Art of Assisi

Immediately following the canonization of St. Francis in 1228, the construction of a church was begun in his honor in his hometown of Assisi. The entire complex, known as the Basilica di San Francesco, contains an upper and a lower church, as well as the crypt of St. Francis.

Upon entering the lower church, the visitor is inundated with an overwhelming collection of frescoes adorning any and every surface. On either side of the main part of the church are scenes from the life of St. Francis mirroring the life of our Lord: when Jesus is stripped of his garments in the moments leading up to his crucifixion, St. Francis is stripping off his clothes, denouncing his father.

The numerous frescoes were painted by a variety of artists: Giotto and Cimabue are the most famous names, but many more artists contributed as well. The more I looked around, the more details that popped out at me. One of the “filler” paintings (my own name for the strips of space that someone just filled in with a pattern between actual scenes or saint portraits) was filled with feathers, recalling the preaching of St. Francis to the birds. In another spot, there were some blue squares where normally a saint would be painted. Perhaps the reason for the blank canvas is due to the ongoing restoration following the 1997 earthquake that struck Assisi, but I like to think that the spots are beckoning us to be saints, and to live lives to fill the blue square.

Cimabue’s “Maesta,” with St. Francis to the side. Besides the portrait of St. Francis in Subiaco, this depiction is held to be the most true to life. The solemnity and simplicity of St. Francis draws your attention, as it contrasts with the grandeur of the rest of the lower church.

Here’s the grandeur I’m talking about. There are numerous lights in the between the columns of the altar that were lit up, too, while I was wandering around.

In stark contrast with the lower church’s intimidating grandeur is just down some steps on the left side of the main part of the church: the crypt of St. Francis. The simplicity of stone walls and the muted color scheme (brown, brown, and more brown) is like a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, the lower church definitely earns a spot on my favorite churches list, but I think it’s good that the tomb of a saint that lived so simply is so simple.

The upper church’s main collection of frescoes is more coherent, all focusing on 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis. There are other frescoes in the church, but I didn’t really get a chance to look at these in great detail.

The Upper Church

I also paid Chiesa di Santa Chiara a visit, early Sunday morning. Two very impressive crucifixes reside here: the Crucifix of San Damiano and a crucifix for which I cannot find a name.

Crucifix of San Damiano

The Crucifix of San Damiano is housed in the Capella di San Giorgio, the entrance to which is on the right side of the church. This is crucifix that addressed St. Francis in the nearby chapel of San Damiano, saying, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” As we entered the chapel, the Poor Clares could be heard singing their morning prayers from the hidden wings off the sanctuary. I was surprised to find that the crucifix was very familiar; copies of this crucifix can be found in many places, including the UD Rome campus’s chapel.

The second cross dominated the simple interior of the main part of the church. It was larger than life, and at such an early hour in the morning, the only decoration lit up. The picture below really doesn’t do it justice. Definitely visit Santa Chiara twice: once when the crypt is open, and once around 7 in the morning, because that is Santa Chiara at its most dramatic.

Unfortunately, none of these places allowed me to take photographs inside, nor was the crypt of Saint Clare open.


Art of Subiaco

I promised my aunt I would take pictures of art, so here is the first in a series of posts revolving around that. Unfortunately, these are not my pictures: the frescoes I saw at Subiaco were in much better condition, having been recently restored. I took these photographs from the Subiaco Benedictine’s website.

Subiaco is the site of the cave St. Benedict lived for a few years in his young adulthood, around the year 500. The first communities he founded were set up in the area as well, and a monastery stands there today, built into the side of the mountain, around the cave. Known as Sacra Speco, it features an impressive collection of frescoes, adorning the walls of two churches and several chapels, painted in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.

The fresco reminds the viewer that death (the flowing haired skeleton) can strike anyone at anytime. This photograph doesn’t show it well, but there is speech next to each character’s heads, so this fresco is one of the first comic strips.

I’ve never found an image of our Lady to be totally satisfying. I never find any of them to actually portray Mary as beautiful or natural or human. This photograph really doesn’t do it justice, it’s taken from a weird angle. She has a kind but knowing look in her eyes, just like every other mother on the face of the planet. I bought a couple of prayer cards with this image, and I study with one in view.

There is a rivalry between the Benedictines and the Cistercians (the Cistercians broke off from the Benedictines at the end of the 11th century), and the Benedictine fresco painters protrayed any bad monk in Cistercians garb (white habit with black scapular on top). One Cistercian is being punished, and another is being tempted by the devil in the doorway.

This portrait of St. Francis was painted during his lifetime, because the inscription reads “Fr. Franciscus” and he was widely believed to a be saint immediately following his death. Indeed, he was canonized only two years after his death.

The Miracle of Mt. Subasio

I definitely had my glasses on the climb up Mount Subasio, the wilderness of which St. Francis would often escape to in order to pray.

Saint Rita receiving the partial stigmata

With boots removed, but glasses most definitely on, I set off to make the pilgrimage along the switchbacks.

The views and the shoeless suffering quickly stunned me into a reflective silence. There’s something profoundly moving about choosing to suffer and choosing to respond positively. Pain has the capability to transform a person, for better or for worse. I had a book about Saint Rita as a child, and she asked our Lord to allow her to suffer like he did. She bore a wound on her forehead for the rest of her life after asking this. I never understood how someone could ask to suffer until tramping around barefoot really drove home that suffering is a blessing, especially if you generally have a spirit of sacrifice and generosity.

