Not even two years passed after the death of St. Francis, and already Brother Elias, the successor to the command of the Order, received the gift of a plot of land, outside of the western gate of Assisi, a steep rise of Mount Subasio where wrongdoers and criminals were hanged and was therefore called the Hell Hill (Colle dell’Inferno). On that already cursed ground would rise a great church that would receive the remains of the great saint.
From the Bishop’s palace, where he had been a guest of the Archbishop of Assisi, St. Francis had ordered to be brought on a stretcher to the Porziuncola in Santa Maria degli Angeli. He died on the ground of his favourite place. But his companions did not keep the body of St. Francis near the little church even for one day. On the morning of October 4 they brought him back to town, by S. Damiano, so Chiara and her companions could finally kiss the stigmata.
From S. Damiano he was taken to be buried in the church of S.Giorgio, which was located inside the city close to his home. In that little church on July 16, 1228 Gregory IX solemnly proclaimed the sanctity of the great son of Assisi and on the next day, invited by Brother Elias, the Pope went to Colle dell’Inferno to bless the first stone of the new large building in honor of the saint.
On May 25th 1230, less than four years after the death of the saint, the lower church was completed and the body of the saint could be brought to rest.
From S. Maria degli Angeli, looking towards Mount Subasio, at the western end of the city you can clearly see the massive construction of Brother Elias, supported by huge buttresses on the precipice. It seems almost a fortified building and immediately evokes the idea of a stronghold. And that erected by Brother Elias was the material and spiritual stronghold of the Franciscans, as well as being one of the most beautiful manifestations of art inspired by the glory of the Saint of Assisi. (From the book: Assisi. Dove anche le pietre sono parole. Itinerario artistico/spirituale sulle orme di san Francesco, Milan 1996).
The basilica complex is composed of two churches – the lower (1228-1230) and the upper (1230-1253) and a crypt dug in 1818, with the tomb of the saint. The first one can be reached from the lower square, bordered by a 1400 portico. There is a beautiful twin portal surmounted by three rose windows. The plan is a double “T”. Inside it is decorated by the greatest painters of the 1200-1300s: Cimabue, Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers and Simone Martini. There are the beautiful stained glass windows by Giovanni di Bonino and Puccio Capanna. The monastery houses a remarkable Treasury with rare illuminated manuscripts, paintings, reliquaries, tapestries, sacred furnishings and altar frontals. Also of interest here is the Perkins collection.
The great Italian painting was born in the lower church: the nave preserves works of the Master of St. Francis; the Chapel of St. Martin presents the complete cycle of the Stories of St. Martin (1312 – 1315) painted by Simone Martini; the Chapel of Mary Magdalene was painted by Giotto after 1305; the right transept is a fresco by Cimabue (1280) and eight childhood Stories of Christ painted by Giotto. In the left transept Pietro Lorenzetti painted Histories of the Passion of Christ and the famous Madonna dei Tramonti. The cross vault above the altar is painted by the Maestro delle Vele and is the Glory of St. Francis and the Allegories of Obedience, Chastity, and Poverty.
The upper church, with one nave, has a simple façade, embellished by a Gothic portal and a beautiful rose window. The Gothic interior, with a nave, lit by large windows is the prototype of the Franciscan churches. And it is adorned by Giotto’s frescos illustrating the life of the saint. There are also works by Cimabue, Cavallini, Torriti and a wooden choir from the end of the 1400s, which still contains the most famous fresco: the presbytery was painted by Cimabue, the Maestro Oltremontano and Jacopo Torriti. The nave at the top was decorated with stories from the Old and New Testaments.
The lower section of the nave is occupied by a famous cycle of Giotto, which consists of 28 panels illustrating the highlights of the life of St. Francis.
The basilica complex includes a Romanesque bell tower of 1239 that stands majestically over the plains below. The convent houses the Theological Institute, a rich library of codes and sixteenth century manuscipts, the Treasury, exhibited in the Gothic Room, and the Perkins collection which consists of works by Italian masters, especially from Siena and Florence.
Tomb of St. Francis
Excavated between 1818 and 1824 with the mortal remains of the saint held in a rough stone urn built by Assisi architect Giuseppe Brizzi in neoclassical form and restored in neoclassical style by the architect Ugo Tarceva (1925-32). Above the altar, in the compartment of the ancient tomb, made of four rough walls, you see the simple stone urn locked by bars of two iron grates, in which was found the body of the saint and which still contains it. In the niches on the corner lie the remains of four companions of St. Francis: Rufino, Angelo, Masseo and Leone. Above is a bronze and alabaster lamp, offered in turn by the Regions of Italy (1939) to the “Holy Chief Patron of the Fatherland.”