Siena: San Francesco

The San Francesco.

This church in Siena was easy to see, but difficult to find. I had already spotted it while standing on top of the Facciatone, the end of the unfinished nave of Siena’s cathedral. But actually finding it proved to be a whole lot tougher. In fact, we got lost in Siena’s whirling and winding streets, which was, by the way, not unpleasant. Ultimately we managed to find the San Francesco, the church of the Franciscans.

Church history

Members of the Franciscan order started arriving in Siena soon after the death of their founder, Saint Franciscus of Assisi, in 1226. A first church was erected on this spot between 1228 and 1255. This Romanesque-style church was enlarged and given a Gothic makeover between 1326 and 1475.

San Bernardino preaching – Sano di Pietro.

A big fire in 1655 left the interior of the church in ruins. After some half-hearted attempts at restoration, a proper renovation program was launched in 1885 and completed seven years later. The present Neo-Gothic facade was added between 1894 and 1913, when the old facade with bands of white and green marble was removed.

Siena’s Duomo Museum possesses a painting by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481), painted in the 1440s, which shows the Franciscan missionary Saint Bernardino preaching in the square in front of the San Francesco. From this painting we can conclude that the old facade did not cover the entire front of the church. In fact, the part above the portal was simply left undecorated. Also in the painting is the old bell-tower. The present campanile was constructed between 1763 and 1765.


This is a big, rather empty church, which is partly the result of the 1655 fire. The church has a single nave and was built in the shape of a Tau Cross: there is no regular sanctuary and the transept is located at the end of the nave, forming a T. The Tau Cross became one of the symbols of Franciscus himself. At the end of the nave, we also find the most important chapel, the Cappella Maggiore. It has a beautiful stained glass window, which was made by an artist from Munich, Germany, and placed here in 1889. It shows Pope Honorius III approving the Rule of Saint Franciscus, an event that took place in 1223.

Interior of the church.

Most of the decorations in the church are not that interesting. On the left side, we find somewhat second-rate works by artists such as Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669) and Jacopo Zucchi (ca. 1542-1596). The best artworks can be found in the eight chapels flanking the Cappella Maggiore, four to the left and four to the right of it. Many of these artworks were originally in the chapter house of the convent of the church, which probably saved them from damage or destruction during the 1655 fire. Instead, they were rediscovered in 1852 behind layers of whitewash. The aforementioned convent was built in the fifteenth century and enlarged in 1518. It is now part of the University of Siena.

Martyrdom of the Franciscans – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Martyrdom of the Franciscans (detail) – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Pope Bonifatius VIII and Louis of Toulouse – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

In one of the chapels on the left, we can admire two frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1290-1348). One of them shows the Martyrdom of Franciscan missionaries. The fresco depicts a historical event and likely refers to the execution of five missionaries in Morocco in 1220. The other shows the future Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297) taking leave of Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303). See the images above. Ambrogio’s older brother Pietro (ca. 1280/85-1348) painted a fresco of the Crucifixion, which can be found in the chapel directly to the left of the Cappella Maggiore. It was executed in 1336-1337. We have previously seen some of Pietro’s work in the Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo. He was active in Assisi as well. In the church, we can also find frescoes by Andrea Vanni (ca. 1330/33-1414) and Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio (died ca. 1396).

Crucifixion – Pietro Lorenzetti.

Italian Wikipedia has a more detailed article about the church, which served as the basis for my own post.

Updated 30 March 2024.


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