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San Francesco al Prato: Relics of Blessed Giles

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Sarcophagus of the Blessed Giles (4th century AD)

Oratorio di San Bernardino, Perugia

The Blessed Giles, an early follower of St Francis, died at his hermitage near San Francesco al Prato (later the site of the Convento di Monteripido) in 1262.  He had wished to be buried at the Portiuncula, but the Perugian Commune posted guards to ensure that his body remained in the city.  This was despite the fact that Giles had warned that he would never be canonised and never perform posthumous miracles, quoting the words of Christ: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matt: 13, 39).  When an early Christian sarcophagus bearing reliefs of the story of Jonah (illustrated above) was discovered soon after in the Campo d’ Orto (now Piazza San Francesco), this was taken to be a miracle.   (This sarcophagus is described in the page on the Oratorio di San Bernardino, its current location).

The earlier occupants were removed from the sarcophagus and it was re-used for Brother Giles, who was buried in San Francesco al Prato.  Writing in 1284, Brother Salimbene noted that “Brother Giles or Perugia  ... lies in a stone tomb in the church of the brothers”.  He also asserted that “God performed no miracles through him after his death, for he had asked God not to do so ..”.  Despite the wishes of the Blessed Giles, miracles were recorded at his tomb, at least in the versions of the legend current in the 14th century.  Donal Cooper (referenced below) has deduced from these accounts of miracles and from two miracle depictions in the altarpiece (ca. 1439) described below that the sarcophagus was probably originally free-standing and raised on columns so that pilgrims and those seeking miraculous cures could clamber under and around it.   Its original location is unclear, but Donal Cooper argues that: it was unlikely to have been associated with the high altar of the church; and that the crypt below it is  equally unlikely.  He suggests that, since the sarcophagus was installed while the church was still in construction, it was probably placed in the left transept, where it could be accessed directly from outside.

In 1439, Bishop Giovanni Baglioni put in hand a renovation of the shrine of the Blessed Giles, probably as part of a conscious revival of the cult: 

  1. the relics were formally recognised  and put back in the sarcophagus, which was placed under a new altar; 

  2. an altarpiece (see below) was commissioned for this altar; and

  3. the Commune paid for a fine metal grill to surround it.

A new altarpiece (see below) was commissioned in ca. 1513.  By the 17th century at least, this altar was in the Cappella dei Crispolti, which Donal Cooper has established was on the left wall of the left transept. 

In 1738, Bishop Francesco Riccardo Ferniani ordered the removal  of the relics and sarcophagus from the Cappella dei Crispolti in preparation for the restoration of the church in 1740-8.  In 1757, he ordered their return to the chapel “in ecclesia noviter aedificata” (in the newly rebuilt church).  They were reunited with the second altarpiece, but this was confiscated by the French in 1810 (see below).

The relics were disturbed again when the church was threatened with collapse in 1872:

  1. The relics were translated in succession: to the Palazzo Vescovile (in 1872); to the Duomo (in 1880); to the Convento di Monteripido (in 1920); and finally to the Oratorio di San Bernardino (in 1936).  The original high altar of the oratory was removed at this point and a stucco altar was built under which the relics were placed.

  2. The sarcophagus was moved to the Museo Civico in 1872 and remained there until 1946, when it was reunited with the relics in the Oratorio di San Bernardino, where it replaced the stucco altar.

Blessed Giles in Art

Altarpiece of the Blessed Giles (ca. 1439)

This altarpiece, which is attributed to Mariano di Antonio, was commissioned in ca. 1439 for the new altar of the shrine of the Blessed Giles.  According to tradition, it was painted on the wooden panel upon which Giles’ body had been carried for burial from his hermitage on the site that later became the Convento di Monteripido to San Francesco al Prato. 

The altarpiece was replaced on the altar and moved to the sacristy in ca. 1513.  It was removed from the church in 1863, and was already damaged when it entered the Galleria Nazionale in 1872.  It suffered further during its stay in the Convento di Monteripido in the period 1923-54.

The altarpiece depicts the Blessed Giles standing in a fictive aedicule, with three scenes from his life and posthumous miracles to each side.  This format was consciously archaic and based on that of a number of panels that had been produced in the 13th century to celebrate the canonisation of St Francis.  One of the better-preserved narrative scenes, which depicts a miracle occurring beside the sarcophagus shortly after Giles had died, is important for our understanding of the original arrangement of the cult site. 

Crucifixion (ca. 1513)

This panel was originally in the Altare delle Crispolti in the left transept, which was dedicated to the Blessed Giles and housed his sarcophagus.  It was documented on this altar, with an attribution to Pompeo Cocchi, in 1597.  The sarcophagus and the altarpiece were moved to another altar in the transept after the rebuilding of the church in 1740-8.  

Dominique-Vivant Denon, the Director of the Musée Napoleon, selected the altarpiece for confiscation after the Napoleonic suppression of 1810 on the basis of an attribution to Pintoricchio.  (The present re-attribution to Pompeo Cocchi was put forward in 1985, as referenced in the page on the artist).  Antonio Canova was unable to recover it in 1815 because it had been moved to the private collection of the newly restored King Louis XVIII.  It remains in what is now the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

This panel depicts the Crucifixion with two angels set in a landscape, with the Virgin, St John the Evangelist and the Blessed Giles kneeling at the foot of the Cross.   

Read more:

D. Cooper, “Qui Perusii in archa saxea tumulatus: The Shrine of Beato Egidio in San Francesco al Prato, Perugia”, Papers of the British School at Rome, 69 (2001) 223-44

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