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San Francesco: Lower Church

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History:   in the Period 1228-53;   in the Period 1253-1300;   in the 14th Century;

Exterior;    Crypt;   Sacro Convento

Upper Church: Interior;   Stained Glass Windows

Lower Church: Interior;    Frescoes in the Transepts;  

Frescoes in the Apse and Crossing Vaults;   Altars in the Transept;     Chapels;

Monument of Emperor of Constantinople 

The lower church was used by the friars for their own services, but it also served pilgrims venerating the relics of St Francis.  These relics, which which were contained in a stone sarcophagus, were translated from San Giorgio in 1230 and lowered into a deep burial chamber in the rock under the crossing.  (For the details of the translation ceremony, see the page on St Francis).
The lower church was originally in the form of a Latin cross, with a nave of three bays.  The decision to extend it taken by one bay to the (liturgical) west seems to have been taken during construction.  At this time, what had been an entrance portico or narthex was incorporated into the structure as a second, three-bay transept, so that the new west wall (on the right as you enter the lower church) then provided the foundations for the facade of the upper church.  This basic structure was probably complete by ca. 1239.  
High Altar (mid 13th century)

Pope Innocent IV consecrated the high altar in the crossing, directly above the burial place of St Francis, in 1253.  It is in the form of an arcade surrounding a hollow cuboid made up of four blocks of stone that support the massive mensa.  The spandrels of the arcade are decorated with inlaid Cosmati work.
Two miracles in the Tractatus de Miraculis and the Legenda Maior have been linked to this altar: 
A huge stone that was to be “set over the altar of the church of the blessed Francis, which was soon to be consecrated” was cut from a mountain in Lentini (Sicily).  As some 40 men struggled to load it on to a cart, it fell on one of them.  His colleagues gave up hope, but when ten of them invoked St Francis, they easily lifted the stone and freed the trapped man.  Not only was he free from injury but his erstwhile problems with his eyesight had disappeared. 
A similar incident happened in San Severino, where a very large stone from Constantinople that was destined for Assisi slipped and crushed one of those pulling it. St Francis appeared and lifted the stone, and the man jumped out from under it, apparently uninjured.   In the account in the Tractatus, this stone was intended for a fountain in Assisi that was to be dedicated to St Francis, but in the slightly later “Legenda Maior”, it was intended for San Francesco. 
These miracles seem to have been conflated in local tradition, and the mensa of the altar in the lower church is usually said to have come from Constantinople.  It might indeed have been brought by sea, via Lentini (the site of an early Franciscan convent some 12 km from the coast) to San Severino, and then by land to Assisi.
The column at the centre, behind the altar, contains a relic of St John the Baptist that Pope Innocent IV placed here at the time f its consecration. 

Cult Site in the 13th Century
A miracle in the Tractatus de Miraculis relates how girl from Norcia was freed of demons as she “lay prone before the altar of St Francis” at Assisi during Mass on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.  The depiction of the miracle illustrated here is from St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253 - see below).  Such miracles usually occurred at the tombs of saints but, in this case, the high altar above the tomb functioned as the shrine of St Francis. 

