Papal Basilica of Saint Francis And Sacred Convent
The first stone of the Basilica was laid on the 17th of July 1228 under Pope Gregory IX, the day after St. Francis was canonised just two years after his death.
The works started under the direction of friar Elias of Cortona and continued up to Pope Innocent IV. The chosen site to build the basilica, according to tradition indicated by St. Francis himself, was called “Colle dell’Inferno” (“Hill of Hell”), a steep area of Mount Subasio where wrongdoers were hanged, hence the name.
A great church would have been erected on that previously cursed site and it would have housed the body of the great saint.
The hill was later renamed “Colle del Paradiso” (“Hill of Paradise”).
The basilica’s complex consists of two superimposed churches, the lower basilica (1228-1230) and the upper basilica (1230-1253), and a crypt, excavated in 1818, with the tomb of the saint.
The entrance to the former is in the lower square, bounded by a 15th-century portico. Above the portal are three rose windows , the basilica has a double-T plan. It was decorated by the most prominent painters of the 13th and 14th century: Cimabue, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini. The stained-glass windows by Giovanni di Bonino and Puccio Capanna are wonderful.
The convent houses the remarkable Treasure Museum, which has rare illuminated manuscripts, paintings, reliquaries, tapestries, sacred furnishings and frontals. The annexed Perkins Collection is of great interest.
The upper church, with a single nave, has a plain gabled facade embellished with a Gothic portal and a magnificent rose window. The Gothic interior, with a single nave, lit by large windows, is the prototype of Franciscan churches. It is embellished with Giotto’s frescoes, which illustrate the life of the Saint. There are also works by Cimabue, Cavallini, Torriti and a late 15th-century wooden chancel that features even more famous frescoes: the presbytery was frescoed by Cimabue, by Master Oltremontano and by Jacopo Torriti. The top of the nave was decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament.
The lower register of the nave features a well-known cycle by Giotto consisting of 28 panels that illustrate the significant moments of St. Francis’ life.
The lower church is the birthplace of great Italian painting.
The nave houses works by the Master of Saint Francis;
the St. Martin Chapel features the full cycle of the scenes from the life of St. Martin (1312 – 1315) painted by Simone Martini;
the Chapel of Mary Magdalene was instead frescoed by Giotto after 1305;
the right transept has a fresco by Cimabue (1280) and eight scenes from the childhood of Christ by Giotto.
On the left transept, in the early 14th century Pietro Lorenzetti painted scenes from the Passion of the Christ and the celebrated Madonna dei Tramonti.
The cross vaulting over the altar, painted by the Master of the Vele, depicts the Glory of St. Francis and the Allegories of Obedience, Chastity and Poverty.