Key to Umbria: Assisi

                                               Upper church,                                                      Lower church,

                                 designed as a papal basilica                          designed for the use of the friars and

                                                                                                        for pilgrims venerating the relics of St Francis

The Franciscan chronicler Thomas of Eccleston throws light on the way in which Franciscan art was initially inhibited by the friars’ devotion to poverty.  In 1230, John of Malvern, the visitor sent to England by Minister General, "took the strongest measures because of the [stained glass] windows in the chapel of the place [convent] at Gloucester; and because a certain brother had painted the pulpit ...”.  As punishment, the Guardian of the convent and the other offending brother were returned, presumably temporarily, to the noviciate. 

San Francesco, as a papal church, was not subject to the usual restrictions.  Nevertheless, the friars seem to have resisted its embellishment once Brother Elias had been deposed.   It seems likely that the Minister General, John of Parma (1247-57) was in the forefront of those who had obstructed any plans to decorate San Francesco.  In any case, from the end of its construction (ca. 1239), the region was ravaged for over a decade by the wars between the papacy and the Emperor Frederick II, so resources were scarce.

Pope Innocent IV (1243-54)

Pope Innocent IV, who was able to return to Italy after the death of Frederick II in 1250, consecrated the high altars of the upper and lower churches in 1253.  He also determined to take the matter of their decoration in hand.  In the bull "Decet et expedit" (July, 1253), which was addressed to Filippo da Campello, he expressed his concern that “the venerable church of St Francis at Assisi is not yet completed with fitting workmanship ...” and mandated that it should be “completed with a noble structure and decorated with the peak of splendid workmanship ...”.   He allowed the use of donations made at San Francesco over the following 25 years for the purpose. 

Given the reluctance of the friars, he insisted that the work should go ahead in the manner that the Cardinal Protector thought fit, “any statutes [of the Franciscan Order] or prohibitions of the General or Provincial Ministers or the custos or the guardian of the house [i.e. the Sacro Convento] or any other brother ... not at all withstanding”.  In the bull “Dignum existimamus”, which was issued two month later, he decreed that the Basilica (as it was now called) should have “books; chalices; thuribles; crosses basins, either of gold or of silver ....” and a long list of other possessions, ending with the injunction that no friar or General Chapter was to remove them.

However, Innocent IV only had a matter of months to live, and war with the heirs of Frederick II was soon to intensify.

Pope Alexander IV (1254-61)

Innocent IV placed the responsibility for decorating San Francesco in the hands of the Cardinal Protector, Cardinal Rinaldo dei Conti di Segni, who chose to retain this position when he was elected as Pope Alexander IV in the following year.  However, his reign was characterised by political chaos caused by the war with King Manfred of the Two Sicilies, the bastard son of Frederick II. 

This was also the period in which the Franciscans (and the Dominicans) came under sustained attack from the so-called Paris Masters (the guild of secular teachers at the University of Paris) and from the secular clergy across Europe.  As the controversy spiralled out of control, John of Parma became suspected of heresy and was forced to resign. 

It is therefore unsurprising that relatively little was achieved under Alexander IV: however, the stained glass in the windows of the apse of the upper church probably belongs to this period.

Pope Clement IV (1265-8)

Throughout his reign, Pope Urban IV (1261-4) was embroiled in the war against Manfred, and in the tortuous business of persuading Charles d’ Anjou , the brother of King Louis IX of France, to depose him by force.  It is unlikely that Urban IV was able to devote time or resources to the decoration of San Francesco.

His successor, Pope Clement IV presided over the eventual defeat of the Hohenstaufen:

  1. Charles d’ Anjou finally arrived in Italy and was crowned in Rome as King of the Two Sicilies in January 1266. 

  2. He defeated Manfred and took possession of his new domain in 1266, and took possession of the kingdom.

  3. He became the undisputed King of the Two Sicilies after the Battle of Tagliacozzo (1268) and the execution of Conradin, the grandson of Frederick II and the last of his line.

Clement IV was serving as papal legate to England at the time of his election, and had to return hurriedly to Perugia for his consecration.  According to the chronicler, Salimbene de Adam, he nevertheless insisted on first visiting “the church of St Francis in Assisi, where his most glorious body lies”.  In fact, Clement IV remained in Perugia for more than a year after his election in February 1265, and visited the Sacro Convento for a few days in September, in order to venerate the relics of St Francis.  Six months later, he confirmed the bull "Decet et expedit" (see above) and extended the period over which donations made at San Francesco could be devoted to its decoration by three years (i.e. until 1281).  Clement IV could do little more to promote the decoration of San Francesco because he found that papal credit in Italy was almost exhausted by the time of his arrival in Perugia. 