It is almost certain that the burial chamber below the altar was always blocked from pilgrims’ view.  However, there is a grill in the altar steps that is known as the “buca delle lampade” because it used to be lit by lamps.  It is possible that a shaft from this grill originally penetrated the burial chamber; such an arrangement certainly existed at Santa Chiara.  Pilgrims might have been allowed to dangle small objects through the grill so that they could acquire the status of relics: this practice is known to have been followed in the early Church at St Peter’s, Rome (search on “small cloth”).
Until ca. 1300, pilgrims’ access to the high altar was constrained by the two-storey choir screen that separated the friars’ choir from the rest of the church.  A similar choir screen (viewed from the crossing) can be seen in this fresco (ca. 1300) of St Francis installing the Christmas crib at Gubbio, which is in the upper church.  It illustrates the normal division of space in conventual churches at this time: 
the crossing was largely the precinct of the friars, although laymen were allowed into it on certain occasions (such as the one depicted here); while 
lay men were generally, and lay women were almost always, confined to the nave. 
The St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253 - see below) was probably displayed on the choir screen (either mounted on the choir screen or used as the dossal of one of its altars) in order to enhance the experience of pilgrims venerating the unseen sarcophagus: 
It depicts the stigmatised St Francis and four of the posthumous miracles (including the one illustrated above) that attested to his sanctity. 
At least by the 16th century, it was believed to have been painted on the board on which the body of St Francis had been washed in preparation for burial, and it thus had the status of a relic.     
Cult Site from the 14th Century
The present double portal was probably built after 1271, when a lady called Berta left five poplars from her farm for doors to be made in memory of St Francis (see the page on the exterior of the church.  This arrangement of two doors presumably helped the flow of pilgrims into and out of the Basilica.  
Pope Boniface VIII took a number of steps in 1296-8 (described in the page on San Francesco in the 14th Century) that must have generated additional revenue for the friars.  This presumably financed the radical restoration that further improved the experience of pilgrims who wished to worship at the shrine: 
the choir screen was demolished; and
a series of three connected side chapels (see below) was built off the right wall of the nave, constituting, in effect, a right aisle.
Janet Robson (referenced below) has deduced that, from this point, pilgrims probably approached the high altar via the Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena in the 3rd bay on the right, which also opened into the right transept.  They were probably halted there in busy times in order to reduce crowding near the cult site.  They then probably progressed around the tomb in a clockwise direction before leaving along the nave.  The double portal further facilitated this one-way flow.
Decorum around the high altar was preserved by a protective pergola similar to the one that survives in Santa Chiara (illustrated here).  This arrangement had, of course been more natural in Santa Chiara, because the nuns had their own secluded chapel there while the friars at San Francesco had previously worshipped in the enclosed choir.  The pergola in the lower church was demolished in 1870.  [Surviving fragments in the cloisters].   

Elvio Lunghi (referenced below) has suggested two other factors that probably gave rise to these changes: 
the demolition of the choir was particularly important in improving the experience of the female penitents who were becoming increasingly prominent in the late 13th and early 14th centuries but who had not been allowed even the occasional access to the cult site in the enclosed friars’ choir that had been possible for men; and 
the new chapels allowed the friars to accommodate the growing demand for burial chapels inside the church. 
Frescoes in the Nave (ca. 1260-5)

