Our travel guide did not have any information on the enormous church of San Francesco, but fortunately the church was included in a small map of the centre of Pistoia in the same guide. As the church is close to the large car park where we wanted to leave our car, we decided to pay the San Francesco a visit. There was ample space in the car park and paying by bank card or credit card was possible. We crossed the oval Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi and arrived at the church. The building is not exactly properly oriented: the apse does not face the east, but the south. It is clear that the church was simply built where it could be fitted in. Although the San Francesco has for centuries been the church of the Franciscans in Pistoia, it is currently administered by the Society of Priests of the Sacred Heart of Betharram.
History and exterior
The Franciscans were already active in Pistoia for several years when in the autumn of 1289 they started construction of a church that was dedicated to the founder of their Order. The church was completed in the next century, but the façade dates from 1707. As is the case with so many other churches in Pistoia, this façade is decorated with bands of white and green marble. A closer inspection of the façade raises the question whether the builders actually used real green marble. The part above the portal and surrounding the rose window looks rather pale and worn, as does the triangular pediment. I have never seen polychrome marble lose its colour, so I have a strong suspicion that the stone that was used was simply painted green. After all, paint does wear.
Like many other Franciscan churches, the San Francesco was built in the shape of a Tau cross. Tau-shaped churches have no real sanctuary and their transept is located at the end of the nave, creating a large T. Franciscus of Assisi had made the Tau his personal symbol. The letter Tau or Tav is part of both the Greek and Hebrew alphabet and can therefore be found in both the Old and New Testament. The Tau is for instance mentioned in Ezekiel 9:4 (at least in the Latin Vulgate) and for Christians it symbolises the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This symbolism is easy to understand: the letter T closely resembles the cross on which the Messiah had died. Tau-shaped churches offered spatial advantages as well: as all the available space was used efficiently, the church could accommodate the large masses that Franciscan friars managed to draw.
The church can be admired very well from the bell-tower of the Duomo of Pistoia, which reaches a height of 67 metres. From the top of the tower one clearly sees the shape of the building, the undecorated left wall (it is certain that no green marble was used here) and the Gothic windows with their familiar pointed arches. The church of San Francesco itself does not have a bell-tower, although the apse is topped by a couple of bell-chambers.
The church has a single nave, so visitors enter a large open space (see the image above). The floor is truly hideous. It looks like it is made of bathroom tiles and it can therefore never be original. When we visited the church, plastic chairs had been set up that were even more hideous than the floor. However, do not let all this ugliness distract you: the church of San Francesco is in fact a very interesting church. There are no side chapels, but in the seventeenth century altars were constructed on both sides of the nave. Contemporary paintings have been installed in most of these altars, but in some case the paintings were apparently removed again so that we can now admire the remains of medieval frescoes. It is certainly conceivable that the walls of the church have once been entirely covered in frescoes; when the medieval style was considered old-fashioned the frescoes were plastered over.
So what exactly can be seen on the frescoes? I will mention some highlights. On the counter-façade, in an empty altar frame, we can admire an Adoration of the Magi which is attributed to a local painter named Sano di Giorgio. Although calling it a masterpiece would an exaggeration, the fresco does have a few interesting details. Note for instance the long-necked camels in the background and the monkey in the top right corner. On the right we see the remains of another fresco by the same artist. An unknown bishop and a saint with a sword were painted side by side. The saint may be Julianus, the knight who accidentally murdered his parents when they were sleeping in his bed.
In the third altar frame on the left side of the nave we see three frescoes made by three different painters in presumably three different periods (image on the right). The top fresco features the Eastern Roman emperor Heraclius (610-641) entering Jerusalem on foot. His dress is simple and he is carrying the True Cross on his shoulder. Heraclius took both the city and the Cross back from the Persian king Khosrow II (see Arezzo: San Francesco). The fresco is attributed to Bonaccorso di Cino, while the lamentation of the dead Christ below Heraclius is considered a work by Maso di Banco. He was a student and follower of the great Giotto (see Florence: Santa Croce). Maso’s fresco is full of emotions and dramatism. A beautiful detail is Joseph of Arimathea, dressed in red, holding the nails that were used at the crucifixion. To the right of the lamentation yet another artist painted a fresco of Saint Franciscus of Assisi.
Frescoes in the chapels
Although the San Francesco does not have any side chapels, it does have five chapels in the transept. These contain even more interesting frescoes, or at least remains of frescoes. The most intriguing of these can be found in the central chapel with the high altar. These frescoes depict stories from the life of Franciscus of Assisi and were clearly inspired by the Franciscan cycle in Assisi, attributed to either Giotto or the Master of the Legend of Saint Franciscus of Assisi.
A notable difference between the frescoes in Pistoia and those is Assisi is their state of conservation. While those in Assisi are in mint condition, the frescoes in Pistoia are damaged, weathered and sometimes even lost. The best are those dealing with the speaking crucifix in the church of San Damiano and the dream of Pope Innocentius III. In the San Damiano, just outside Assisi, Christ on the cross told Franciscus that his house was being destroyed and Franciscus had to rebuild it. Innocentius dreamt that the Church, symbolised by the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, was about to collapse, but was propped up by Franciscus. Following the dream, in 1209, the pope approved the temporary rule of the Franciscans. The frescoes were made in the middle of the fourteenth century by an unknown artist, although sometimes the painter Dalmasio Scannabecchi from Bologna is mentioned as the maker.
The chapel containing the high altar furthermore has a niche with a fresco featuring a woman with extremely long hair living in a cave. She is given a sacred host by an elderly man. The woman is Saint Mary of Egypt. She was a prostitute who repented and subsequently went to the desert to live there as a hermit. The man handing her a host is the monk and priest Zosimas of Palestine. For a long time the city of Rome had a church dedicated to Santa Maria Egiziaca, which was housed in the former temple of the pagan god Portunus, opposite the church of San Maria in Cosmedin.
We do not know who painted the fresco in Pistoia, which dates from the end of the fourteenth century. In fact, we do not even know whether it was really Saint Mary of Egypt he wanted to paint, as she is often confused with Mary Magdalene. If you are in the chapel, also note the splendid stained glass windows that were made in 1928 by Francesco Mossmeyer (see Gubbio: Sant’Ubaldo). One of the windows features a bundle of rods (fasces) from the Fascist era. More frescoes can be admired in the other chapels, including works by Bonaccorso di Cino (already mentioned above), Giovanni di Bartolomeo Cristiani and the anonymous Master of the Bracciolini chapel.
Of the more modern works of art in the church I especially liked a conspicuously cheerful and colourful version of the Flight to Egypt, painted by Aurelio Lomi (1556-1622). This painting was installed in an altar frame to the left of the main entrance. The church also has a work by Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), one of the very few female painters in the seventeenth century. The painting features a Madonna and Child, Saint Franciscus of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. According to the information panel that accompanies the canvas it was painted in 1650, which sounds rather unlikely. In 1650 Sirani was only twelve years old.
It should be possible to visit the adjacent convent of San Francesco, but when we were in Pistoia in August of 2020 it was unfortunately closed, perhaps because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure was a pity though, for as a consequence we missed out on seeing the frescoes in the chapter house, painted by Antonio Vite, a painter from Pistoia who lived in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. On the other hand, we now have a reason to return to the city and this intriguing church one day.