Key to Umbria: Assisi

San Damiano (9th Century ?)

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The church stands on the site of a subterranean pre-Roman temple of Mithras.  [The earliest surviving documentary reference to it dates to 1030, when it belonged to the Abbazia di San Benedetto.]   By 1103, it belonged to a family from Assisi: they transferred it in that year to the canons of San Rufino and it passed to the Bishop of Assisi in the early 13th century.  
St Francis and San Damiano 
St Francis came across the ruined church in ca. 1205, a time early in his conversion.  He prayed to the Crucifix that hung over the altar and was rewarded by the words of Christ:” Francis, rebuild My house; as you see it is all being destroyed”.  (This Crucifix is now in the Cappella di San Giorgio, Santa Chiara.  The earliest source for this story is in the “Legend of the Three Companions” (1246)). 

The earliest.  St Francis took the message literally.  He sold goods from his fathers house and returned to San Damiano to press the ill-gotten money on the priest who looked after it.  When the priest sensibly refused the money, St Francis threw it onto a windowsill (see below).  The priest then gave St Francis permission to hide in the subterranean space that adjoined the crypt, which had once been the centre of the Mithraic cult.  He stayed there for about a month before returning to Assisi to face the music.  
Once he had renounced his inheritance, St Francis returned to San Damiano and spent several months restoring the church while searching for his new vocation.  During this period, he was probably recognised as a hermit living under the protection of Bishop Guido, a status that he probably retained until ca. 1209 when Pope Innocent III recognised the form of life that he proposed for himself and a small band of followers.  
St Clare and San Damiano 
At the behest of St Francis, Bishop Guido allowed St Clare to establish a small religious community at San Damiano shortly after she left the world in ca. 1212: she moved here with her sister, St Agnes from Sant Angelo in Panzo on Mount Subiaso.   The poor, cloistered community that they formed here relied largely on the Franciscans of Assisi for both spiritual and material support.  Over the next 30 years, it emerged as the exemplar for a female Franciscan order that became known as the Order of San Damiano. 
St Clare spent most of her time at San Damiano in contemplation of Christ.  Her main external preoccupation was to protect the Franciscan character of her way of life in the face of the repeated attempts of a series of popes to impose a more conventional form of life on the sisters. 
Brother Philip, one of the earliest followers of St Francis,  was among the small group that accompanied St Francis to Rome in ca. 1209 to secure papal approval for what was to become the Franciscan Order.  He served as visitor to the Poor Ladies of San Damiano in 1219-20, during St Francis’ absence in Damietta, and secured privileges for them of which St Francis disapproved.  He served in this capacity again in 1228-46.  He died in Perugia in ca. 1259.
St Francis visited St Clare and her sisters only rarely.  In 1225, during the early stages of his final illness, he made what he probably expected to be a last short visit to them.  However, his condition suddenly deteriorated, and he spent a few weeks in their care: it was here that he wrote the “Canticle to Brother Sun”. 
St Francis died in the following year at the Portiuncula.  His body was brought to San Damiano en route from the Portiuncula for its temporary burial at San Giorgio.  His coffin was laid in the apse and opened so that St Clare and her sisters could  have a final sight of him through the grill that communicated with their choir.  (In this fresco (ca. 1300) from the lower church of San Francesco, the nuns are shown outside a church that is much grander than San Damiano!)

St Clare and her sisters occasionally faced the intrusion of the secular world.  For example, a band of Saracens in the army of the Emperor Frederick II attacked San Damiano in September 1240, but withdrew when St Clare appeared before them carrying the Eucharist.  This scene is depicted in a tabernacle (ca. 1275) attributed to Guido da Siena that is now in the Pinacoteca, Siena. 