However, Cardinal Giovanni Gaetano Orsini (the future Pope Nicolas III) had been appointed as Cardinal Protector of the Order in 1263 at the request of the Minister General, St Bonaventure.  He had spent over a year with the papal curia at Perugia in 1264-5 and must have been very familiar with the Sacro Convento.  St Bonaventure himself had “visited the sites of the birth, life and death of this holy man” by way of preparation for his “Legenda Maior” (1260-3), and this definitive account of the place of St Francis in the history of salvation had replaced all earlier hagiographies in 1266.  It is therefore likely that both men collaborated on the decoration of San Francesco in the 1260s, in order further develop the cult of St Francis.

Nave of the Lower Church

The most important surviving work from the period in which the future Nicholas III was Cardinal Protector is the decoration of the nave of the Lower Church, which is attributed to the Maestro di San Francesco (fl. 1260-80).   The legends used for the scenes from the life of St Francis in this fresco cycle (now lost) apparently depended on the “Vita Secunda”, and the work therefore probably pre-dated 1266, the year in which it was replaced by the “Legenda Maior”.

The (now fragmentary) scene depicting the dream of Pope Innocent III, in which he sees “a small and despicable-looking man” propping up San Giovanni Laterano, Rome (a surrogate for the Church in general), is helpful for a more precise dating of the cycle:

  1. its first appearance in a Franciscan source was in the “Legend of the Three Companions” (1246) and the “Vita Secunda” which drew on it.  The depiction in the lower church is the earliest surviving work based on this account; but

  1. it also appeared in the Legenda Sancti Dominici (1246-8), with St Dominic replacing St Francis, and was depicted in the Arca di San Domenico, which was commissioned from Nicolò Pisano for  the church of San Domenico, Bologna in 1264 and completed by 1267.  Joanna Cannon (see below) has suggested that this work at Bologna was inspired by that at Assisi. 

Pope Nicholas III (1277-80)

There seems to have been a hiatus in the decoration of San Francesco after the completion of the frescoes of the nave of the lower church.   This must have been due, at least in part, to the fact that the Cardinals were detained in Viterbo for nearly three years in the acrimonious conclave that followed the death of Clement IV in 1268.   The mendicant orders came under renewed attack from the secular clergy in this period, and St Bonaventure found it necessary to publish his “Apologia Pauperum” to defend the Franciscan way of life in 1269. 

The new Pope Gregory X made St Bonaventure a cardinal in 1273, and involved him in the preparations for the Second Council of Lyon (1274).  The Council issued an endorsement of the position of the mendicant orders in the Church, but it also saw the death of St Bonaventure.  Gregory X died in 1276 and no fewer than three other popes followed him to the grave before Cardinal Giovanni Gaetano Orsini became Pope Nicholas III in 1277.

Transept and Crossing of the Upper Church

The work on the decoration of San Francesco resumed in ca. 1275 in the crossing and transepts of the upper church.  As discussed below, the driving force seems to have been Cardinal Giovanni Gaetano Orsini, who remained Cardinal Protector for two years after he became Pope Nicholas III in 1277.  The work involved a coherent iconographic program that continued the work of St Bonaventure in placing the Franciscans at the heart of the Church and of the history of salvation. 

Stained Glass

The resumed project began with the glazing of the window in the left transept of the upper church (illustrated here), which was almost certainly done by craftsmen from France.  

The windows in the right transept and in the nave of the upper church were completed soon thereafter.  Most of these are attributed to the Maestro di San Francesco, who seems to have learned from the French: he probably returned to Assisi in the ca. 1275 after his work in Perugia.

Northern Masters

The frescoes (ca. 1275-8) in the upper part of the right transept of the Upper Church seem to have been the work of a heterogenous group of artists that was heavily influenced by the art of northern Europe.  These artists might well have included some who had worked on the stained glass in the left transept (discussed above).

The work of this group of artists included the standing figures of Apostles in the shallow galleries of the right transept.  Nicholas III was to copy this motif in the Sancta Sanctorum, the papal chapel next to San Giovanni Laterano, Rome, which he rebuilt in ca. 1278.

The iconography of the frescoes in the right transept was closely integrated with that of its stained glass window. 


The fresco (ca. 1275) of the Maestà with angels and St Francis  on the right wall of the right transept of the Lower Church, is attributed to Cimabue, and it seems to have been his first work in the church. This is all that survives from a more extensive fresco decoration that was later painted over. 


Cimabue’s work in the upper church began with the frescoes of the vault over the crossing and then the completion of the extensive fresco cycle that was to cover the walls of the apse and the transepts.  The frescoes in the vault at the entrance to the right transept, which depicts St Mark and a topographically accurate representation the city of Rome (representing “Ytalia” (Italy)) contains:
  1. an image of the Senate in Rome, with shields in which it is identified by the letters  “SPQR” (Senatus Populusque Romanus) alternating with others that bear the Orsini arms;

  2. the Castello di Sant’ Angelo, which belonged to the Orsini family; and

  3. old St Peter’s, which stood next to the Vatican Palace, which Nicholas III had linked by a passage to the Castello di Sant’ Angelo and which he had adapted so that it became the main papal residence in Rome.  

