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Francis and Clare, the great saints of Assisi


After the year 1000 the Church faced a great change and several conflicts, both internal and against the temporal power authorities. In 1054 the Great Schism of the East Church has had place, due to significant divergences. The first one was the recognition of the papal authority who, as successor of Peter, has claimed the jurisdiction power on the eastern patriarchates: Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem. The second was a theological question and has regarded the filioque issue: does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Son as well as from the Father? This doctrine has never been accepted by the East tradition and the introduction of the filioque to the Nicene Creed by the Roman Church finally generated the schism.

The moral situation of the 11th century Church 

After the Manzicerta defeat, the Byzantine Empire lost its territories in Middle East. So, the pope Urban II launched a new Crusade in 1095, with the aim of reconquering Jerusalem. The Church appeared extremely far from the poverty and simplicity principles that characterized it during the first centuries after Christ. Bishops were elected among the most important noble families. There were an unbridled richness and disproportionate luxury, especially in the papal palaces.

The Rocca Maggiore of Assisi, built in 1316, was destroyed after a popular uprising. It has been rebuilt by the cardinal Egidio Albornoz in 1356. 

In this context of theological-moral disorders, the preaching of mendicant orders has originated. They hoped a return to the origins and the essential teachings of Christ like chastity, poverty and humility.

St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi

Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi in 1182. He was the son of a rich cloth merchant, Pietro da Bernardone, and of the noble Giovanna Pica. In order to take advantage from the floroushing French trade, the baby was baptized Francis at the Basilica of St. Rufino. According to the father’s wishes, he would have substituted him in his affairs.

The Basilica of San Rufino

Detail of the central rose window 

The baptismal font where Francis and Clare of Assisi, as well as Frederick II, were baptized. 

In his youth Francis was rather rebel: he loved parties and, for this reason, he was defined as the “king of banquets”.

In 1154 a violent armed conflict broke out among the Guelph Perugia and the Ghibelline Assisi. 

The Piazza del Comune and the Temple of Minerva (30 B.C) 


Francis enlisted and participated to the Collestrada battle with his city. However, Assisi was defeated. He has been imprisoned for a long year, until his family paid the bail to free him. This was a hard experience for Francis, which completely changed his life. During this period the saint started his conversion path.

The conversion of St. Francis

As told by St. Bonaventure, who wrote his biography, Francis decided to go as a knight to the Holy Land, where the crusades were taking place. However, when he had arrived in Spoleto, he heard a voice scolding him during the night: “why has you abandoned your owner, for following the servant?”. Francis became aware of the error he was making and he decided to come back to Assisi, although the disappointment of his father. His life would never be the same; he passed his time with poor people and the lepers, heedless of the danger of being infected.

In 1205, while he was praying in front of the crucifix he heard the same voice, he had heard some year before, coming from the derelict church of St. Damiano: “Francis, go and repair my house which is in ruins”.

The Crucifix of St. Damiano

The church of St. Damiano

Francis followed these words. He sold some clothes owned by his father and his horse. Moreover, he offered the money to the St. Damiano priest, for restructuring the church, whom refused. Hence, Francis started patiently the works, but he did not understand God had asked him to renovate the entire Church. The saint understood this request only some years later. In fact, the Church was ruining towards a pagan idolatry. 

The process to St. Francis

Pietro di Bernardone was very angry. Hoping that his son would have repented, he reported him to the civil authority. Contrariwise, Francis asked the bishop’s help; at the Bishop Palace the process started, in front of the Assisi citizens. When Pietro was finishing a terrible haringue against his son, Francis stripped off all his clothes and, with a proud voice, pronounced the famous speech: “Until now I called as father only you; since now I can say this with certainty: Our Father who stays in heaven, because I have placed all my treasures in him and all my trust and hope”. 

In 1206 Francis stayed in Gubbio at a friend’s home. Here he put on the habit for the first time. 

St. Francis with the habit in a famous picture by Cimabue, at the Basilica Inferiore

It is famous also his encounter with the wolf, that the saint pacified with the words “Come here wolf friar, I command you from Christ’s will that you do not harm neither me nor other people”. 

When he had come back to Assisi, Francis personally restarted the reconstruction of some churches, like the Porziuncola or Santa Maria degli Angeli. 