St Clare died at San Damiano in 1253.  Pope Innocent IV presided as the Office for the Dead was celebrated, and then headed the procession in which St Clare’s body was carried to San Giorgio.  Some of the nuns moved here at that time to be near her tomb, and they began to negotiate with the canons of San Rufino in order to exchange San Damiano for San Giorgio.  The negotiations were not easy.  Cardinal John of Toledo arbitrated in favour of the sisters in October, 1253, but the canons refused to comply.  In order to ease the negotiations, the sisters secured the church of San Giacomo di Murorupto from the Abbazia di Farfa, and added this to San Damiano as a quid pro quo for San Giorgio.  However, the canons continued to resist.  In 1255, Pope Alexander IV canonised St Clare and the construction of Santa Chiara began beside San Giorgio in ca. 1257, although the final terms of the transfer of the site were not agreed until 1259.  Those sisters who still remained at San Damiano and those who had moved to San Giacomo di Murorupto were then finally reunited with the others in ca. 1260. 
San Damiano and Santa Maria di Vallegloria, Spello 
There is some evidence that St Clare was instrumental in the formation of the nunnery at Santa Maria di Vallegloria: 
Sister Balvina, who is documented as one of the early companions of St Clare at San Damiano, became its abbess (probably its first abbess) before she died (probably in ca. 1240); and 
Sister Pacifica de Guelfuccio d’ Assisi, who gave the above information on Abbess Balvina in her evidence in the process for the canonisation of St Clare, also testified that St Clare had sent her to spend a year at Santa Maria di Vallegloria, “to inform the sisters of that place”. 
Santa Maria di Vallegloria was named first after San Damiano in the letter that Cardinal Rinaldo (later Pope Alexander IV) sent to the 24 nunneries of this order in 1228, in which he announced his own appointment as their Cardinal Protector and the appointment of Brother Philip the Long as their Apostolic Visitor.   
Later History of San Damiano  
After the death of St Clare, the sisters were keen to move to San Giorgio to be close to her relics.  This church belonged to the canons of San Rufino, and they were reluctant to negotiate the exchange.  However, it was finally accomplished in 1260, and San Damiano duly passed to the canons.  
San Damiano is first mentioned as a male Franciscan convent in 1307, when it belonged to San Francesco.  It was one of the hermitages that was given to the Blessed Paoluccio de' Trinci in in 1383, in the early days of the Franciscan reform movement. It passed to the Riformati in 1604.  The Franciscan community at San Damiano was suppressed in 1867.  
In 1894, George Robinson, Lord Ripon bought the complex from the Italian state and gave the use of it back to the Franciscans.  A Latin inscription [on the garden wall as one descends to the convent from Assisi] records the fact that he restored the convent at his own expense in that year.  The convent finally reverted to the formal ownership of the Franciscans in 1983. 
The rose window was probably added to the original facade (illustrated above) in the 14th century.  The room above it was probably built above the nave when St Clare and her sisters took over in order to serve as a dormitory.  The sisters accessed the dormitory via the door above and to the left of the rose window, which was presumably reached by a ladder.  It was from this door that St Clare brandished the pyx to ward off the invading Saracens in 1240. 
The extension of the façade to the right dates to a later period, and the portico was built in the 16th century.  
Exterior Aedicule 
This aedicule is at right angles to the portico, on the right (also illustrated above). 
Fresco (ca. 1330) 
The aedicule contains frescoes that are attributed to the Maestro di San Crispino.  They depict: 
the Madonna and Child enthroned with SS Francis (who commends a kneeling donor) and Clare: 
God the Father above; and
SS Rufinus and Damian to the sides. 
Exterior Chapel 
This chapel is under the arches to the left of the aedicule. 
Frescoes (1510) 
These frescoes, which are dated by inscription, are attributed to Francesco Tartaglia.  They depict SS Clare, Francis, Sebastian and Roch. 

