Key to Umbria: Assisi

Leper Hospices around Assisi (12th century)

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St Francis cares for lepers

Detail of the Bardi Dossal (ca. 1250), Santa Croce, Florence

In his Testament (1226), St Francis wrote: “This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance.  When I was in sin, the sight of lepers was too bitter for me.  And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them.  And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body.  And shortly afterward I rose and left the world”.

The early sources mention two lepe hospitals outside Assisi at the time of St Francis:

  1. San Lazzaro in Arce, which was near the early Franciscan settlement at Santa Maria di Rivotorto, and which was first documented in 1232; and

  2. a hospice of San Lazzaro di Selvagrossa, near Cannara, which was first documented in 1214.

Others are sometimes mentioned, but without foundation:

  1. It used to be thought that there was a second leper hospital in Arce, possibly on the site of  San Rufino in Arce.  This probably arose from the existence of a document of 1332 in which the prior of San Lazzaro di Selvagrossa nominated as his procurator the prior of “hospitalis S. Maria Madalene de Arcis” .  However, a close examination of the sources suggests that San Lazzaro had simply changed its dedication to Santa Maria Maddalena by that time.

  2. It is sometimes claimed that there was another leper hospital at San Salvatore delle Pareti.  The earliest such assertion seems to be in “Lo Specchio de l’ Ordine Minore” (otherwise known as “La Franceschina”), which was published by the Observant Franciscan Giacomo Oddi of Perugia in ca. 1474.  By that time, the hospice next to San Salvatore was used for victims of plague.   This situation, coupled with the fact that San Salvatore was on the road that St Francis would have used to walk from Assisi to the Portiuncula probably gave rise to the idea that this was the place in which he had cared for lepers.

Santa Maria Maddalena


This church stands beside the road that leads from Santa Maria di Rivotorto to Santa Maria della Portiuncula, respectively the first and second hermitages used by St Francis.  As noted above, it was originally dedicated as San Lazzaro in Arce and was almost certainly attached to the hospital in which St Francis ministered to lepers. 

The church had become known as Santa Maria Maddalena by 1332.  A bronze seal (14th century) from the associated hospice is exhibited in the Sala Sigilli of the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo Di Venezia, Rome.  It is not known when the hospice was demolished.

The building of the railway line (in 1868) and the superstrada (1960) meant that the original road was diverted towards the church, so that its main portal became unusable.  Entrance is now by the door in the left wall.  The church, which now belongs to the parish of Santa Maria di Rivotorto, was one of the places connected with the conversion of St Francis that Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2007.   

The simple interior has a very damaged fresco (17th century) of the Crucifixion in the apse.

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