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San Francesco: Upper 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 upper church is in the form of a Latin cross, with a four-bay nave, a transept and a polygonal apse.  The tall traceried windows in the apse, at the ends of the transept and in each bay of the nave, which were purpose-built for stained glass, were unusual in Italy at the time that San Francesco was built, and subsequently  inspired the design of a number of other Franciscan churches, not least Santa Chiara.

Apse and High Altar

Pope Innocent IV consecrated the high altar of the upper church in 1253, and dedicated it to the Virgin.  It was originally at the centre of the crossing, directly above the high altar of the lower church and the sarcophagus that contains the body of St Francis.  It was moved forward to its present position in 1898.

The altar, which retains most of its original components despite the fact that it has been reconstructed, is a double or papal altar, like those of the major papal churches in Rome:

  1. the side nearest the nave was used by the friars; while

  2. the side nearest the apse was reserved for the papal liturgy, during which the officiant faced the congregation.

The papal throne stands on a raised platform behind the altar, flanked by the choir (see below).  The inscription on the steps of the throne translates: “You shall tread upon the asp and the basilisk, and shall trample on the lion and dragon” (Psalm 91:13).  These animals are carved on the base of the throne, and two more carved lions provided its arms.  The throne stands under a baldacchino made up of two red marble pillars supporting a triangular pediment.  The frescoed tondi above contain the images of two papal saints, perhaps SS Leo and Gregory.

The apse seems originally to have been enclosed by a substantial choir screen.  This was replaced by a rood screen, the remains of which can be seen in the frescoes of scenes from the life of St Francis on either side nearest the crossing (see below).  These two frescoes were the last in the cycle to be painted, probably because work here had to wait for the beam to be put in place.  The beam was probably depicted in another fresco in this cycle, which depicts the verification of the stigmata of St Francis.  In 1623, a crucifix (1236) by Giunta Pisano (see below) was first documented as it was moved from this beam to the counter-facade. 

Pulpit (mid 14th century)

The pulpit, which is at the junction of the wall of the nave and the left transept, is attributed to Nicolò da Bettona.   It contains reliefs of SS Louis of Toulouse, Francis and Antony of Padua.

Stained Glass Windows

The decoration of the upper church began with the stained glass windows of the apse, shortly after the consecration of the high altar in 1253.  There was no tradition of stained glass in Italy at that time, and these were probably the work of craftsmen from from northern Europe. 

There seems then to have been a hiatus until ca. 1275, at which point:

  1. artists who probably came from France executed the stained glass in the right transept and that in the in the 3rd and 4th bays on the right of the nave; while

  2. a team of Italian craftsmen, probably led by the Maestro di San Francesco, executed the stained glass in the left transept and the rest of the windows in the nave.

It seems likely that all the windows of the upper church were complete by 1291, when the Blessed Angela of Foligno experienced a violent religious experience on seeing the glass in the 1st bay on the right (as described in the page on the stained glass windows).

Frescoes of the Apse & Crossing

The probable chronology of the decoration of the apse and crossing is discussed in its historical context in the page on San Francesco in the period 1253-1300.  In summary:

  1. The work began in the upper part of the right transept in ca. 1275-8, when the glazing of the apse and transepts (and perhaps that of the nave) was complete.  These frescoes were painted by a heterogenous group of artists that was heavily influenced by the art of northern Europe, and their Gothic style marks a break with the earlier frescoes of the nave of the lower church.  The work was, however, closely integrated with the art employed in the stained glass windows. 

  2. The other frescoes in this area of the upper church, which are almost all attributed to Cimabue, were probably complete by ca. 1280 (i.e. around the time of the death of Pope Nicholas III). 

The frescoes in this area have suffered from serious degradation, and major renovations in 1979 and again after the earthquake of 1997 could do little to render them in anything like their original splendour.  In particular, the original white lead has oxidised to black. 

Upper Part of the Right Transept

The iconography of these frescoes centres on the scene of the Ascension of Christ in the central rose window in the back wall.  This is flanked by two (very damaged) frescoes in the lunettes on the side walls:
  1. the Transfiguration of Christ, in which His divinity was first made manifest, on the right; and

  2. Christ in majesty after His ascension, surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists, on the left.

Figures of the prophets Elijah and David stand to the sides of the window in the back wall, set in fictive aedicules below fictive traceries that reflect the architecture of the window itself.   

