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San Rufino: Earlier Churches

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“Parva Basilica” of San Rufino 

Translation of the relics of St Rufinus to Assisi

Predella panel from the San Rufino Polyptych (ca. 1462)

by Nicolò di Liberatore, l' Alunno

The first reference to a church in Assisi dedicated to St Rufinus is in a document dated 1007 in the cathedral archives.  St Peter Damian, in a sermon describing events that happened in ca. 1050, referred to it as a "parva basilica" (small basilica)  that had been built when the relics of the saint had been moved within the walls of Assisi "through fear of pagan attack".   A relief (probably 8th century) in the crypt (see below) may have come from this basilica, which would suggest that the translation of the relics into Assisi occurred during the Lombard invasion.   

An inscription (16th century) [near the font of the present church] attributes the construction of this basilica to Bishop Basilio in 412.  However, this is a mistake: the date 412 arises from a legend (14th century) that the relics of St Rufinus were miraculously discovered in the Chiascio river at that time.

Bishop Ugone's Church

According to St Peter Damian, Bishop Ugone (ca. 1029-59) built a new church on this site to house the relics and their original sarcophagus, which had been abandoned outside Assisi until he arranged for its translation back to the city.  He had originally intended to install the sarcophagus in Santa Maria Maggiore, the episcopal church of Assisi: “Since the mother church did not have the martyr’s body, at least it might be compensated by the consolation of his empty tomb”.  However, in the face of violent opposition from the people, he reunited the relics and their sarcophagus and built a new church to house them.  This church is documented as “Episcopium S. Rufini” in 1035, which indicates that it replaced Santa Maria Maggiore as the cathedral of Assisi. 

Bishop Ugone moved from a residence on the site of the present Palazzo Vescovile to a new one that he built next to his new church at this time (on the site of the present Palazzo dei Canonici della Cattedrale).  The bishops of Assisi shared this residence with the Canons of San Rufino until ca. 1082.


The foundations of the apse of this church are under the nave of the present church (visible through the glass panels that can be seen in this illustration).  These foundations and a number of graves from the cemetery that was behind the apse came to light during the restoration of San Rufino that followed the 1997 earthquake.   Its crypt also survives (see below).

The facade of Bishop Ugone’s church was in the present Piazza di San Rufino, in front of that of the present church.  Its campanile, which was built above a Roman cistern, was to the left of its apse.  (The lower part of this campanile survives at the base of its successor). 

Work started on the apse of present church in 1140.  However, work was slow and Bishop Ugone’s church probably remained in use for some decades more.  It was almost certainly still in use when St Francis was baptised in 1181 (see below), and probably remained so for much of his life. 


The ancient font, which was probably originally in Santa Maria Maggiore, now stands at the start of the right aisle of San Rufino. It was probably moved to Bishop Ugone’s church in ca. 1035, when the “Episcopium S. Rufini” replaced Santa Maria Maggiore as the cathedral of Assisi.  It was almost certainly used for the baptism of:
  1. St Francis in ca. 1181; and

  2. St Clare in ca. 1194; and

possibly for that of the Emperor Frederick II in the early 1190s.

The terracotta cover of the font was installed in 1882, as part of the preparations for the celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the birth of St Francis (as described in the page on San Rufino).

Oratorio di San Francesco

St Bonaventure records that, shortly after St Francis received papal approbation of his new way of life (i.e. in ca. 1210), he often used to preach in San Rufino.  (Again, this was probably in Bishop Ugone’s church, since its successor was still in construction).  On these occasions, St Francis would first spend a night night in a hut the canons’ garden praying for inspiration for his sermon on the following morning.  On one occasion while St Francis was in the hut, his brothers at their base at Rivotorto had a vision in which he ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.

Stairs in the sacristy of the present church lead down to a subterranean vaulted room (the Oratorio di San Francesco) that is reputed to stand on the site of this hut.  A relief (1944) of the vision of the fiery chariot can be seen above the simple altar in the oratory.  The illustration of it here is from a fresco (ca. 1300) attributed to Giotto in the upper church of San Francesco.

Crypt of Bishop Ugone’s Church

The crypt of Bishop Ugone's church, which was excavated in 1895 and restored in 2000, now forms part of the Museo Diocesano.   It is in three parts:

  1. an excavated corridor on the left, as you enter from the museum;

  2. the main body of the crypt beyond, with its apse (illustrated above) to the right; and

  3. a smaller space beyond (i.e. to the left in the photograph above).

