High atop an Umbrian mountain top is a tiny medieval city. The city is small, even by medieval standards. You can walk across it in about half an hour if you do not stop. The buildings are of the typical Umbrian medieval style. No major battles were ever fought here. Though there was successful trade, their textiles were never known for their craftsmanship. In fact, this little sleepy little hill town may have avoided mass tourism and worldwide notoriety if not known for one man, St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis and Assisi go hand in hand. You never hear of one without hearing about the other one. This is despite the fact that St. Francis spent most of his adult life away from the city where he was born.
St. Francis was born in 1182 the son of a wealthy merchant. He lived the typical life of spoiled merchant child giving into all the temptations. However, during this time he began to look to the church for guidance. During this period, he received a vision from God. The vision told him to rebuild a crumbling old church outside of town. (It is now in the center of a glorified cathedral in the modern town) So he undertook this task and rebuilt the church. In doing so, he noticed the outrageous tithes the church was collecting and putting in their own pocket. He noted the outlandishness of his father and his friends. And St. Francis thought to him self "Is this the way God and Jesus intended for us to live?"
Apparently his answer was no. In the middle of the main plaza (Plaza Comune) St. Francis renounced his title, his family and his way of life in front of his father and the entire town. To make his point, he striped off his clothing and declared that he was going to live a life of poverty and teach the teachings of Jesus.
For the rest of his life, that is what he did. He traveled, with his followers, spreading the word of Jesus. He taught by example, emulating many of the ways of Jesus. At one point, a cardinal and patron of St. Francis and his followers petitioned Rome (The Pope) for St. Francis's followers to be declared a Holy Order. They were, the Franciscans.
St. Francis made just one mistake in life. He asked to be buried outside of his beloved Assisi. This request doesn't sound out of the ordinary. Perhaps he hoped to be buried in the church he rebuilt. That's not what happened. By the time he died, St. Francis's fame had spread throughout most of Europe. The people of Assisi wanted to build a fitting tribute to house his remains. So they built the Basilica of St. Francis. The lower one. This beautifully decorated Basilica contains scenes from his life on the walls. You can spend hours (As I did) staring at the ones that survive. Though this goes against everything that St. Francis taught, I guess it is understandable that the town and the Pope wanted to celebrate his life.
This brought pilgrims, so the lower basilica had to be expanded. Furthermore, the renaissance was swinging into high gear. Though the bottom is clearly gothic, the priests wanted a high church to celebrate weekly masses. So a second basilica was built on the first. (Hence upper and lower). This one to has immense murals about St. Francis. All of this is against everything St. Francis ever taught.
If you wander the town, and get away from the basilica, you are left with a medieval city plan. The Plaza Comune (common plaza) is at the center with streets spreading out. There are several churches, one dedicated to the poor Clairs, an order St. Francis helped found. All the churches have beautiful murals painted in them. There are some little barren chapels, which St. Francis would approve of, erected in his honor. But the artwork here is beautiful and well worth the trip to see.
TO BE CONTINUED…..
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