Five Ways to Celebrate St. Francis’s Feast Day in Italy
Since I live on a street dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, and since I can see a church dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi right out my bedroom window, and since my husbadn and I were married by a Franciscan priest, and since our current ever more lovable Pope chose his papal name (many believe) to honor St. Francis of Assisi, I figured it would be a good idea to write a little post today on 4 October, on occasion of the feast day of one of Italy’s all-time best-loved saints. Instead going into St. Francis’s life andworks, which I’m guessing most people are already familiar with, I thought I’d suggest five ways to celebrate his feast day, and five different Italian cities in which to do it.
As the saint’s hometown, this is the obvious choice. In fact, this is where Pope Francis himself decided to celebrate St. Francis’s Day, so expect a lot of crowds if you choose this option. Besides the sheer majesty of the 13th-century basilica, one of the most important fresco cycles of the great Giotto di Bondone, and in fact one of the most celebrated works of art of that magical period when the buds of medieval art began to blossom into the Renaissance.
The 28 frescoes that line the lower section of the nave of the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi tell the story of the saint’s life and are believed to have been painted between 1296 and 1304. Bonus: an even earlier portrait of St. Francis, by late-medieval master Cimabue, can be seen on the transept wall. The fresco, Our Lady Enthroned with St. Francis, dates to 1280 and features one of the most well known depictions of the saint.
The basilica also contains the saint’s tomb.
If you prefer high Renaissance art to late medieval/early Renaissance crossover art, and you happen to be in Florence today, you’re in luck! Head to Santa Trinità church where you can visit the Sassetti Chapel, containing an exquisite fresco cycle by Domenico Ghirlandaio (who just happened to be Michelangelo’s first master, and one of the painters of the walls of the Sistine Chapel). The fresco, dating from 1482-1485, depict several scenes of St. Francis’s life, including the receiving of the stigmata, the confirmation of Franciscan rule, and the resurrection of a boy.
Chiusi della Verna
Not many tourists make it to this tiny little town in the province of Arezzo, but if you’re in the general area today, consider a visit to the Santuario della Verna, just a few miles outside of town. In addition to its evocative setting, perched on an outcropping of Mount Penna, the sanctuary is also renowned for being the site at which St. Francis received the stigmata, on 14 September 1224. You can also visit a small museum attached to the sanctuary where you can see St. Francis’ rough habit, slightly moth-eaten, but still intact.
This gorgeous hilltop town, famous for its medieval Benedictine monasteries, is not generally associated with St. Francis of Assisi, but there is one notable curiosity for those seeking to pay homage to the saint today. In St. Gregory’s Chapel in the Monastery of St. Benedict is only known portrait of St. Francis painted during his lifetime. The portrait shows neither halo nor stigmata, showing it was indeed painted before the saint’s death in 1226. If you want an idea of what he actually looked like, this is probably as close as you’ll come.
If you’re in the Eternal City today, never fear! You don’t have to travel anywhere if you want to make a St. Francis pilgrimage of your own. The church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere is attached to a convent that housed St. Francis when he was in Rome in 1209 seeking recognition of his order by Pope Innocent III. If you ask the custodian nicely (and if your shoulders and knees are modestly covered!) he’ll happily take you up to the very cell St. Francis slept in, complete with the very stone he used for a pillow, which visitors are allowed to touch.
While you visit the church (which by the way also contains Bernini’s late masterpiece The Ecstasy of the Beata Ludovica Albertoni), take a moment to wallow bitterly in the knowledge that this unassuming little trasteverina church once contained, along the walls of the nave, the prototype of the legendary Giotto cycle in Assisi. The frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis, attributed to Pietro Cavallini, are sadly now lost. “Now lost”: two words that inspire the wrenching of hearts and gnashing of teeth of many an art lover.