It is an easy 15 minute walk from Assisi’s Porta Nuova to the church and convent of San Damiano down in the valley. Visitors looking for great art and architecture are likely to be disappointed here, but the place is of immense spiritual importance. In 1205, Franciscus of Assisi was walking in the valley and stopped at the small church of San Damiano, located about a kilometre from the walls of Assisi. The church, probably built about a century earlier, was in a pretty rotten state. It looked like it was about to collapse. As Franciscus knelt to pray, the crucifix in the church suddenly spoke to him. Christ on the cross told the future saint that his house was being destroyed and that Franciscus should go out and rebuild it. The event was immortalised by the great Giotto.
At first, Franciscus took the message literally: he believed that he had been ordered to mend this specific church, whereas Christ of course meant the Church. Between the summer of 1206 and early 1208, Franciscus set about restoring not only the church of San Damiano, but also the country church of San Pietro della Spina and the Porziuncola chapel, which is now part of the huge Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. At the same time, Franciscus had found a new spiritual mission in taking care of lepers, who were seen as dangerous pariahs by just about anyone else in thirteenth century Italy.
Although he was shunned by many, Franciscus’ activities also won him admirers. By late 1208 had he about a dozen followers. In 1209, Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) approved the nascent community of the fratres minores, the Friars Minor. Approval of the Franciscan Order and the Franciscan Rule would have to wait until 1223. For now the Franciscans were merely a not-so merry band of brothers, devoted to radical poverty, manual labour and barefoot preaching. In 1212, Franciscus preached at the cathedral of San Rufino and among the flock was a young woman named Chiara Offreduccio (ca. 1193/94-1253). She is now best known as Clara of Assisi, Saint Clare or Santa Chiara. Chiara was much impressed by Franciscus’ sermon. She lived close to the cathedral and was from a very wealthy family, but refused to marry and only desired a life of prayer and devotion to God. Franciscus would quickly become her spiritual teacher.
Of course it was unthinkable that a woman would join the Friars Minor. The Franciscan community was exclusively male. After cutting off her hair and clothing her in a simple tunic, Franciscus took Chiara to a community of Benedictine nuns, who had their convent at Bastia Umbra, just west of Assisi. There her uncles tried to kidnap her and Chiara had to cling on to the altar to avoid being taken away. Chiara was moved to another convent, and there history repeated itself. At was then that Franciscus, with help and permission from Bishop Guido of Assisi, decided to move Chiara to the San Damiano and found a monastery there. For over 40 years, Chiara and up to 50 nuns lived there in peace and harmony, making a little money by selling altar linens, growing vegetables in the kitchen garden and spending most of the day praying, singing and working. In 1253, Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254) approved the Rule of the Second Order of Saint Francis, now known as the Poor Clares. The next day, Chiara died. She was canonised in 1255 by Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261).
After co-founding the Convent of the Poor Ladies in 1212, Franciscus returned to the church and convent of San Damiano on many occasions. It was probably in 1222 that Franciscus preached here and celebrated Ash Wednesday with Chiara and the other nuns. He was forty at the time and already very frail and ill, suffering badly from malaria and eye infections. Although he always seemed to recover again, the inflictions returned, and in 1225 he was moved to a small hut that was part of the San Damiano complex. Suffering excruciating pains, Franciscus began composing what is arguably his greatest contribution to the Christian faith AND Italian literature, a song that is known as Laudes Creaturarum or – in English – the Canticle of the Sun. The song is written in the Umbrian dialect and praises God’s Creation. Franciscus did not set the song to music himself, but listen for instance to this powerful version composed by Carl Orff (1895-1982).
On 3 October 1226, Franciscus died in his cell close to the Porziuncola chapel. The next day, his body was taken to the church of San Damiano and venerated by Chiara and her Poor Ladies. Chiara herself died almost 27 years later, in a room in the convent that can still be visited. Both Franciscus and Chiara were canonised a mere two years after their death, in 1228 and 1255 respectively. Splendid, but rather un-Franciscan new basilicas were built for them in Assisi, so that their remains could be interred there. The Poor Ladies left the convent of San Damiano not long after Chiara’s death. The new Basilica di Santa Chiara was built between 1257 and 1265, and her body was buried there. The nuns moved to the adjacent convent and took the famous crucifix that spoke to Franciscus with them. Tourists and pilgrims who want to see the original should go the church of Santa Chiara. The church of San Damiano only has a modern copy.
As was mentioned above, the church and convent of San Damiano cannot boast of any great art or architecture. Unlike the great basilicas in Assisi itself, the complex was never embellished. The church exterior is extremely simple and the rose window appears to be misaligned (it is actually in the centre, but the church is only half the width of the façade). There are no external decorations whatsoever. Once inside the church, the visitor quickly discovers that it is truly tiny. The church has a single nave and is sparsely decorated. Apart from the copy of the crucifix, we can admire an apse fresco of a Madonna and Child with Saints Rufinus and Damianus. Rufinus is the patron saint of Assisi. He lived in the third century and is traditionally held to have been the town’s first bishop. Rufinus is also credited with converting the population to Christianity. Damianus is of course one of a set of twin brothers from Arabia, Cosmas and Damianus (see Rome: Santi Cosma e Damiano). For some reason the church is only dedicated to him and not to his brother Cosmas.
The most interesting fresco in the church can be found at the back. It shows us Franciscus preaching at the San Damiano (left) and Franciscus being chased by his father with a cudgel (right). Above the father we see the walled town of Assisi. The fresco was made in the fourteenth century. Note that there is a niche in the wall. This is supposedly where Franciscus threw the money that he had collected for restoration of the San Damiano.
Elsewhere in the complex, we find a fresco of Santa Chiara and her nuns by an unknown master (image here), and a fresco of the Crucifixion (ca. 1482) by Pier Antonio Mezzastris (ca. 1430-1506). The cloister has frescoes by Eusebio da San Giorgio, painted in 1507. Here we also find the entrance to the refectory. Visitors were not allowed inside when I visited the complex in August 2018, but it was fortunately possible to peek inside through the door. The refectory is still largely in its original, thirteenth century state. On the wall is a painting (certainly younger than the dining room itself) depicting a miracle that occurred when Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) visited the complex. After Chiara had blessed the bread, suddenly crosses appeared on the loaves.
I certainly enjoyed my visit to the San Damiano. This is a peaceful and serene spot in the valley which has preserved its typically Franciscan simplicity. Keep in mind that, while the trip to the San Damiano is fairly easy, the return journey is uphill!
Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides and Donald Spoto’s ‘Reluctant Saint’.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 65-66.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 74.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 122-127.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 188.
 Donals Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 199-200.