This suggests that the fresco was commissioned during after Cardinal Orsini was elected to the papacy in 1277: it was probably intended to draw attention to the fact that he had wrested control of Rome from Charles d’ Anjou, and had been proclaimed sole senator of Rome, for life, in 1278.

Cimabue apparently went on to complete the frescoes of the apse and crossing of the upper church, ending with scenes from the lives of SS Peter and Paul in the right transept.   The work was probably completed during the papacy of Nicholas III:

  1. These scenes were probably inspired by the ancient mosaics depicting similar scenes in old St Peter’s and in San Paolo Fuori le Mura, Rome, which Nicholas III restored. 

  2. The same scenes were painted in the Sancta Sanctorum, the papal chapel next to San Giovanni Laterano, Rome, which Nicholas III rebuilt in ca. 1278.

A fresco cycle containing similar scenes seems to have been painted in the atrium of old St Peter’s, perhaps by Jacopo Torriti (see below), at about the same time as this cycle in Assisi.

Events of 1279

Nicholas III attended the Franciscan General Chapter at Assisi in 1279, by which time the work on the crossing and transepts of the upper church was probably largely complete.  Brother Bongrazia, who was elected as Minister General at that time, visited Nicholas III at Soriano soon afterwards to discuss the affairs of the Order.  This had two important consequences:

  1. Nicholas III appointed his nephew, Cardinal Matteo Rosso Orsini to succeed him as Cardinal Protector in 1279, saying: “We give you the best gift that we have.  We give you the desire of our heart and the pupil of our eye”.  Cardinal Orsini was to hold this position until his death in 1306.

  2. He also appointed a commission to study the controversy surrounding the interpretation of the Franciscan Rule, and their efforts culminated in the important bull, “Exiit qui seminat” (1279).  The arguments assembled by St Bonaventure in his “Apologia Pauperum” (1269) now became the official teaching of the Church.

Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92)

In 1288, Brother Jerome of Ascoli became the first Franciscan elected to the papacy.  He took the name of Nicholas III, the pope who had made him a cardinal in 1278, and thus became Pope Nicholas IV

Brother Jerome had succeeded St Bonaventure as Minister General in 1274.  However, his diplomatic skills had been in great demand by the papacy, and he was often unable to devote much attention to his Order.  He therefore tried to resign on a number of occasions, not least in 1278, when Nicholas III made him a cardinal.  In the event, he remained in office until the General Chapter at Assisi in 1279.  He subsequently served on the commission whose work led to the bull  “Exiit qui seminat” (1279). 

Brother Jerome was promoted from Cardinal Priest of Santa Pudenziana to Cardinal Bishop of the Colonna stronghold of Palestrina in 1281, and the close association with the Colonna family that was to characterise his papacy probably began at this time.  There is no reason to think that he had been involved to any significant extent in the decoration of San Francesco prior to his election to the papacy. 

In fact, relatively little seems to have been achieved in the eight years from the death of  Nicholas III and the election of Nicholas IV.  However, the new pope soon acted to reinvigorate the project: in two bulls issued soon after his election (“Reducentes ad sedulae” and “Ecclesiam quae totius”), he decreed that funds collected at both San Francesco and Santa Maria degli Angeli should first be devoted to the conservation and decoration of the former.   Any funds left over were to be used to support the friars living at the respective convents.  A large number of bulls followed that attracted pilgrims to these churches through the granting of indulgences.   Nicholas IV also sent a number of valuable gifts to the Sacro Convento, including a magnificent chalice that is now in the Museo del Tesoro.  (It is, nevertheless, worth noting that his major presence in Umbria was at Orvieto, where he resided in from June 1290 until October 1292.  He extended the Palazzo dei Papi there and laid the foundation stone of the Duomo, which he seems to have viewed the as an integral part of the extended papal complex).

Nave of the Upper Church

The funds that flowed from the privileges granted by Nicholas IV probably financed the painting of the frescoes in the nave of the Upper Church.  The iconography of these frescoes, with scenes from the Book of Genesis in the upper registers on the right, scenes from the New Testament in those on the left, and scenes from the life of St Francis below, was modelled on that used in the papal basilicas of Rome, and had probably been decided upon at the start of the overall decorative project in ca. 1275. 

Nicholas IV may well have played a direct role in commissioning the frescoes in the nave: in ca. 1311, in a document defending the Order from the accusation of Ubertino da Casale that it had violated the Rule in relation to (among many other things) excessive expenditure on paintings, Brothers Raymond de Fronsac and Bonagrazia di Bergamo testified that the only large, sumptuous pictures in the friars’ churches of which they were aware were those that he had commissioned at Assisi. 