Please note the glasses.

Please note the glasses.

After 45 minutes, I arrived at the hermitage, and after navigating through it, I reached the site where St. Francis received the stigmata and where he preached to the birds. Also, the site where a classmate had band-aids for the cut on my toe. I got my picture with a statue of St. Francis praying on his back, which proves that my glasses were at the top of the mountain.

For the hike down, I put my shoes on for the sake of expediency and the cut. A few minutes down, I realized I no longer had my glasses on. But Mass was soon, and I didn’t have time to check all my pockets, so I said quick prayers to St. Francis and St. Anthony and hoped that my glasses were somewhere on my person. My roommate, Allie, and I sang “All Creatures of Our God and King” quietly as the crowd behind us shouted some patriotic tune.

Out of all the impressive parts of the universe, the oceans, the planets, the redwoods, the tuataras, the stars… mountains are probably my favorite. A friend once reflected to me, “Mountains make you feel small, but they give you a chance. You can climb them, conquer them, and then you’re on top of the world.” Mountains remind you of your weakness, but give you a chance to prove your strength. The best things in life, whether they be the best friends or the best experiences, participate in this same phenomenon.


Post-hike: I’ve never been happier to see shoes. And I love me some shoes.

Speaking of said experiences, I ended my hike at the lower part of the Basilica of St. Francis, where one of our chaplains celebrated anticipatory Mass. In his homily, he challenged us to “come to the Lord in silence” and offer up ourselves, if we truly wanted happiness. The Mass is a sort of mountain, too.

I searched every last pocket for my glasses, but to no avail. My glasses were lost. I asked the professors and RAs, but they hadn’t seen them either. I resigned myself to waking up at 4 the next morning and making the hike back up the mountain to search for them. I had to see the artwork and the landscapes and Europe! Also, my homework.

After coming back from Groundhog celebrations, though, the RA on duty greeted me with the most beautiful words I have ever heard, “Guess what we found?!” Apparently a hotel staff member had found them in the dining room…only…they were definitely on the mountain. Say hello to St. Francis, hotel staff member and patron saint of my glasses.


View from about halfway up Mt. Subasio

The Perfect Day

As a kid, I always hoped for the perfect day. I had this grandiose idea that a day was out there in which nothing would go wrong, everything would go my way, and I wouldn’t be anxious or feel awkward.

Well, I think I just had that perfect day, but it wasn’t what myself as a child expected in the least. And for that, I am very glad.

My class consists of around 105 students, and we loaded onto tour buses early Friday morning, heading a few hours northeast of Rome to Assisi, with stops at Subiaco and Orvieto along the way. Having slept very little the night before, I slept through the scenery on the way there, fell asleep standing up on the tour of the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, and turned in early that night.


Basilica di San Francesco

But Saturday. Oh, Saturday. From the top: I attended a tour of the Basilica of St. Francis led by an American expat who’s lived in Assisi for 6 years now. I’ll write more about the art later, but this is probably my favorite church yet. I prayed in front of the tomb of St. Francis and admired all the frescoes.

After lunch with the tour guide, a large group gathered in the main piazza, and many of us began to untie our shoelaces, preparing to hike up Mt. Subasio barefoot, as St. Francis did, despite the weather being overcast and quite chilly. After an hour’s hike along switchbacks, with my boots tied together and slung over my shoulder, offering up my shoelessness for my family, and sustaining a cut on one of my toes, we reached the hermitage. After navigating through the maze-like interior, I reached the site where St. Francis received the stigmata, as well as a classmate with band-aids, and the tree where it is said the birds sat and listened to Francis preach. With shoes retied, we then rushed down the mountain to attend Mass in the Basilica.

Still not used to eating dinner so late, some of us went to a bar (which is like a cafe back home, selling pastries and coffee) and grabbed coffee and the most amazing cake: it was chocolate, but with some sort of citrus jelly in the middle.


A Very Classy Groundhog

After dinner, to celebrate the best holiday of the year, Groundhog, I went with friends to a restaurant and drank wine to Punxsuatawney Phil’s health. When we got back to the hotel for class trip curfew, my roommates and I talked for another hour. And so ended my perfect day.

Also, my English professor poked fun at me twice today, which I took both times as high compliments.

It wasn’t the best day ever because it was easy or because it was actually perfect or because everything went my way: I cut my toe, it rained, I lost my glasses (another story for another post), I was challenged by the homily at Mass, someone asked me what I wanted to do before I die, and I couldn’t come up with a decent answer.

The American spoke about the gradual conversion of St. Francis, and how everything clicked into place in front of the Crucifix of San Damiano, where our Lord spoke to him, asking him to repair his Church, and in that moment, “What was bitter to him became sweet.”

My own conversion has probably been even more gradual than and, I know, less dramatic than Francis’s, but I know I have changed, because all these bitter things are becoming sweet. Allowing suffering to change you into a better person instead of a bitter person is the biggest challenge I have ever known, but it is worthwhile. Allowing bitter things to become sweet gives a much deeper meaning to freedom than the modern world is willing to give the word, and expands the possibilities for squeezing the most out of every day.