Figures of Apostles stand under the arches of the shallow galleries on the left and right walls, each of which has its Gothic character emphasised by the painted architecture above:

  1. St Paul and five other Apostle, on the left; and

  1. SS Peter (opposite St Paul), St John the Evangelist and four other Apostles, on the right.


Cimabue’s work in the upper church probably began with the vault over the crossing, which contained frescoes of the Evangelists, each of whom was depicted alongside a representation of a city representing the area that he evangelised.  These have been restored as far as possible after the damage done by the earthquake of 1997, although the fresco of St Matthew and the city of “Judea” was completely destroyed.  The surviving frescoes depict:

  1. St Mark and a depiction of Rome, labelled “Ytalia” (Italy), next to the right transept;
  2. St Luke with the inscription “Ipnacchaia” (ancient Greece), next to the apse; and

  3. St John, with a depiction of Asia, next to the left transept.

The first of these contains 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.   This suggests that the work was commissioned by Pope Nicholas III (Giovanni Gaetano Orsini), who was proclaimed sole senator of Rome in 1278.

The vaults of the two transepts are frescoed as starry skies.

Lower Part of the Right Transept

The altar that was originally on the right wall of this transept was dedicated dedicated to St Peter and (probably) the other Apostles, who (as noted above) stand the fictive galleries in the left and right walls.  The related frescoes by Cimabue in the register below depict:

  1. two miracles of St Peter, on the left wall; and

  2. below the window on the back wall:

  3. SS Peter and Paul confronting Simon Magus in Rome, in the prelude to their respective executions;

  4. the martyrdom of St Peter, in which he is crucified while upside down in a location set between the Meta Romuli and the Terebinth of Nero, two ancient pyramidal monuments that stood in the necropolis on the Vatican Hill; and
  5. the martyrdom of St Paul.

The general importance of scenes of the the martyrdom of SS Peter and Paul in Rome at this time is discussed in the page on the decoration of San Francesco.  However, the scenes here have a particular resonance here: as Ubertino da Casale asserted in the “Arbor Vitae Crucifixae Jesu” (1305), the Rule of St Francis was that which had been “laid down for the Apostles by Christ Jesus: they kept it until their deaths [but it then remained forgotten until] Jesus began to renew it in St Francis”.

The fresco on the lower part of the right wall depicts the last moments of the life of the crucified Christ, as the Roman soldier, Longinus pierces His side with a lance and the Virgin swoons to the left.  A ruined figure of St Francis kneels at the foot of the cross, displaying the devotion that would lead to his stigmatisation.  This fresco is of lower quality than the others, and was probably a workshop production: it may well have been completed after Cimabue had left Assisi. 
The detail of St Francis at the foot of the cross is mirrored in the modern sculpture in front of the fresco by Silvio Amelio.


Cimabue’s frescoes in the apse depict scenes from the life of the Virgin.  Those in the upper register of the side walls, which depicted scenes from the early life of the Virgin, and in those in the shallow galleries, are  almost completely destroyed. 

Those in the lower register, which depict scenes from the Virgin’s last days on earth, seem to have been inspired by the account in the Golden Legend (ca. 1265) by Jacobus de Voragine:

  1. on the left wall, the Virgin takes her leave of the Apostles;

  2. on the back wall:

  3. Christ appears to collect the soul of the Virgin (to the left of the papal throne); and

  4. accompanies her in her Assumption to Heaven (to the right); and

  1. on the right wall, Christ and the Virgin are enthroned, and the Virgin commends a group of friars on the left to Christ, who blesses them. 

The iconography of the scene of the Assumption of the Virgin is particularly interesting: in this detail, she tenderly places her head on the shoulder of Christ in what seems to have been the earliest representation of the marriage of Christ and the Church.  This follows the account of the Golden Legend: when Christ appeared at His mother’s deathbed, He said: “Come my chosen one and I will set you upon my throne because I have desired your beauty”.   The Virgin’s soul then “went forth from her body and flew to the arms of her Son”, and other souls in Heaven “saw their King carrying the soul of a woman in his arms and observed her leaning upon Him”.  (For more information on this iconography, see this website on the Assumption of the Virgin).

