Saint Franciscus of Assisi, one of the most famous saints in the history of the Catholic Church, was born in late September of the year 1181 or 1182. There is no way to know for certain whether it was the former or the latter year, but in Assisi most people seem to believe it was 1182, and this is in fact the year that is mentioned on his tomb in the crypt of the church of San Francesco. Franciscus’ father was a wealthy cloth merchant called Pietro di Bernardone, and his mother’s name was Pica. Pica gave birth to her son while her husband was far away on a trade mission in France. She had him baptised a few days later and – and this may come as a surprise to some – chose the name Giovanni, after Saint John the Baptist. When Pietro returned home later that year, he began calling his son Franciscus or Francesco, which means ‘the Frenchman’, no doubt a reference to the country that Pietro often travelled to and that was known for its cloth markets.
There is some debate about where exactly the future saint was baptised. Since there are no historical records about the christening, we may only speculate about which church is the most likely contender. The Santa Maria Maggiore discussed here is the first of two candidates, the cathedral of San Rufino is the other. Although the Santa Maria only served as Assisi’s cathedral until 1036, it is quite possible that the San Rufino was in the process of being remodelled around the time that Franciscus was born. The Santa Maria was certainly still the substitute cathedral, so modern biographers do not rule out the possibility that Franciscus was baptised here. The baptismal font that was supposedly used during the ceremony is, however, certainly no longer there. Tourists and pilgrims who want to see it, should go to the San Rufino.
The Santa Maria Maggiore
The Santa Maria Maggiore can be found on the Piazza del Vescovado, The church is alternatively known as the Santa Maria del Vescovado. The bishop’s palace used to be located on this square as well and, as we will see, this is important for the story of Saint Franciscus. The church was probably built in the tenth century, over the remains of a house from the Roman era. This is often referred to as the Casa di Properzio, after the first century BCE Roman poet who is supposed to have lived there (some sources claim it was actually a temple dedicated to Apollo or Janus). The church we see today mostly dates to the twelfth century. The rose window of the façade offers a clue regarding the age of the current church. It informs us that one IOHS (Johannes) made it in the year of Our Lord MCLXIII, which is 1163. It is not inconceivable that he was Giovanni da Gubbio, the man who also designed the cathedral of San Rufino. The façade itself is simple, but attractive, in the familiar soft pink that we find so often in Assisi.
The interior of the church is very plain. The floor looks modern and is rather ugly. The apse is in naked brick without even a trace of decoration. The walls are largely unadorned too. What makes the Santa Maria Maggiore an attractive church for history and art enthusiasts is the presence of frescoes from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Although most are more or less damaged, what is left of them seems to have been restored recently. One of the frescoes even mentions the year in which it was made: 1390, or MCCCLXXXX in Roman numerals (the last number is slightly damaged, but it appears to be an ‘X’).
This also happens to be one of the most interesting frescoes. It features the Madonna della Misericordia, i.e. the Virgin protecting several people under her cloak (for a similar image, see Florence: Ognissanti). The female saint on the right is clearly Saint Lucia, whose eyes were gouged out before she was executed. The eyes are now on the platter that she is holding (although she appears to have a second set of eyes in her head). The male saint on the left is probably Saint Blaise. The strange object in his left hand is likely an iron comb, a tool that was normally used for combing wool, that was also used as a torture instrument. In the case of Saint Blaise, the comb was used to scrape away his skin before he was decapitated.
The church has more good frescoes, for instance a Madonna and Child attributed to Pace di Bartolo, a student of Giotto. I also particularly liked a fresco of the Annunciation by an anonymous artist of which only the image of the archangel Gabriel has survived. And then there is a large fresco of the Crucifixion at the end of the left aisle. As is usual, Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. The saint on the far right is clearly Saint Franciscus. The style of the fresco is sixteenth century, and some online sources like to attribute it to Dono Doni (ca. 1500-1575). I cannot say that I am qualified to give judgment on this issue, but it is not impossible that Doni was the painter, as he was also active in the San Rufino at the time.
The Chiesa Nuova
The Chiesa Nuova is located just north of the Santa Maria Maggiore. It was built on the spot where the house of Pietro di Bernardone and his wife Pica is supposed to have stood. That makes it the house where Franciscus was presumably born in 1181 or 1182. The church was built in 1615 and funds for its construction were generously provided by King Philip III of Spain (1598-1615). The Chiesa Nuova has a Greek cross plan, a simple brick façade and a large dome. The interior of the church is colourful, but unfortunately photography is not allowed. One of the most curious elements in the Chiesa Nuova is a reconstruction of the storage room in which Pietro di Bernardone locked up his son for many weeks after a conflict. We even see a kneeling doll praying in the room. Since this conflict is part of Franciscus’ conversion from a privileged man of the world to a devout man of the cloth, it warrants a little bit more attention in this post.
There can be no doubt that, compared to other citizens of Assisi, Franciscus and his family were relatively well-off. However, they were anything but intellectuals. As a boy, Franciscus enjoyed little education and never learned Latin. His father took him out of school when he was about ten years old to come along on his trading missions to France. There the future saint learned much about the French language, poetry and songs. Franciscus later became an apprentice in his father’s shop and quickly acquired a reputation as a party animal. His life was filled with drinking, dancing and feasting. But then, in 1202, an event took place that would change Franciscus’ life. Assisi was at war with neighbouring Perugia and during one battle fought not far from Assisi itself it suffered an ignominious defeat. Franciscus was among the prisoners of war and languished in a Perugian dungeon for at least a year. He was ransomed in 1203, but had by then already contracted malaria, one of several diseases that would plague him for the rest of his life.
One day in 1205, Franciscus visited the dilapidated church of San Damiano in the valley below Assisi, just a few hundred meters outside the city walls. There he had an epiphany, as he believed that the crucifix in the church had spoken to him. According to tradition, the image of Christ on the cross told Franciscus that his house was being destroyed and commanded him to mend it. Franciscus interpreted the message literally and began collecting money to have the San Damiano repaired. He sold some cloth from his father’s shop in Foligno, and in the process also sold his horse and most of his own fancy clothes. Father Pietro was furious of course and put his son under house arrest for several weeks, imprisoning him in the storage room mentioned above.
Aiming to get his money back, Pietro later sued his own son. Since the case involved money that had been donated to the Church, the case had to be judged by the bishop, the formidable Guido of Assisi. The trial was held in the Piazza del Vescovado, the square in front of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore close to the bishop’s palace. Franciscus actually showed up and then performed the act that has been immortalised by Giotto in the Basilica of San Francesco: he took off all his clothes and renounced his worldly goods. Standing stark naked before the bishop, Guido then protectively wrapped him in his cloak. One of Franciscus’ modern biographers, Donald Spoto, has correctly remarked that “[f]rom that day, Peter and Pica Bernardone disappear completely from every account of their son’s life”. The parents have not completely disappeared from the streets of Assisi though: in 1984, a monument for them was erected in the Piazza Chiesa Nuova.
Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley travel guide and the relevant articles on the Santa Maria Maggiore and the Chiesa Nuova on Italian Wikipedia. Donald Spoto’s ‘Reluctant Saint’ was an invaluable additional source.
 See for instance Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 219.
 What follows is largely based on Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 22-54.
 Reluctant Saint, p. 54.