Entrance Chapels 
The visit begins in with two chapels that were built in the 16th century to the right of the church on the site of the house in which the priests of San Damiano had lived.  St Francis had been a guest here early in his conversion, and it later housed a few friars who supported St Clare and her sisters.  St Francis stayed here during his final illness, and it was probably here that he wrote the “Canticle to Brother Sun”.
Cappella di San Girolamo 
The first chapel contains two frescoes that are attributed to Tiberio d' Assisi.  Inscriptions record that: 
Galeotto de' Bistochi commissioned the fresco (1517) in the lunette of the altar wall, which depicts the Madonna and Child with SS Bernardino, Jerome, Francis and Clare; and
Sante di Santorello commissioned the fresco (1523) of SS Sebastian and Roch on the left wall. 
Cappella della Crocifisso  
This chapel now acts as the vestibule to the church.  A venerated wooden Crucifix (1637) by Fra. Innocenzo da Palermo is on the altar wall. 


The church probably originally had a raised presbytery over a crypt, like other monastic churches of its period.  This arrangement was not appropriate for a cloistered community  of nuns.  Thus the floor of the crypt was raised, the floor of the presbytery was removed and a new ceiling was installed as a platform for an upper oratory (see below).  
The choir stalls were installed in the 16th century for use by the Franciscan friars.   St Clare and her sisters used a choir in the adjoining room (see below).  A modern grill under the fresco (more clearly visible in the photograph below) covers the opening through which they received the Eucharist: the original is now in the crypt of Santa Chiara.  It was through this grill that the nuns said their farewell to the dead St Francis in 1226.  The niche to the left of it (also visible below) was used for the consecrated Host, and bears the inscription “Hic locus corporis” (this is the place for the body [of Christ]).  The wooden tabernacle that now serves this purpose stands on an ancient column behind the altar.
The copy (1912) of the Crucifix before which St Francis prayed, which hangs above the entrance to the presbytery, is by Father Leone Bracaloni.  The nuns took the original with them to Santa Chiara, and it is now in the Cappella di San Giorgio there.
Fresco (13th century) in the Apse 

This fresco of the Madonna and Child with SS Rufinus and Damian, which was re-discovered in 1927, has been heavily repainted.  It seems to be integral with the decoration around the grill below, and was thus probably painted when that grill was installed soon after St Clare took over the complex. 
Frescoes (early 14th century) of the "Window of the Money" 

The window into which St Francis threw the money that the priest refused is in the right wall, near the counter-façade.  Frescoes of scenes from the life of St Francis surround it and continue on the adjacent part of the counter-façade. The scenes depict: 
St Francis praying before the Crucifix; 
St Francis throwing the money onto the windowsill as the priest looks on; and 

St Francis’ father threatening him with a club (on the counter-façade).  This last scene (of which only a fragment survives) takes place before a cityscape of Assisi that pre-dates the new walls of 1316 and the building of Porta Nuova.  It clearly shows the Arco di Santa Chiara (1260) and the church and convent of Santa Chiara beside it. 

St Agnes (early 14th century)
This fresco of the  full-length figure of St Agnes holding the symbol of the Lamb of God is also on the right wall, nearer to the apse.  

Cappella del Crocifisso (1535)
This chapel is off the right wall of the church. 
Crucifix (1637) 
Fra. Ascanio d' Assisi, the nuns procurator, commissioned this crucifix from Innocenzo da Petralia Sopranna, having seen a similar work by this sculptor in San Francesco a Ripa, Rome.  It initially gave rise to controversy, perhaps because of claims that an angel had completed the face of Christ or perhaps because of its exceptional realism.  Pope Urban VIII referred the matter to the episcopal authorities, and the matter was satisfactorily resolved.  The crucifix was originally placed above the high altar, but was moved here in 1640.
Nuns’ Choir  
The door in the right wall of the church near the apse (on the left in this photograph) leads to a room that was built over the nuns’ burial ground.   The bodies of a number of the nuns who were originally buried here were moved to Santa Chiara in 1257 and interred (at this time or thereafter) in the Cappella di Sant’ Agnese.  They included: 
St Agnes (the sister of St Clare), who died in 1253; and
Ortulana, the mother of SS Agnes and Clare, who died in 1238. 
An old entrance to the original crypt can be seen on the left as you enter (i.e. the middle opening in this photograph).   An inscribed funerary stele (2nd century AD) is embedded in the wall here [visible ??], in which a women commemorates her husband, Titus Babrius Epaphra.
The opening in the left wall (i.e. on the right in this photograph) allows visitors to see the choir that St Clare and her sisters used.  This choir originally extended around the entire periphery of the apse, but it was subsequently divided by what is now the altar wall. The nuns assembled in front of the grate in the wall of the apse (described above) to receive Communion.  The wooden stalls and lecterns here probably survive from the time of St Clare. 
Crucifixion (1482)
This fresco on the altar wall, which is dated by inscription, is attributed to Pierantonio Mezzastris.  