Left Transept

The altar on the left wall of this transept was dedicated to St Michael, and the upper part of this area probably originally contained images of all of the choirs of angels:
  1. the fresco in the lunette on the right wall (now almost completely lost) originally depicted Christ enthroned and surrounded by cherubim and seraphim;

  2. three standing angels once stood to each side of the window on the back wall;

  3. the fresco in the lunette on the left wall depicts three angels (probably the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) fighting a dragon and other demons (see below);

  4. three angels stand in the shallow gallery on the left wall, beneath a frieze of six angels identified as thrones by the symbols that they hold; and

  1. three angels stand in the shallow gallery on the right wall, beneath a frieze of six angels holding sceptres, which identify them as dominions.

The lower part of the back and right wall of this transept depict scenes from the book of Revelations, which relate to the opening of scroll sealed with seven seals by the “Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” (Revelations 5: 5-6).  The scenes below the window on the back wall depict:

  1. the Lamb enthroned, with the book of the seven seals, adored by “the four living creatures [the symbols of the Evangelists] and the elders”, and a throng of angels (Revelations 5: 11);

  1. four angels who stand at the corners of the earth and hold the four wind after the opening of the sixth seal, and (now illegible) the angel “ascending from the sunrise, having the seal of the living God”, who calls on the other four angels not to harm the world “until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads”  [i.e. until the righteous have been identified for salvation] (Revelations 7: 1-3);
  2. the seven angels with trumpets, who stand before God after the opening of the seventh seal and proclaim the final judgement; and the angel with the the golden censor, who was given “much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne” in an act of intercession for those below (including a group of friars) who have been sealed (Revelations 8: 1-4);

The story continues with the angels in the lunette on the left wall (as mentioned above):  “And there was war in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back” (Revelations 12: 7).  It then finishes with the frescoes on the lower part of the right wall;

  1. an angel witnesses the fall of Babylon and shouts: "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird”. (Revelations 18: 2); and

  1. an angel takes John, the author of the Book of Revelations to “a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelations 21: 10).

This eschatological cycle must have been inspired by the words of St Bonaventure in the prologue of the “Legenda Maior”: “For ‘at the opening of the sixth seal’ John says in the Apocalypse, ‘I saw another angel ascending from the rising sun, having the sign of the living God’.  If we consider the height of [St Francis’] extraordinary sanctity, we can come to the conclusion, without any doubt, that this messenger of God [i.e. the angel of the sixth seal] ...was God’s servant, St Francis”.

he fresco on the lower part of the left wall is set moments after the pendant scene in the opposite transept: the lance with which Longinus has pierced the side of Christ is still held aloft (to the right) and an angel collects blood from the wound.  Other angels around the cross are clearly distraught, and some cover their faces.  The shrieking St Mary Magdalen to the left is balanced by the figure of Longinus and of a bearded figure in front of him, who seizes the loin cloth of Christ.  The Virgin stands to the right with St John, to whom Christ has entrusted her.
St Francis once more kneels at the foot of the cross. This aspect of the composition is mirrored in the modern sculpture in front of the fresco by Silvio Amelio.

Frescoes in the Nave

This dating for the execution of the frescoes in the nave is discussed in the page on the decoration of San Francesco.  In summary, the project is assumed to start with the election of Pope Nicholas IV in 1288 and end just before the excommunication of the two Colonna cardinals in 1296, the probable date at which attention switched from the upper to the lower church.


The decoration of the nave probably began with the frescoes of the vaults:

  1. The frescoes in the in the 1st bay (i.e. furthest from the apse), which depict the Doctors of the Church, SS Gregory, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine, are attributed to the so-called Isaac Master (see below).  This photograph was taken before the earthquake of 1997, in which the fresco of St Jerome was destroyed.

  1. The frescoes in the in the 3rd bay depict the deesis (i.e. Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist) with St. Francis who bears the stigmata in his hands and side.  They are reasonably securely attributed to Jacopo Torriti (see below)

The vaults of the 4th and 2nd bays of the nave are frescoed with golden stars on a blue background.

