Assisi: San Rufino

The San Rufino.

By far the most important object kept in Assisi’s cathedral of San Rufino is the baptismal font that was used during Saint Franciscus’ christening in 1181 or 1182. It was also used for the baptism of Chiara Offreduccio (ca. 1193/94-1253), the future Saint Clara of Assisi, and perhaps for that of the future Holy Roman emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) as well. A different matter is whether the baptismal font actually stood in the cathedral at the time. It is quite possible that the San Rufino was being remodelled and therefore temporarily inaccessible. The substitute cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore would in that case have been used instead. The Santa Maria was Assisi’s cathedral until 1036, the year in which the title was passed on to the San Rufino in the upper part of the town. The current cathedral is the third building on or near this spot and by far the largest. It is dedicated to the third-century martyr and traditional first bishop of Assisi, Saint Rufinus, who is credited with converting the population of the town to Christianity.


The San Rufino is built on a terrace from the Roman era. The first church on this spot was constructed at an unknown date in the early Middle Ages, which could have been anytime between the early fifth and eighth centuries. The building was replaced with a new church between 1029 and 1036. The person responsible for this project was the then bishop of Assisi, a man named Ugone. Upon its completion, the San Rufino became the new cathedral of the town. The second version of the San Rufino was not on the exact same spot as the third and final version of the cathedral. It seems to have occupied roughly the current Piazza San Rufino, the square in front of the present building. This becomes clear when we study the campanile and the crypt. The campanile has a Roman cistern as its base and much of it dates from the eleventh century. Back then, it was actually next to the apse at the back of Ugone’s church; nowadays it is next to the left entrance in the façade. The apse of Ugone’s church can still be seen if we visit the crypt.

The San Rufino, seen from the Rocca Maggiore.

Construction of the third and final version of the San Rufino began in 1140. The architect in charge was a certain Giovanni da Gubbio, who may or may not have been the same ‘Johannes’ who designed and signed the rose window of the Santa Maria Maggiore mentioned above. Construction seems to have taken several decades, and since the new cathedral was not built on the footprint of its predecessor, the whole project basically involved a complete rebuilding. Nevertheless, it seems that the new cathedral was already in use by 1212, as it was in that year that Clara of Assisi heard Franciscus preach in the San Rufino, an event which had a profound influence on her life (see Assisi: San Damiano). In 1228, less than two years after his death, Franciscus of Assisi was canonised by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). That same year, the Pope consecrated the high altar of the San Rufino. It took another 25 years before the cathedral was finally completed; in 1253 the building was consecrated by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254).

Interior of the cathedral.

Although the San Rufino is a medieval cathedral, its interior is anything but medieval in style. In fact, once we step inside, we skip several centuries and enter a whole new era. In 1571 the cathedral was given a Late Renaissance makeover by the architect Galeazzo Alessi (1512-1572), who was also responsible for the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It must have been one of Alessi’s last projects, because he was dead the next year. To be honest, the interior of the cathedral is rather plain and boring. The columns and ceiling have been completely whitewashed and the most interesting works of art are several paintings by Dono Doni (ca. 1500-1575). In the first bay, near the right entrance, we find the baptismal font mentioned above. The font itself was made from an ancient column, but the wooden aedicule surrounding it is modern. It was added in 1882 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the birth of Saint Franciscus.


Much better than the interior of the cathedral is the façade from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is a typical example of the Umbrian-Romanesque style, with a few Gothic elements, most notably the pointed arch of the triangular pediment. The façade is divided into three sections. The lower section has three portals which are all beautifully decorated.  Especially the central portal is worth our attention. It features intricate carvings on the Romanesque arches and a lunette with a charming relief just above the entrance. The central figure of the relief is a clean-shaven Christ, wearing a crown and sitting on his throne between the sun and moon. He is flanked by a Madonna breastfeeding the Child on the left and by Saint Rufinus on the right. The style of the figures is slightly peculiar.

Central portal and right portal.

The left portal has a lunette with two lions, while the right portal features two facing peacocks drinking from the water of life. As we have seen on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon, they are symbols of immortality. Below the birds, we see the Lamb of God and the symbols of the four evangelists: a lion for Mark, a man for Matthew, an eagle for John and an ox for Luke. These symbols are repeated in the middle section of the façade, where the four figures surround the large central rose window. The window is supported by three little men standing on animals. On either side of the central window is another rose window, smaller and less ornate.

Close-up of the lunette of the central portal.