Stairs outside the nuns’ choir lead to the second storey, which was built over the church soon after St Clare moved here in ca. 1212.  A window on the right looks out on St Clare’s tiny garden terrace. 

Oratorio di Santa Chiara  

The stairs lead to the oratory that was built over the remodelled presbytery of the ancient church.  
The niche to the left of the altar was used to hold the pyx that contained the consecrated Host.  St Clare probably removed the pyx from this niche in 1240 when she brandished it before invading Saracens and saved her sisters from harm.  
Frescoes (14th century) 
These frescoes have been heavily repainted, but follow the original design.  
On the left wall, St Clare and her sisters adore the Host.  

Inside the niche, an angel frescoed on the sidewall of the niche commends St Clare to a figure of Christ that is frescoed on its back wall. 

The arch of the presbytery has frescoed tondi of the Throne of Heaven with the four Evangelists.  
The dome of the presbytery contains other tondi of the Madonna and Child with SS Francis and Clare. 

The Crucifix on the left wall marks the site of the death of St Clare in 1253.  
The relief to the right depicts her on her deathbed, with a friar showing her the precious papal signature that conferred papal approval on her Form of Life. 

Cloister and Refectory 
Steps lead down from the dormitory into the cloister.   The east wing (opposite you as you enter the cloister, to the right in the photograph) and the south wing along the church existed at the time of St Clare, although the cloister itself took on its present appearance at a later date.

The upper floor of the east wing wing served as the nuns’ infirmary, with their refectory (illustrated here) below.  Much of the furniture in the refectory dates back to the time of St Clare.  A cave that has been discovered under the ancient flooring probably provided a refuge for St Francis when he hid from his father early in his conversion.

Frescoes in the cloister (1507) 
These frescoes in the south east corner of the cloister are signed by Eusebio da San Giorgio  and dated by inscription.  They depict: 
the stigmatisation of St Francis; and 
the Annunciation. 
Umbrian Inscription (late 2nd century BC) 
This inscription, which  was discovered in the convent in 1982, was embedded in the corner of the cloister below Monte Subasio during the restructuring of the complex in 2001.  The inscription, in the Latin alphabet, reads: 
The inscription was originally thought to have been in Latin, but the word “aso” is now thought to be the Umbrian word for an altar.  Simone Sisani (referenced in the page on Umbrian Inscriptions  after 295BC, where the inscription is also described) translates it as: 
 altar sacred to Arentia  O[.....]
where the “O” is an abbreviation of the unknown Umbrian word that equates to the Latin epithet “Obsequens” (as in “Venus Obsequens”, where the epithet is translated into English as compliant, gracious or accommodating).  Arentia is otherwise unknown in Italy, but Arentius and his wife Arentia were worshipped in ancient Lusitania (modern Portugal).
Garden of the Canticle 
On leaving the convent, turn left and cross the bridge to see the so-called Garden of the Canticle, which was once the garden of the priests’ house.   A modern bronze sculpture depicts St Francis giving thanks for the natural world.