I've said, the second bay is more difficult. One might expect the image of Francis Receiving the Stigmata might be matched with the Crucifixion rather than the Lamentation, but perhaps that parallel wouldn't be quite right: Francis wasn't crucified, and this Passion scene perhaps says more about the significance of  the death of Christ than the Crucifixion itself does.  
  The Deposition scene and the Preaching to the Birds do not seem to have any connection at all. Perhaps there is though. In the deposition, Christ is surrounded by supporters,  but not the twelve apostles  - is this the moment when the faithful suddenly realised the importance of Christ's message? Isn't the Preaching to the Birds a similar moment? 

On to the images.

Bay 1

Christ is stripped of his garments

Francis renounces worldly goods

Christ entrusts his mother to John

The Dream of Innocent III

Bay 2

The Deposition

Francis preaches to the birds

The Lamentation

St Francis receives the stigmata. 
(The image of Francis himself is lost.)

Bay 3

Christ at Emmaus. The image below is what is left of a virgin and child fresco.
Apologies for the poor image. 

The verification of the stigmata of Francis.

   When the iconostasis was removed the left side of bay 3 was redesigned with a vault to match the opening to the Magdalen chapel opposite. The space was then filled with a cantoria (platform for a choir) constructed, it is believed, with marble from the iconostasis. This was dedicated to the little-known St Stanislas, an 11th century archbishop of Krakow who came to a very sticky end, as graphically illustrated by Puccio Capanna who frescoed the space around 1337. The construction is known as the Tribune of St Stanislas. 

St Stanislas revives a dead man.

The Martrydom of St Stanislas.

Back to San Francesco Lower Church page 1
                                           Home page - explore the site