The triangular upper section of the façade rises above the roof of the cathedral. The large Gothic arch looks like it was intended to accommodate a mosaic or a large fresco (compare the San Rufino to the cathedral of Spoleto, the façade of which was in fact provided with a mosaic). From the Piazza San Rufino, one can also admire the sturdy campanile. As was mentioned above, its base is a Roman cistern. The bottom and middle level were added by bishop Ugone and the top level dates from the thirteenth century. The large Renaissance dome of the cathedral is not visible from the Piazza San Rufino, but it can be seen very well from either the Rocca Maggiore or the valley below Assisi.

Crypt with the sarcophagus of Saint Rufinus.

Diocesan Museum

Much better than the cathedral itself is the Museo diocesano e cripta di San Rufino, or Diocesan Museum. Visitors pay a modest entrance fee and are then allowed to descend into the crypt, which was part of Ugone’s eleventh-century cathedral. The first object we find here is a sarcophagus from the third century which has clearly non-Christian imagery. The sarcophagus tells the story of how the moon goddess Selene (or Diana) fell in love with the sleeping shepherd Endymion. This is a tale from Greek mythology that has little to do with Christianity. And yet tradition has it that the sarcophagus was used as the final resting place of Saint Rufinus, “martyrized in 238 A.D. in the Chiascio River” according to the information panel in the crypt.

The crypt gives access to the Diocesan Museum which was founded in 1941 to preserve and display precious works of art from the cathedral itself and other churches and oratories in and around Assisi. The collection is exhibited on two floors and goes back all the way to the Roman era, with finds on display in the so-called Corridoio Romano, the Roman corridor. But when entering from the crypt, the first room we see is named after the anonymous Master of Santa Chiara, a painter who was also active in the basilica of Santa Chiara elsewhere in Assisi. One of the works by this master that can be admired is a Visitation scene featuring the pregnant Virgin Mary and Saint Elizabeth, mother of Saint John the Baptist. The fresco was made in the second half of the thirteenth century and was part of a cycle about the Life of the Virgin.

Visitation – Master of Santa Chiara.

Of a slightly later date (after 1348) is a large fresco featuring the Flagellation, Crucifixion and Deposition of Christ. It was originally in the oratory of the Confraternity of San Rufinuccio and is attributed to Puccio Capanna. Puccio was a painter from Florence who, according to Giorgio Vasari, came to Assisi to assist the great Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) in the decoration of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. The Flagellation scene is set in front of the former temple of Minerva (actually of Hercules) in Assisi, which is now the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The Crucifixion scene features Saint Franciscus kneeling beside Saint Mary Magdalene. The scene of the Deposition on the right is thought to have been painted by an assistant of Puccio, one Cecce di Saraceno.

Three frescoes by Puccio Capanna (upper part) and two by Pace di Bartolo (lower part).

Processional banner.

Below Puccio’s fresco are two more scenes which are not by him. These are attributed to Pace di Bartolo, a student of Giotto. The larger of the two features a Madonna and Child, two angels and a kneeling donor. The smaller of the two is hard to interpret, but we can still make out the head of Christ and an angel.

Of great interest is the processional banner or gonfalon that belonged to a different confraternity, i.e. that of Saint Franciscus of Assisi. The anonymous painter who made the banner – actually a wooden panel – was influenced by Giotto, but seems to have been only half as talented. The banner features Saint Franciscus on his throne, surrounded by angels playing musical instruments. Near the saint’s feet are kneeling penitents in black habits, who – if my eyes do not deceive me – are holding whips to practice flagellation.

Interesting works from the fifteenth century are three frescoes by Matteo da Gualdo (ca. 1468) and a polyptych by Niccolò Alunno (ca. 1462). Matteo da Gualdo (ca. 1430/35-1507) was a painter from the Umbrian town of Gualdo Tadino who made the three frescoes on display at the museum for the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. We see a Madonna and Child in the centre, Saint Franciscus of Assisi on the right and Saint Anthony Abbot, the so-called ‘Father of All Monks’, on the left.

Frescoes by Matteo da Gualdo.

Polyptych – Niccolò Alunno.

Niccolò Alunno (ca. 1430-1502) was a painter from Foligno. His polyptych was previously on the high altar of the cathedral of San Rufino. The former altarpiece looks a bit cracked, but it is still quite impressive. It features a Madonna and Child in the centre, with Saint Rufinus in a bishop’s chasuble and a deacon on the left and Saint John the Evangelist and another deacon on the right. The predella has three scenes from the martyrdom of Rufinus. We see how he miraculously survives an ordeal in a furnace, how his body is retrieved from the Chiascio river and how it is taken to Assisi to be buried. The final scene, on the far right, is of great historical interest, as it shows what Assisi must have looked like in ca. 1462. Buildings like the Basilica of San Francesco and the Rocca Maggiore are clearly visible.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides and the article about the cathedral on Italian Wikipedia. Additional information was provided by the Diocesan Museum.


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