Two other men were probably involved in the commissioning of these frescoes:

  1. Cardinal Matteo Rosso Orsini, as Cardinal Protector, retained overall responsibility for the decoration of the church, and would have seen himself, in any case, as responsible for the completion of the programme initiated by his uncle, Nicholas III.

  2. Brother Matthew of Acquasparta, who had been elected as Minister General in 1287, must also have been involved.  He had donated part of his own library to the Sacro Convento, and he was also the main recipient of the bull “Reducentes ad sedulae”.  Nicholas IV made Brother Matthew a cardinal on the day that he issued this bull, and he resigned as Minister General in 1289.

Jacopo Torriti

Work on the frescoes of the nave began with the scenes from the Old and New Testaments in the upper registers, beginning at the crossing and proceeding bay-by-bay towards the counter-facade.  The fresco of the Creation in the 1st bay on the right (illustrated here) and those of the Deesis and St Francis in the nearby vault can be securely attributed to the Roman artist, Jacopo Torriti.  It seems likely that he and his workshop were responsible for the upper two registers of two bays nearest the crossing. 

Nicholas IV had a close relationship with Jacopo Torriti, whom he commissioned to execute the mosaics of the apses of two of the most important of the Roman basilicas:

  1. those of San Giovanni Laterano, which was finished in 1291; and

  2. those of Santa Maria Maggiore, were completed in 1296, some four years after his death, presumably under the patronage of Cardinal Giacomo Colonna (who, like Nicholas IV, is portrayed in the work as a kneeling donor).

It is possible that Jacopo Torriti executed the frescoes at Assisi after the mosaics in Rome, but more likely that Nicholas IV called him back to Rome from Assisi in ca. 1290.

Giotto, Non-Giotto

A remarkable artist known as the Isaac Master apparently replaced Jacopo Torriti as capomaestro in ca. 1290.  He is named for the two scenes in the 3rd bay that depict the events surrounding the death of Isaac.  As set out in more detail in the page on the upper church, this team probably completed the upper registers of the nave and began work on the 28 scenes from the life of St Francis below.   The cycle seems to have been completed by two other teams under two other capomaestri who worked in succession.

The fresco in which Pope Innocent III is depicted dreaming that St Francis is supporting San Giovanni Laterano is useful for dating the cycle, because it shows the portico of the church in the form it took in 1291, after the restoration of Nicholas IV.  In the lost inscription on the mosaics from San Giovanni Laterano mentioned above, Nicholas IV was said to have restored the basilica in fulfilment of the prophecy.   This scene is thus a tribute to Nicholas IV: it supports the assertion that he was closely involved in the commission of the work and that it was completed after 1291. 

The earliest securely dated work that is derived from the St Francis cycle is the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (1307) by Giuliano da Rimini, which is now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston: the scene of the stigmatisation of St Francis in the top left hand corner derives from the cycle corresponding fresco in the upper church (illustrated here). 

As set out in the page on Giotto, in the 2nd edition (1568) of his “Lives of the Artists”, Giorgio Vasari reported that the Minister General, Brother John of Morrovalle, (1296-1304) called Giotto to Assisi to paint the St Francis cycle.  Some scholars have suggested that the Isaac Master was, in fact, Giotto.   However:

  1. as noted in the page on the nave of the Upper Church, none of the frescoes in the St Francis Cycle employed the technique used by Giotto and his workshop in the Arena Chapel, Padua in ca. 1305; and

  2. as noted by Rosalind Brooke (see below), it seems that the focus of the project to decorate the church switched to the lower church in ca. 1296.

This suggests that, while Vasari might be correct that Brother John of Morrovalle called Giotto to Assisi, it is more likely that his activity here was restricted to the lower church.  However, this proposition is by no means universally accepted.

R. Brooke, “Image of St Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the 13th Century” (2006) Cambridge (particularly chapters 4 and 9) 
E. Lunghi, “Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi”, (1996) London  
P. Hermann (Ed.), “XIIIth Century Chronicles” (1961) Chicago, 
which includes the Chronicle of Thomas of Eccleston.  The quotation above is from Ch 8.  
J. Cannon, “Dating the Frescoes by the Maestro di San Francesco at Assisi”, 
Burlington Magazine, 124 (1982) 65-9 
D. Cooper and J. Robson, “Pope Nicholas IV and the Upper Church at Assisi”, 
Apollo, 157 (2003) 31-35  
B. Zanardi, “Giotto and the St. Francis cycle at Assisi”, in 
A. Derbes et al. (Trans), “Cambridge Companion to Giotto”, (2003) Cambridge (Ch 3).  
This is an English version of the core of Zanardi’s thesis, which he has also published in more extensive articles in Italian. 

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San Francesco in the Period 1253-1300

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