These frescoes, which are attributed to the Maestro di San Francesco, are the oldest surviving painted decoration in San Francesco.  The dating of the frescoes and the historical context are discussed in the page on San Francesco in the period 1253-1300.  The frescoes originally flanked the narrow windows in the three bays on each side of the nave.  They were badly damaged in ca. 1300, when these windows were removed to make way for the entrances to six new side chapels (see below).  
In the illustration above, the scenes are arranged in the order that you will see them as you walk towards the altar from the entrance narthex.  They depict: 
scenes from the life of St Francis, on the left wall (above in this illustration): 
St Francis renounces his worldly goods; 
the dream of Pope Innocent III, in which he sees St Francis propping up San Giovanni Laterano (a surrogate for the Church in general);
St Francis preaches to the birds; 
St Francis receives the stigmata (of which only the seraph survives); and
the death of Francis (in which the friars point to the wound in his side and, at the top right, his soul is carried to Heaven by angels); and
scenes from the passion of Christ, on the right: 
Christ prepares for execution; 
the Crucifixion (during which Christ commends his mother to the care of St John the Evangelist);
the Deposition; 
the lamentation over the body of Christ, with the swooning Virgin to the left; and 
an almost unintelligible scene that has recently been recognised as the supper at Emmaus. 
The positioning of these two cycles of scenes on opposite walls illustrates an important aspect of the cult of St Francis, his veneration as the “Alter Christus” (the other Christ).  Two pairs of images have a particularly specific correspondence:
In the first pair of scenes (nearest the narthex):
as Christ prepares for execution, His arm can be seen to the right of the Cross as He hands his clothes to the Jewish priests (recognisable as such from their covered heads); and 
when St Francis renounces his inheritance to begin his life in Christ, he removes his clothes in an act that symbolises his emulation of the voluntary poverty and submissiveness of Christ.   
In the last pair of scenes:
the followers of Christ recognise Him after his death and resurrection as he breaks bread during the supper at Emmaus; and  
the followers of St Francis recognise the wound in his side (wounds he shared with the Crucified Christ) after his death.
Pulpit and Altare di San Stanislao
The original pulpit of the lower church was probably above the choir screen, as in this fresco (ca. 1300) of St Francis installing the Christmas crib at Gubbio illustrated above.  According to the Legenda Maior, when the Cardinal de Conti (later Pope Alexander IV) was preaching in the presence of the Roman curia, a stone from “above the raised stone pulpit” fell on a woman in the congregation.  Her neighbours, who thought she was dead, covered her with a cloak.  However, when the sermon ended, she recovered through the intercession of St Francis.  The most likely time at which the miracle occurred is 1253, when Pope Innocent IV spent six months in Assisi, during which time he: 
consecrated the high altars of the upper and the lower churches (on 25th May); and 
canonised St Stanislaus in the lower church (on 17th September).   
The stone in question (actually the capital from a column) was suspended by chains in the nave for a period, and is now preserved in the sacristy. 
In the bull “Ad venerandam” (1256), Alexander IV granted indulgences to those visiting San Francesco on the feast of St Stanislaus.  The bull mentioned an altar in San Francesco that was dedicated to him, which had been commissioned by the chapter of the Cathedral of Cracow.  This was almost certainly under the blind arch on the left of the 3rd bay of the nave, which was then near the choir screen.  
When this screen was demolished in ca. 1300, a “cantoria” (singing gallery) was built here, and some of the Cosmatesque panels from the old screen were used to decorate it.   The pulpit to the right of the cantoria was presumably also moved here from its original position above the screen at this time.  The frescoes (ca. 1337) under the arch document the association with St Stanislaus, and the “chapel above the stone pulpit” was explicitly identified as the Cappella di San Stanislao in 1564.  
Burial of Lady Jacopa dei Settesoli
Lady Jacopa, a Roman noble who was a great friend of St Francis, died in Assisi in ca. 1239.  She was buried under the pavement of the lower church (to the left in the 3rd bay).   She was given this honour, which was highly unusual at this time, because of her special relationship with St Francis, which is documented in a number of sources that are described in the page on the Hagiography of St Francis:
According to an account in the “Assisi Compilation”, the dying St Francis asked his brothers to send for her from Rome.  He specifically requested that she should bring some cloth the colour of ashes for a habit in which he wished to be buried, and also some of his favourite sweets.  She appeared miraculously before she could be sent for, and brought with her the things for which St Francis had asked.  
According to a similar account in the Tractatus de Miraculis, when news of the arrival of Lady Jacopa was given St Francis, he exclaimed: “ Open the doors and bring her in.  The decree about women [which prohibited the friars from associating with them] is not to be observed for Brother Jacopa!”.  This account adds that Brother Elias later invited Lady Jacopa to hold the body of St Francis, that she saw the stigmata, and that she advised that the miracle should be “displayed for all to see with their own eyes”.  It names her eldest son, Giovanni as the source of this information.
An original fresco of Lady Jacopa, which was documented in 1594 on the left wall, near her pavement tomb, was repainted in 1618 by Ferdinando Sermei (the father of the more famous Cesare Sermei).  The fresco depicts an angel guiding Lady Jacopa from Rome to the Portiuncula, where St Francis lay dying.   
The remains of Lady Jacopa were moved to the crypt in 1934.

Burial of Cardinal Pierre de Bar (ca. 1253) 
Cardinal Pierre de Bar (Pietro di Barro) died at Perugia in 1253 and was buried in San Francesco according to his intentions as set out in his will.  His floor tomb, which was in the nave of the lower church (to the right in the 3rd bay), was the earliest documented in San Francesco belonging to someone who was not a Franciscan.  
Fresco (ca. 1260-5) 
This very damaged fresco on the wall near the location of the floor tomb of Cardinal de Bar (to the right of the entrance to the Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena) is not part of the adjacent cycle of scenes from the passion of Christ, albeit that it too is attributed to the Maestro di San Francesco.  It depicts the Madonna and Child with an angel, and might originally have been had an image of a saint commending the Cardinal on the left. 
Chapels off the Nave 
As noted above, a number of new side chapels were built off the nave after ca. 1300.  These are described in the page on Chapels of the Lower Church.
Apse, Crossing and Transept 

