Key to Umbria: Assisi

Santa Maria Maggiore (1162-1216)

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According to tradition, the first cathedral of Assisi was built  in this site close to the Roman city walls in the 4th century.  The crypt under the apse of the present church, which is the oldest surviving part of the structure, seems to date to the 9th or 10th century.

The earliest surviving document in the cathedral archives dates to January 963, in the episcopacy of Bishop Eremedius.  It relates to the lease of some episcopal property, the rent of which was to be paid each year of the feast of Santa Maria Assunta, which suggests that Santa Maria Maggiore was the episcopal church at this time.  It was also known as Santa Maria Maggiore in order to distinguish it from Santa Maria Minore (later Santa Maria delle Rose).

The subsequent surviving documents in the archives indicate that the bishops of Assisi at Santa Maria Maggiore were at the heart of the civic life of Assisi in the 10th century, assisted by a phalanx of auxiliary clerics.  The earliest surviving references to a the presence of canons in Assisi date to 1029, when they were associated with both Santa Maria Maggiore and San Rufino (see below).

Santa Maria Maggiore remained the cathedral of Assisi until ca. 1035, when San Rufino assumed this function and the bishops’ residence was moved to the site of the present Palazzo dei Canonici della Cattedrale.  Nevertheless, the church remained important, particularly after ca. 1082, when the bishop’s residence was re-established to the right of it, in the site of the present Palazzo Vescovile

The church was largely rebuilt during the late 12th century:

  1. An inscription on the rose window (see below) apparently records that Iohannes (perhaps Giovanni da Gubbio) built the facade in 1162.

  2. Another inscription in the apse (on the left, at the top of the steps) records that this part of the church was built in 1216, at the time of Bishop Guido I and St Francis.  This is the oldest known inscription that ears the name of St Francis.

The church was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1832, when the ceiling of the nave and its right aisle were destroyed, along with many of its frescoes and its stained glass. 


If the door to the left of the church is open, it is worth looking at the view of the church from the garden. 

A stretch of the Roman walls survives behind the apse.

The architrave of the  narrow opening (between the trees to the right in the illustration above) bears a Latin inscription (ca. 100  BC) that reads: 

"Iter precar(ium)"

This seems to indicate that passage was granted by prayer or on request.  The inscription is obscured by ivy, but there is a plaster cast of it in the Museo Civico (Exhibit 125).


The façade owes its current appearance to a restoration carried out in 1938, although it retains its original eight-rayed rose window, with two bovine protomes below. 

The facade also retains  its original central portal: the marble in the lunette once formed part of the basin of a Roman fountain. 


The nave, which has a trussed roof, is separated from the vaulted aisles by walls, each of which has three arched openings.  Steps at the end of the nave lead up to the presbytery and the semicircular apse, and down to the crypt (see below).  An interesting relief (8th century?) with braided decoration that is now embedded in the wall beside the stairs.

A sarcophagus (8th century?) that was found in the crypt in 1954 now stands in the right aisle near the counter-façade.  The relief on the front depicts a cross covered by vines.

Altare di San Giuseppe

This altar is at the end of the left aisle.  The back wall was plastered at some point, so that only two of its frescoes (1640) were visible:
  1. St Joseph holding the Virgin's wedding ring (on the left); and

  2. St Francis (on the right). 

Traces of the larger fresco under the plaster were discovered some 20 years ago, but it was only after the earthquake of 1997 that the full work was recovered.  The restoration work revealed an older fresco (ca. 1560) of the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist  at the centre of the composition, which has been attributed to Dono Doni.  It was probably been over-restored in 1640, when the fictive altar surrounding it was executed.

The work as it now appears is composed within a large fictive frame: two kneeling angels in the lunette above flank the IHS monogram.

Madonna della Misercordia with saints (late 14th century)

This fresco, which is on the left wall of the nave, between the first two arches, is attributed to the Maestro di San Leonardo: 

  1. The Madonna protects male and female penitents under her cloak. 

  2. St  Blaise (to the left) holds the wool comber with which he was martyred).

  3. St Lucy  (to the right) appears after her defenestration, holding her eyes on a plate. 

The inscription below gives the date MCCCLXXX, indicating that the fresco post-dates 1380.  It is likely that Confraternita dei Disciplinati di Santa Maria Maggiore, which was also known as the Confraternita di San Biagio (St Blaise) commissioned it.

SS Onuphrius (late 14th century) and Stephen (1476)

These frescoes are under the 1st arch on the left (facing the altar). 
  1. St Onuphrius (Onofrio, Humphrey) is depicted as a hermit, visited by an angel who brings him food. 

  2. St Stephen (above) is depicted as a deacon.  This fresco is dated by Inscription.

Pietà (late 15th century)

This fresco, which is on the left wall of the nave, between the 2nd and 3rd arches, is attributed to Tiberio d' Assisi.

St Blaise (14th century)

This fresco is on the right wall of the left aisle.  St  Blaise (to the left) holds the wool comber with which he was martyred.

Madonna and Child (mid 14th century) 

This fresco, which is under the 3rd arch on the left (facing the counter-facade) is attributed to Pace di Bartolo.

St Antony Abbot (14th century)

[Where is this ??]

Annunciation (mid 14th century)

A lovely figure of the angel of the Annunciation on the left wall of the presbytery, which was recovered after the 1997 earthquake and then restored, is attributed to Pace di Bartolo.

The complete but unrestored fresco of the Annunciation to the right of it is broadly contemporary with it.

Capture of Christ (14th century)

This fresco fragment, with traces of under drawing, is also on the left wall of the presbytery.


The crypt provides the foundations for the apse above and extends one bay to the right: the corresponding extension to the left was destroyed when the campanile was built in the 12th century.  The columns seem to have come from a Roman building. 

The crypt leads to the excavated Roman domus known as the  House of Propertius.

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