In the year 1205 Franciscus of Assisi was praying in the small church of San Damiano when suddenly the crucified Christ began speaking to him. Christ told Franciscus that his house was being destroyed and that Franciscus should go out and rebuild it. At first, the future saint took the message literally and started mending the dilapidated San Damiano. This was not the only church that Franciscus and his very first followers went about restoring. In an open space in the forest, several kilometres south of Assisi, stood the chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This spot had been called the Porziuncola for at least a century and a half. The word derives from ‘porzucle’, which means ‘small portion’ or ‘small piece of land’. Later the word was also used to denote the chapel that had been built here. The chapel was initially used by Benedictines, but these had left it because of its poor state of maintenance. In either 1207 or 1208 – dates are always uncertain as regards the life of Franciscus – the abbot of the Benedictines allowed Franciscus and his followers to start using the chapel. The annual rent they were required to pay was a bucket of fish from Lago Trasimeno.
At the time Franciscus only had about a dozen followers. These men were devoted to radical poverty, manual labour and barefoot preaching. The chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli became their first headquarters, and that is why it is there that the Order of the Franciscans or Friars Minor was born, although the order was only formally approved in 1223. Franciscus and his followers built simple huts around the chapel, where they lived, prayed, studied and worked. One of these huts served as an infirmary and it was there that Franciscus passed away in 1226. After his death the open space in the forest quickly became a destination for pilgrims. The annual Festa del Perdono on 1 and 2 August allowed pilgrims to get a pardon for their sins. Nowadays the open space in the forest is long gone. In the valley below Assisi we find a gigantic basilica that has incorporated both the chapel of Santa Maria and the Cappella del Transito, the chapel built over the infirmary where Franciscus had died.
Construction of the Santa Maria degli Angeli
After Franciscus’ death many faithful admirers started spending their own money to construct small buildings next to the chapel of Santa Maria. The arrangement in the early sixteenth century can be seen on a fresco made in 1516 by Tiberio d’Assisi (ca. 1470-1524). Here we for instance see a second chapel to the left of the original chapel. The fresco was painted on the walls of the Cappella delle Rose and an image of it can be found here (third image from the bottom). This chapel was built on the spot where a hut once stood where, according to tradition, Franciscus laid himself down to rest after rolling naked through the rose bushes in a wild act of self-punishment. To his own astonishment the future saint had not suffered a scratch, as all the rose thorns had miraculously disappeared. In the second half of the sixteenth century the location still drew hordes of pilgrims. Pope Pius V (1566-1572) therefore decided that the chaos that had sprung up and spread organically had to make way for an immense basilica. Obviously the all-important chapel of Santa Maria, the Cappella del Transito and the Cappella delle Rose would not be demolished. Instead, they would become part of the new complex. However, there would not be any mercy for any of the other buildings: these were all destroyed.
On 25 March 1569 Pope Pius laid the foundation stone for the basilica of Santa Maria. The chief architect was Galeazzo Alessi (1512-1572), known for his work on the cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi. Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573) was involved in the project as well. Unfortunately the construction of the basilica had a difficult start. There was a lack of funds and the owners of the buildings that were about to be demolished protested. The fact that first Alessi and then Vignola died was rather unhelpful as well. And yet the project was continued, the completion of the large dome in 1667 being a true landmark. Twelve years later, in 1679, the basilica was finished, although a campanile on the right side of the building was added in 1684; a second tower was projected, but never built. My travel guide claims the Santa Maria degli Angeli is the seventh largest church in the world. We should probably add the words ‘at the moment of its completion’, as the basilica is not even mentioned in this – in itself rather unconvincing – list of largest churches in the world.
In 1832 Assisi was struck by a heavy earthquake, which caused considerable damage to the Santa Maria degli Angeli. Both the nave and part of the left aisle collapsed. If you look closely, you will still notice cracks in the building here and there. The basilica was restored between 1836 and 1840 by the architect Luigi Poletti (1792-1869). The current façade dates from 1930 and was made by Cesare Bazzani (1873-1939). It is topped by a conspicuous gilded bronze statue of the Virgin Mary that was crafted by the sculptor Guglielmo Colasanti (1889-1944). The statue is seven metres high. Pope Pius X (1903-1914) made the Santa Maria degli Angeli a papal basilica, of which there are just seven in all of Italy. Five of the papal basilicas are in Rome: San Giovanni in Laterano, Saint Peter’s Basilica, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi also belongs to this illustrious collection of churches.
Interior and museum
In order to avoid disappointment, I will start by mentioning that visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the church. Considering the fact that the basilica is one of the holiest places of the Franciscan Order, this cannot really come as a surprise. If you want to get a good impression of the interior you can watch this very useful movie. Visitors will notice that the interior was executed in the same plain and simple style as that of the cathedral of Assisi. We may conclude that Galeazzo Alessi, as an architect, loved being consistent. Below the large dome we find the original chapel of Santa Maria. The interior and exterior of the simple stone building were decorated by various artists from different eras. The façade, for instance, was frescoed by the German painter Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869). Pietro Vannucci, also known as Perugino (ca. 1446-1523), painted a fresco of the Crucifixion on the back of the chapel, above the apse. Finally, the large and impressive fresco on the back wall inside the chapel dates from 1393 and is attributed to the priest Ilario da Viterbo. A good image of this fresco can be viewed here (second image from the top).
Behind the chapel of Santa Maria, on the right, people flock together to see the Cappella del Transito, the spot where Franciscus died. In this chapel the saint’s belt is kept, which is just a simple piece of rope. While the chapel of Santa Maria should be accessible to visitors, the Cappella del Transito is usually kept closed. You will, however, be able to peek through the bars of the gates and see the statue of the saint made by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525). The frescoes on the walls are the work of the Spanish painter Giovanni di Pietro (died 1528/29), who is usually called ‘Lo Spagno’, ‘the Spaniard’. Even people who are not proficient in Italian should be able to understand the sign with the text ‘Qui mori S. Francesco’. The text ‘Qui dimorava S. Francesco’ in the Cappella delle Rose is perhaps a bit trickier; it means something along the lines of ‘this is where Saint Franciscus resided’. Tiberio d’Assisi’s frescoes in this chapel have already been mentioned above.
Next to the gigantic basilica we find a small but interesting museum: the Museo della Porziuncola. The museum makes use of several rooms of the monastery. Unfortunately photography is prohibited here as well. Among the Museo’s most prized possessions is a crucifix by Giunta Pisano, made in ca. 1230-1240. Of great importance are two very ancient images of Saint Franciscus. The first is attributed to the Maestro di San Francesco (image here), an anonymous artist who also worked on the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. The second is attributed to Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302; image here). This portrait closely resembles the portrait of the saint that Cimabue made for the aforementioned Lower Basilica, so it is probably correctly attributed to him. The museum furthermore has works by Andrea della Robbia, Sano di Pietro, Niccolò Alunno and Antonio Circignani. If you want to know more about the history of the Santa Maria degli Angeli you should definitely visit the Museo della Porziuncola.
Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide for Umbria, Donald Spoto, ‘Reluctant Saint’, the Key to Umbria website and Italian Wikipedia.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 79.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 74.
 Prete Ilario in Italian. It is rather unlikely that he was the father of Ugolino di Prete Ilario, a painter who left beautiful works in the Duomo of Orvieto. The two painters may have been contemporaries, judging by the dates of their works.
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