This part of the church seems to have been frescoed in ca. 1275, although only a single fresco in the right transept, survives from this programme (see below).  The rest of the original decoration of this part of the church was over-painted in the period ca. 1294-1319 (as described in the page on San Francesco in the 14th Century).  These frescoes are described in the pages on: Frescoes in the Transepts; and Frescoes in the Apse and Crossing Vaults.  The subsidiary altars in the transepts are described in the page on Altars of the Lower Church. 
The choir stalls (1468-71), many of which still line the apse behind the altar, were carved by Apollonio Petrocchi da Ripatransone, Tommaso di Antonio Fiorentino and Andrea da Montefalco.   Four of them are now exhibited in the Museo del Tesoro.
Brother Ludovico da Pietralunga (referenced below) provided some interesting information about the appearance of this part of the church in ca. 1575:
The pavement of the choir, which contained what seems to have been a pattern based on the Orsini arms, was “considered by many” to have been a gift from Cardinal Napoleone Orsini.
The grating around the high altar at that time was attributed to Gasperino di Antonio who was active in Assisi and Perugia in the second half of the 15th century.  This master may well have restored or modified the arrangement, although surviving elements of it apparently belonged to the original structure (ca. 1300).  The grating was demolished in 1870 and these surviving fragments are in the Chiostro dei Morti (not open to the public)
Brother Ludovico did not mention the gilded copper tabernacle (see below) that was installed on the high altar at some time in the 16th century, presumably because it was put in place shortly after he had completed this part of his account.  It was, however, described in another guide to the church in 1586.  It seems to have been removed in ca. 1700.  
Maestà with angels and St Francis (ca. 1275)
This fresco on the lower part of the right wall of the right transept is all that survives from the original decoration of this part of the church.  It is attributed to Cimabue, and seems to have been his first work in the church.  The dating of the fresco and its historical context are discussed in the page on San Francesco in the period 1253-1300.
 St Francis, who stands to the right, is depicted with all five wounds from his stigmatisation.  An image of him on wood (13th century) that seems to have been painted for the friars at the Portiuncula is almost certainly a copy of this figure in the lower church: it is now in the Museo della Portiuncula.  The scene was cut down when this wall was repainted in the 14th century : there was presumably a balancing saint, probably St Antony of Padua, on the left. 
Last Judgement (1623) 
The original frescoes (early 14th century) on the wall of the apse were destroyed in 1623, when Cesare Sermei painted the present frescoes of the Last Judgement.  (In the previous year, Cesare Sermei had offered to do this work in return for a perpetual lease on a workshop in Via Portica, but this offer had been declined).
Windows of the Apse (1918-28) 

The original glass in the three small windows in the apse was ruined in  the restoration ordered by Pope Gregory XVI in the 19th century.  It was replaced by the present windows, which are by Rosa and Cecilia Caselli:  
The central window depicts St Francis showing the wound in his right hand and pointing with his other hand to the wound in his side.  
The outer windows contain figures of SS Clare (on the left) and Elizabeth of Hungary.  
The three bays that form a second transept at the entrance to the lower church were originally conceived as an entrance portico or narthex: they seem to have been incorporated into the body of the lower church when the decision was taken to extend the upper church by one bay to the east.  The wall on the right (as you enter the church) then provided the foundations for the facade of the upper church. 
Three chapels (see the page on Chapels of the Lower Church) were subsequently built off the narthex: 
the Cappella di San Sebastiano, on the left as you enter the lower church; 
the Cappella di Sant’ Antonio Abate, off the right wall of the 3rd bay; 
the Cappella di Santa Caterina, at the far end.
Tomb of the Cerchi family (ca. 1300)
This Gothic aedicule high up on the right wall of in the 1st bay (nearest the entrance) houses a sarcophagus that bears the arms of the Florentine Cerchi family.  Some accounts refer to it as the tomb of Giovanni de’ Cerchi [the brother of the Blessed Umiliana de’ Cerchi ??], who was the leader of the “White Guelfs” of Florence in 1301.  
Brother Ludovico da Pietralunga (see below), writing in ca. 1575, documented the porphyry vase that is now in the aedicule, which at that time served as a vessel for holy water near the entrance to the lower church.  He believed that it had been a gift from a Queen of Cyprus called “Eugubea”.   (He also believed that the tomb described below as that of the Emperor of Constantinople had in fact belonged to her).
The monument seems to have been moved here in 1646, when the present frescoes of this part of the narthex were executed.  [Original location ?]
Cantoria dei Nepis 
This niche, to the right of the  right wall of the 2nd bay (at the end of the nave), might have been intended for the tomb of Pope Martin IV, who died in Perugia in 1285; he expressed his wish to be buried in San Francesco, but the Perugians insisted on burying him in their Duomo.
It seems to have been converted into a choir loft in ca. 1300, when the wall below received its bi-coloured marble decoration.  The doors here (between the two wooden structures in this photograph) then provided access.   From ca. 1414 until 1607, the niche was used for the display to the faithful of the relic known as the Sacro Velo della Madonna (sacred veil of the Virgin) on the Feast of the Annunciation.  The niche was documented in 1428 as a chapel belonging to the Nepi family.  
Three inscriptions form a frieze under the niche:  
The inscription on the left seems to have come from a family tomb that was erected here in 1458. 
The inscription on the right refers to modifications commissioned by the family in 1667. 
The central inscription reproduces the text of three papal bulls that conferred privileges on San Francesco.   
Tomb of a Latin Emperor of Constantinople (ca. 1300)
This monument to the left of the  right wall of the 2nd bay (at the end of the nave) is described in the page on the  tomb of the Emperor of Constantinople. 
Frescoes in the Narthex 
The walls of the narthex seem to have been frescoed in the 13th century, but only small traces of this work survive.  
Maestà with saints (1422)
This fresco on the left wall (to the right of the entrance to the Cappella di San Sebastiano), which is attributed to Ottaviano Nelli, was financed from a legacy in 1422.  It depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned with SS Antony Abbot, Francis and Rufinus.  It is also known as the Madonna del Salute and was venerated for its protective powers. 

