I took a bus to Assisi this morning (it was an hour ride from Perugia). It left me at the city center.
Assisi, like Perugia, is a medieval fortress town built on a mountain, and has winding roads paved with stone, but it looks very different. While Perugia has predominantly deep earth tones like brown, brick red, and dark ochre, Assisi impresses the eye with its pink and cream colored stone and brick. There are a lot of vantage points where you can see the wide-open countryside below for miles and miles and miles (oh yeah!).
So I got off the bus and went straight to the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Where else would you go first? St. Francis owns the culture and economy of Assisi the same way Bob Marley owns the culture and economy of Jamaica. Granted, there are a lot of churches and a lot of art to see here, but the Basilica of St. Francis is the most impressive, both for its frescoes and the relics and tomb of the saint himself. Here’s a brief video on the Basilica. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take us inside.
There are actually two basilicas on the site, an upper and a lower. You enter the upper basilica and see frescoes of St. Francis’ life by Giotto. Some of my favorites are the Dream of Innocent III, in which Pope Innocent III is seen on the right dreaming of St. Francis holding up the falling church, Renunciation of Worldly Goods, in which St. Francis strips naked in the public square and tells his father he will not pursue the lucrative family business, St. Francis Before the Sultan (Trial by Fire), and of course Sermon to the Birds. They’re all pretty great though. I could spend the whole day here.
The story behind St. Francis’ visit with Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt has long been one of my favorite interfaith stories. It takes up some space, so I’ll let this site tell it. Read it and find out how peace between faiths can come into being (A caveat: proponents will probably have to endure some punishment at first).
I want to add to the rather innocent narration of St. Francis’ encounter with the Sultan given in the link provided, because I feel there was some important mental stuff going on that might be missed. St. Francis figured he would either convert the Sultan to Christianity or be martyred: a win-win situation to his mind, but he was thwarted by the Sultan’s clever decision to shower riches on him. Francis had tried to convert him to Christianity, and the Sultan responded by giving Francis something Francis equally couldn’t accept because of his love of poverty. It’s a mirror response: both men tried to lure the other away from his faith, and in a gaming sort of way. Surely the Sultan knew Francis preached poverty. I’m sure St. Francis was aware of the Sultan’s gambit as well. Both equally could not accept the ‘gifts’ given by the other, yet they obviously liked what they saw in each other.
Francis did accept an ivory horn from the Sultan, and this is on display with other relics in the older church, including the robes Francis wore during his life. Under the altar of the lower basilica is St. Francis’ tomb (it’s the grey stone box above the candles), and you can go beneath the lower church to see it. Also buried in the vault are four of Francis’ companions from his life, and a supporter. Witnessing the devotion of the people visiting the tomb is one of the more moving experiences of visiting the site. Very few people have inspired the devotion St. Francis has.
So I went to the bookstore and bought the book The Little Flowers of St. Francis (I Fioretti de San Francesco). Here’s the edition I have. It’s a collection of vignettes, a lot of them surely legends, from St. Francis’ life. There are 53 of them, and they’re all simple, short, and charming, as befits the saint himself.
Roberto Rossellini made a movie in 1950 called The Flowers of St. Francis based on these vignettes. In Italian, it’s called Francesco, giullare di Dio which translates as “Francis, God’s jester.” It takes nine of the stories from I Fioretti and presents them as nine short episodes, plus a prologue. I feel like the very unpretentious style, and the innocence and simplicity of the Italian monks (they’re not professional actors) make it the best movie on spirituality that I’ve ever seen, and I urge you to see it if you’re at all interested in the subject. It accurately portrays the feeling of the devotional life, especially the day-to-day humanness of it and joy of living it.
One last word on spirit: after leaving the basilica, I wandered into an art gallery and met the artist Antonella Magliozzi, who was exhibiting her deeply spiritual abstract paintings. They all had wonderful colors and names like Eternity, Beyond Time, and Mystery of Faith, and they get the mind working on those concepts. It’s a good place to be before doing my presentation…