Excavated Corridor

Roman Relief (date?)

This relief is embedded vertically in the wall on the left.  It has figures of a dog, a pair of dolphins and what seems to be a kantharos (drinking vessel), separated from each other by groups of three columns.  (In the present location, the dog is at the bottom).

Relief (8th century)

This relief is at the end of the corridor, in a wall to the left that contains what was the entrance to the crypt from the original church.  This wall is difficult to see, and a mirror has been installed so that visitors first see an image of the relief.

The inverted triangle contains a depiction of two birds flanking a cross.  It has been suggested that this came from the first church of San Rufino, which was built when the relics of St Rufinus were moved within the walls of Assisi "through fear of pagan attack".  If this is correct, the style of the relief suggests that pagan attack in question was probably the Lombard invasion.

Main Body of the Crypt

The six surviving columns came from earlier buildings:

  1. four (2nd or 1st century BC) have Ionic capitals; and

  2. the other two (5th century AD), which are nearest the apse, have Corinthian capitals.  They could have come from the parva basilica.

Sarcophagus of St Rufinus (3rd century) 

This marble sarcophagus in the apse is reputed to be the one that originally held the relics of St Rufinus, which was abandoned outside the city when the relics were translated to the first church of San Rufino in ca. 800.  It was reunited with the relics in the 11th century following a series of miraculous evens that prompted Bishop Ugone to build his church.  The relics (and presumably therefore the sarcophagus) were subsequently lost until 1212, when they were rediscovered in the crypt under the apse of the present church and translated to its altar.  They were moved to a temporary altar at the head of the nave in ca. 1575, when work began on the remodelling of the apse and crypt:

  1. The relics were translated to a new sarcophagus under the high altar of San Rufino in 1586. 

  2. The original sarcophagus was probably placed in here at this point.

The front of the sarcophagus has a relief of the myth of the nymph Selene and her lover, the shepherd Endymion.  Selene secured from Zeus the gift of eternal sleep for the mortal Endymion so that he would remain eternally young.  She is depicted here in her chariot, about to visit the sleeping shepherd: 

  1. Selene appears again in her chariot in one of the short sides (to the right in the above illustration); and

  2. Endymion leans on a stick under a tree on the side opposite.

The back of the sarcophagus has a damaged fresco of the supine St Rufinus, which is associated with a payment made to “maestro Rafaello” (probably Raffaellino del Colle) in 1556.  This suggests that the sarcophagus still housed the relics at that point.  They probably remained here until they were translated to the new high altar in 1586, at which point the redundant sarcophagus was moved to its current location. 

Frescoes in the Apse (11th century)


These frescoes, which were restored in 2000, depict:

  1. the symbols of the Evangelists, in the vaults; and

  2. a damaged figure of a bishop below, to the right.  A vertical inscription identifies him as St Constantius of Perugia: it is likely that there was originally a similar figure of St Rufinus to the left.

Fresco Fragment (12th century)

This detached fresco to the right in the apse was discovered in 1895 in the crypt, probably near the relief described above.  It depicts the head of the Virgin, and was originally part of a larger fresco in a lunette.  The hand above and to the left probably belonged to a figure of Christ in judgement.

Sculpted frieze (1st century BC)

This damaged frieze, which probably came from a Roman funerary monument, has been embedded low down on the right of the apse.

Furthest Room

The column (5th century AD) at the middle of the main part of this space has a capital similar to those near the apse of the main part of the apse, except for the dog-tooth pattern incised along its upper border.

A passage has been excavated from the far lefthand corner of this space.  The foundations of the Roman terrace wall (2nd century BC) can be seen along its right side.  A drainage channel running along it directed water through a regulating chamber (visible at the end of the passage) and into the Roman cistern.  The building of this wall is recorded in an inscription (partially obscured) over the entrance arch of the cistern: there is a plaster cast (Exhibit 26) of the full inscription in the Museo Civico.

Finds from the Crypt

Capitals (8th - 12th centuries)

A number of carved capitals  that were found in the crypt at the end of the 19th century, which probably came from Bishop Ugone’s church, are now in the Museo Diocesano.

Read more

F. Santucci (Ed.), "La Cattedrale di San Rufino in Assisi", Assisi (1999)

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