St Christopher (late 15th century) 
This fresco is on the arch to the right of the fresco above. 

Frescoes (1645) 
In 1645, the friars commissioned Cesare Sermei to paint frescoes depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ at the north end of the narthex.  These included two figures of Christ to the sides of the entrance to the Cappella di santa Caterina:
Ecce Homo; and 
Christ at the column. 

Frescoes (1646-7) 
In 1646, the friars commissioned Cesare Sermei and Girolamo Martelli to execute the frescoes of the entrance bay of the narthex (and to decorate the Cappella di San Sebastiano), using a bequest from Ortensia and Valerio Pacci.  This work included: 
St Francis in glory with Popes Sixtus V and Paul V, on the inner surface of the entrance arch (illustrated above, to the left), which is attributed to Cesare Sermei; and 
figures of the Annunciation, in the upper register of the left wall, near the entrance, which are attributed to Girolamo Martelli.
Art from the Lower Church 
St Francis Dossal (ca. 1253) 
This historiated icon of St Francis was first documented in 1570, when it hung above the door to the sacristy in the lower church.  The work might well have been in place in the lower church when its high altar was consecrated in 1253.  At least by the 16th century, it was believed to have been painted on the board on which the body of St Francis had been washed in preparation for burial, and it thus had the status of a relic.  It might have served as a surrogate for the interred relics of St Francis, and was  perhaps above the choir screen or on one of its altars until this screen was demolished in ca. 1300.  It is now in the Museo del Tesoro di San Francesco.
The central iconic figure of St Francis displays the stigmata on his hands and feet and holds a cross and a Bible.  The latter is open to reveal the text of Matthew 19:21: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven; then come and follow me".  This was one of the texts upon which Francis had based his Rule for the Order.  Four scenes of posthumous miracles of St Francis surround the central icon.
Four scenes of posthumous miracles of St Francis surround the central icon.  
The scene on the lower left shows the healing of Bartolomeo da Narni.  
The events depicted on the upper left and on the lower right occurred at the shrine at San Giorgio prior to Francis's canonisation.  these were, respectively:
the healing of a girl whose head was joined to her shoulder (using two images of the mother and daughter to show the scene “before and after”), which occurred on the day of the funeral of St Francis; and
the healing of a cripple, perhaps Nicholas of Foligno. 
The scene on upper right depicts the exorcism of a woman near the high altar of the lower church.  This is probably the girl from Norcia who was freed of demons as she “lay prone before the altar of St Francis” at Assisi during Mass on the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.  This was first published in the Tractus de Miraculis , which supports the dating of the panel to the period around 1253, the date at which the altar was consecrated. 
Tabernacle (ca. 1570-80) 
Brother Ottaviano Preconio, Archbishop of Palermo, commissioned this gilded copper tabernacle for the high altar.  It was designed by Galeazzo Alessi (who died in 1572) and subsequently executed by Giulio Danti.  As noted above, it was probably installed at some time in the period 1575-86, and it seems to have been removed in ca. 1700.  It is now in the Museo del Tesoro.