Assisi: Basilica di Santa Chiara

The Santa Chiara.

In 1212, a young woman from a wealthy family named Chiara Offreduccio (ca. 1193/94-1253) heard the future Saint Franciscus of Assisi preach at the cathedral of Assisi. She was immediately entranced by his message of radical poverty and unconditional devotion to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Chiara – also known as Clara or Clare of Assisi – became the first female Franciscan. Since, as a woman, she could not join the Friars Minor, she and Franciscus founded the Convent of the Poor Ladies at the country church of San Damiano, the site where Franciscus himself had had his epiphany back in 1205 (a crucifix had spoken to him; see below). Chiara died at San Damiano in 1253 and was canonised in 1255 by Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261). Her new status as a saint kick-started construction of a large basilica dedicated to her in Assisi, the Santa Chiara. The new church was built between 1257 and 1265. In the latter year it was formally consecrated by Pope Clemens IV (1265-1268). Five years previously, Chiara had already been buried under the high altar of the church that was named after her.

The Basilica di Santa Chiara was not an entirely new church. The architect, presumably one Filippo da Campello, built the church and adjacent monastery around the pre-existing church of San Giorgio. This church had played an important role in the early life of Saint Franciscus: it was here that, probably between ages seven and ten, he had received some education at the schola minor that was attached to the church, “a kind of primary school for young boys of Assisi”.[1] When Franciscus died in 1226, his body was first taken to the San Giorgio and buried there. In 1230, just two years after his canonisation, it was translated to the new Lower Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi that had been specially built to house his remains.

The Santa Chiara, seen from the Rocca Maggiore.

The rose window of the Santa Chiara.

Chiara herself had also initially been buried in the church of San Giorgio. The location of her grave in the new Basilica di Santa Chiara was kept secret for centuries, out of fear that some madman would try to steal her relics. Her body was only rediscovered in 1850 and then, in 1872, laid to rest in the newly created crypt of the church. The crypt was given a neo-Gothic makeover in 1935. If you visit the crypt, do not be surprised if you see people spontaneously dropping to their knees in reference. This is one of the holiest sites in all of Assisi, preceded only by the basilica dedicated to Saint Franciscus himself.

Photography is, unfortunately but understandably, prohibited inside the Basilica di Santa Chiara. So let us start outside, where taking pictures is of course allowed. The façade of the church is beautiful in its simplicity. It is divided into three levels and each level has alternating bands of pink and white stone. There is little other decoration. On either side of the Romanesque arch above the main entrance we see a statue of a lion. The second level of the façade has a finely crafted Gothic rose window that is truly marvellous. The third level is the tympanum, which has a single oculus. The left side of the church is supported by three large external buttresses, which provide the Santa Chiara with extra stability. These were added at the end of the fourteenth century. If you walk around the church to admire it from behind, you can see how the adjacent monastery was built against the slope of the hill overlooking the valley. This is also the best place to see the campanile and the polygonal apse of the church with its high and narrow Gothic windows.

The Santa Chiara, seen from behind.

The interior of the church is surprisingly simple and quite different from that of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. The Santa Chiara has a single nave consisting of four bays. The walls are completely devoid of decoration. There is only one chapel, on the left side of the nave. It is dedicated to Chiara’s younger sister Caterina (ca. 1197/1198-1253). Caterina had joined her sister as a nun at the convent of San Damiano and had on that occasion taken the name Agnes. She died just three months after her sister had passed away and is now venerated as Saint Agnes of Assisi.

The Santa Chiara, seen from the valley.

The most interesting art of the Santa Chiara is to be found at the back of the church. In the right transept, we find a fresco cycle with scenes from the life of Chiara, painted by the anonymous Master of Santa Chiara in the late thirteenth century. A door in the right wall of the nave leads to the former church of San Giorgio, which is now divided into two separate rooms. The one at the back is also known as the Oratorio delle Reliquie and here we find the late twelfth century crucifix that is supposed to have spoken to Franciscus in 1205. It told the future saint that his house was being destroyed and that Franciscus had to rebuild it. The crucifix was then in the small country church of San Damiano, but the Poor Clares took it with them when they moved to their new convent at Santa Chiara in the 1260s. The San Damiano now only has a copy.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides and Donald Spoto’s ‘Reluctant Saint’. Additional information came from the article about the church on Italian Wikipedia.

Noot

[1] Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 18.

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