Upper Registers of the Nave

The upper two registers of frescoes in the nave (some of which are very damaged) depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, following the arrangement that still survived in the two most important basilicas in Rome: old St Peter’s and San Paulo fuori le Mura.  At Assisi:

  1. the frescoes in the two upper registers on the right depict 16 scenes from the Book of Genesis, starting with Creation of the World (in the top register, nearest the nave) and ending with Joseph forgiving his brothers (in the middle register, nearest the counter-facade); and

  2. those in the two upper registers on the left depict 16 scenes from the New Testament, starting with the Annunciation (in the top register, nearest the nave) and ending with the three Maries at the sepulchre (in the middle register, nearest the counter-facade) followed by two more scenes on the counter-facade (illustrated here):
  3. the ascension of Christ (on the right); and

  4. the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Theses frescoes seem to the work of Roman artists.  In particular, the fresco in the upper register on the 4th bay on the right (i.e. the bay nearest the crossing) that depicts the Creation of the World is reasonably securely attributed to Jacopo Torriti.  The cartoon used for the face of the Creator here seems also to have been used for the face of Christ in the Deesis (see above).

This chalk preparatory drawing of the face of the Creator, which was found on the plaster beneath the fresco during restoration work in the 1950s, is now in the Museo del Tesoro

A distinctive artist known as the Isaac Master is thought to have taken over from Jacopo Torriti as the leader of the workshop decorating the nave.  He is named for two scenes of remarkable sophistication in the lower register of the 2nd bay on the right, which depict:

  1. Isaac, who is blind and near death, blessing his son, Jacob, who appears disguised as his hairier older brother, Esau in order to deceive Isaac (on the left); and

  1. the bewildered Isaac and his outraged older son, Esau (as Jacob, having stolen the blessing, makes a sensible retreat at the far right).


Another distinctive artist who worked in this part of the church is the so-called Master of the Arrest, who seems to have been an associate of Jacopo Torriti.  He is named for this fresco of the arrest of Christ, in the 3rd bay on the left, and he may well also have painted the scene of the Nativity above it.

Scenes from the Life of St Francis

The larger frescoes on the lower part of the walls of the nave depict 28 scenes from the life of St Francis.   The partly defaced inscriptions under each of the scenes are all paraphrases of the related text in the “Legenda Maior” (1260-3) by St Bonaventure.  This work replaced all earlier hagiographies in 1266, when it became the “official” biography of St Francis.  This cycle of frescoes in San Francesco, painted some thirty years later, was to become similarly fundamental to the cult of St Francis.


The sequence of the scenes is broadly chronological, and is read in a clockwise direction, starting from the junction of the nave and the right transept.  However, work started with the second scene in the series and then proceeded clockwise, so the last two scenes to be painted (illustrated above) were those nearest the crossing:

  1. a posthumous miracle on the left wall, in which St Francis miraculously released a penitent heretic, Pietro d’ Alife, from the custody of the Bishop of Tivoli; and

  2. St Francis honoured by a simple man outside the Temple of Minerva in Piazza del Commune, an event that happened shortly before his conversion.

As noted above, each of these scenes was painted around a support for the rood screen that spanned the nave.  It seems likely that the first scene in the narrative, on the right, had to be left until last because the rood screen was put in place while work on the cycle was in progress. 

Giotto, Non-Giotto

There is a strong tradition that can be traced back until at least the 15th century that Giotto was responsible for these frescoes. Giorgio Vasari was specific in the 2nd edition (1568) of the “Lives of the Artists”, which he wrote after visiting Assisi in 1263 and again in 1265: not only had Giotto painted these frescoes, but he had done this “so perfectly that he acquired thereby very great fame ...”

In two seminal articles, both entitled "Giotto, Non-Giotto" (see below), Richard Offner argued against this traditional attribution on stylistic grounds.  He was not the first art historian to do so, but he was probably the most persuasive up to his own time.  More recently, Bruno Zanardi (see below) has examined the technique used in the execution of the St Francis cycle.  His conclusions were that:

  1. the Isaac Master and his team worked on Scenes II-IIV, the last of which (illustrated here) depicts Pope Innocent III approving the form of life proposed by St Francis and his early followers (as well as the frescoes in the vault of the four Doctors of the Church - see above);

  1. a second team, whose methods were close to those used in Rome by Pietro Cavallini, was also involved in Scene VII then took over the work, and continued until Scene XIX (illustrated here), which depicts the stigmatisation of St Francis; and

  1. this team collaborated with a third team on Scenes XX - XXII, after which this third team continued alone to complete Scenes XXIII - XXVIII and Scene I. 
  2. Scene XXIII, which depicts the lamentation of St Clare and her sisters over the body of St Francis at San Damiano, is illustrated here.  (Note that the representation of the lavishly decorated facade of San Damiano bears no resemblance to reality).

