Basilica di San Francesco

The Basilica di San Francesco is the central structure and focus of those who come to the little Umbrian town on pilgrimages and to worship the gentle St Francis of Assisi and his life devoted to the poor and suffering. This church also contains some of the best and most flamboyant art, architecture, and decoration in central Italy. One might be justified in thinking that this is a rather ironic monument to the man known as the “Poor Little Man of Assisi” who had avowed to live such a simple life of poverty. Nonetheless, this Basilica in Assisi is the most popular and visited of all the attractions in the small town.

In 1228, two years after St Francis of Assisi died (the same year in which he was canonized as a saint), Pope Gregory IX, members of the Order of Friars Minor, and the people of the town began to plan for a suitable church to honor the beloved man. The chosen site was outside the city walls on what had been a place of execution. The first stone for the Basilica of St Francis was laid by the pope himself.

The Basilica di San Francesco is a double church, built on two levels. The lower part was completed in 1230, after which the body of St Francis of Assisi was moved from San Giorgio and buried under the high altar, and its location forgotten. Both churches were completed and consecrated by Pope Innocent IV in 1253, 25 years after planning began. The lower church, containing the saint’s tomb is relatively austere in comparison with the upper church, which is a splendid Gothic confection on the scale of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The tomb under the high altar containing the body of the saint was “rediscovered” in 1818. His skeleton was nearly intact. 600 years after his death. Had it been discovered earlier, bits of the skeleton most surely would have been taken to other shrines, as happened to other the bodies of saints from this period. It was decided that the Basilica of St Francis should have a suitably grand tomb for the intact holy relics. This is a primary reason that the little town of Assisi and the Basilica di San Francesco is such a focal for the millions who come here to honor him.

The Basilica di San Francesco is built on a hill, and a walk around the exterior will review wonderful views of the valley below. You can even see the dome of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Church where the saint died. Inside, you will be greeted by brilliant frescoes by artists from Siena and by Giotto of Florence. Among the relics to be viewed are articles of St. Francis’ clothing, including his tunic, sandals, the hair shirt he wore for penance, and an ivory horn given as a gift by the Sultan of Egypt.

Admission to the Basilica of St Francis is free, and appropriate clothing is required. No shorts, short skirts, or bare shoulders, or other revealing clothing is allowed. Photography is not allowed inside. If you are staying in one of the local hotels and not on a vacation package or tour that stops here during the day for quick visit before moving on to other destinations like Rome or Florence, it pays to visit the church as early in the morning or late in the evening as possible in order to avoid the crowds. Although open daily, times can vary, and certain areas may be restricted due to religious services.

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