The most important church in Assisi, the most important church dedicated to Saint Francis and maybe even one of the most important churches in the world, is the Basilica of San Francis of Assisi. A large amount of pilgrims arrive here every day to kneel down next to the tomb of Saint Francis and many tourists arrive as well, to see the beautiful church built around it. Not only is it special to see a church that has two ‘floors’ (a lower church and an upper church), the interior of the church is decorated with beautiful frescoes by amongst others Giotto.
The church was built in the first half of the 13th century. The lower church is a bit dark, but that is what made it a little romantic for me. The frescoes down here are made by various great masters like Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti at the beginning of the 14th century. You can go down even more here to the crypt, where you will find the tomb of Saint Francis. This really had an impact on me, because some praying people were expressing so much emotion, clinging to the bars around the tomb while tears were streaming down their faces. I thought it was beautiful.
We started in the lower church, because we read somewhere that it was a special experience to first walk through the dark lower church and then end up in the very light upper church with more color. Indeed, the upper church is much lighter and more colorful. This is also where you can see the frescoes of the life of Saint Francis, painted by Giotto (at least, probably, there is still some debate among art historians).
In art history books, Giotto is often the end of the middle ages and the start of the Renaissance. He belonged to the generation of the ‘First light’, according to Vasari, who wrote a big work about artists of the Renaissance. This is because he is the first that is interested in depicting human emotions. He also makes an attemp to create some depth in buildings and generally looks more at reality when he wants to paint something. These frescoes about the life of Saint Francis are arranged like a cartoon, that you can read while walking around the church.
For example, in the left fresco you see Saint Francis praying near a crucifix. He got a vision there of Jesus Christ telling him to help him repair his house, which was falling to ruins. Saint Francis thought this meant repairing the church he was praying in, which was in a bad state, so he sold some cloth from his fathers store to help the priest repair the church. His father was angry with him and abused Saint Francis, so Saint Francis gave him back the clothes he got from his father, as you see in the middle fresco, and started to live as a beggar. In the right fresco, you see the pope having a dream that the church is collapsing and that Saint Francis is holding it up, which later caused the pope to recognize the order of Saint Francis.
When visiting this beautiful church, I would recommend reading the legend of Saint Francis, if you don’t know the story yet. The frescoes will make much more sense that way and you’ll understand the importance of the church better. And once you’re there, don’t skip the rest of assisi! There are many more beautiful churches, romantic little streets and cute shops!