  3. Scene XXVIII and Scene I, which are nearest the crossing,  are illustrated above). 

  4. (In fact, scenes XXVI - XXVIII have long been attributed, not to Giotto, but to the so-called St Cecilia Master). 

None of the frescoes in the St Francis Cycle employed the technique used by Giotto and his workshop in the Arena Chapel, Padua.  This suggests that Giotto was not responsible for any of the them, although this proposition is still by no means universally accepted. 

Choir Stalls (1491 - 1501)

The carved and inlaid wooden choir stalls extend around the apse and transept, and provided places for some 100 friars.  Inscriptions on each of the the sides of the choir near the exits to the cloister  record that Minister General Francesco Nani (known as “Sansone”) commissioned the work from Domenico of San Severino and bears the date (presumably of their completion) of 1501.  Payments for the work were made to Domenico Indivini, an important craftsman from San Severino in 1491 and again in 1498. 

The reliefs on the stalls depict:

  1. the figures of the Annunciation (at the centre, to each side of the papal throne); 

  2. 36 figures (identified by inscriptions) of people who had played an important part in the history of the Franciscans; and

  3. to the sides, a series of perspectival scenes.

The choir was restored in 1900 and again in 1999.

Art from the Upper Church

Christus Patiens (1236)

This crucifix, which was signed by Giunta Pisano and dated by  inscription, is the only work of art that is known to have been in San Francesco before 1253.  (See the page on San Francesco in 1228-53 for the historical context.)  Giorgio Vasari, who saw it in the Upper Church in 1568, “on a beam that crosses the church”, did not see the inscription and attributed it to Margaritone d’ Arezzo

Bishop Marcello Crescenzi was able to examine the crucifix in 1623, when it was moved from the beam to the counter-facade in preparation for the consecration of Francesco Boncompagni as Bishop of Fano.  Fortunately, the letter that Bishop Crescenzi wrote about his discovery to Cardinal Federico Borromeo survives.  He reported that he had found a tiny image of a friar kneeling at the foot of the cross, along with the inscription:




Thus, the kneeling friar was Brother Elias, who had commissioned the work and who pleaded here for the mercy of Christ.   (The Abbess Benedetta commissioned a similar crucifix (ca. 1260) from the Maestro di Santa Chiara for Santa Chiara, in which she was depicted at the foot of the Cross.) 

It is interesting to note that Bishop Crescenzi said little else about the work of art itself: his main interest was in relation to the image of Brother Elias.  In particular, his pointed hood confirmed the claim of the Capuchins that their distinctive “cappuccio”, the symbol of their return to the primitive observance, was indeed characteristic of the earliest Franciscan habit.  It is interesting to note in this context that:

  1. in 1627, Pope Urban VIII confirmed an earlier papal ruling that the Capuchins were the spiritual descendants of St Francis and not a mere offshoot of the Franciscan Order; and 

  2. an engraving (17th century) of the image of Brother Elias, which has been attributed to Francesco Providoni, was kept in the Capuchin convent of Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome until 1999, when it was stolen.

Unfortunately, the crucifix fell from the counter-facade and was shattered beyond repair in ca. 1700.

God the Creator (ca. 1290)

This chalk preparatory drawing of the face of the Creator, which is attributed to Jacopo Torriti, is illustrated and described above.   It is now in the Museo del Tesoro.

Read more: 
R. Brooke, “Image of St Francis: Responses to Sainthood in the 13th Century”, (2006) Cambridge (Chapter 9) 
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.
L. Bellosi, “Cimabue”, (1998) New York 
R. Offner, "Giotto, Non-Giotto" Burlington Magazine 74 (1939) 258-69 and 75 (1939) 96-109
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