The 4th century Porziuncola. Around it is the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, that was built from the second half of the 16th century.

The Pardon of Assisi and the friars community 

On August 2 of 1215 the “Pardon of Assisi” has been declared at the Porziuncola. It is a plenary indulgence everyone can receive during the year. For this reason the engravings on the facade says “I welcome your request, Francis”, as an answer to the question by the saint: “Everyone who, rependant and confessed, will visit this church, could obtain a wide and generous forgiveness, with a complete remission of all faults”. Additionally: hic locus sanctus est (this place is sacred) and haec est porta vitae aeternae (this is the door of the eternal life).

St Francis

Santa Maria degli Angeli

The 24th of February 1208 he was deeply impressed by the words of the Gospel, when he was attending the Mass at the Porziuncola: “Do not get gold or silver or copper for your money belts, or a bag for the journey, or two shirts, or sandals, or a walking stick; for the worker is entitled to his food. Whatever town or village you shall enter, find out who in it is worthy and stay there until you leave”. From that moment on an intense preaching period started; many people followed him, constructing the first friar community.

The following year Francis went to Rome with 12 friars, in order to ask the Pope Innocent III for the approval of their life rule. The Ordo fratum minorum was born. When they had come back to Assisi, the friars stayed in primitive convents, helping mainly poor and lepers. 

St. Clare of Assisi

In this period Clare Scifi, attracted to Francis’ lifestyle, left her father’s house on the evening of Palm Sunday, in order to embrace the religious life at the Porziuncola. Other women followed her examples, among them her sister Agnes. In the meanwhile a new female monastic order was borning: the Clares.   

St. Clare decided to cut her long blond hair as sign of penitence. Then she stayed for a period at the St. Paul cloistered nuns. Her family tried to get her, but she opposed. So her father, Favarone di Offreduccio degli Scifi, accepted the loss. After, the family tried to kidnap Clare’s sister Agnes dragging her along the road. The prayers by St. Clare transformed Agnes’ body like into lead, and any attempt of dragging her was in vain.

St Francis

A road in Assisi 

The mission in Holy Land and the death of St. Francis 

In 1217 the first general chapter of the Franciscan Order was led by Francis. Two years later the saint went to the Holy Land, where the 5th crusade was taking place. There he had the approval of meeting the sultan al-Malik al-Kāmil, king of the Saracen army and grandson of Saladin. The aim was the Gospel announce and the end of the hostilities. After a polite conversation, that provoked a great admiration, Francis was released (it is an extraordinary and unique event) and returned to the crusaders’ settlement. 

In 1223 the pope Honorius III approved the second rule of the Order by the bull Solet Annuere. The 14th of September of the subsequent year, while he was praying, Francis received the stigmata at the Monte della Verna. In this context the saint of Assisi composed the Canticle of the Creatures, considered the first work of the Italian literature whose author is known. 

The evening of the 3 of October 1226 the saint died when he was praying at the Porziuncola. The body was buried firstly at the ancient church of St. George, but four years later he was moved to the Basilica of St. Francis. 

The canonization and the Basilica of St. Francis 

Two years later Francis was proclamed saint by the pope Gregory IX: it was one of the faster canonization process of the Church history! 

The day after, the 17th of July 1228, the pope laid the first stone for the construction of the St. Francis Basilica, which constitutes the mother church of the Franciscan Order.  

St Francis

The Basilica of St. Francis

St Francis

Basilica of St. Francis

St Francis

The vault of the Basilica Inferiore, characterized by the Cimabue frescoes

St Francis

Interior of the Basilica Superiore with the Giotto frescoes

Clare and the Clares rule

In this period Gregory IX visited Clare in order to define a rule for the female order. A diatribe arose between the pope and the saint: the first insisted to accept some goods useful for sustenance, whilst Clare wanted to live in poverty. Finally her decision was accepted. After 30 years, Innocent IV approved the St. Clare’s rule. 

Clare died the 11th of August 1253 in the St. Damiano convent. Ten years later the Basilica dedicated to her was completed. It was constructed near the ancient church of St. George. Here, the Clare’s remains have still kept. In the meanwhile, the pope Urban IV modified the saint’s rule, determining the mandatory cloister and allowing the private property. 

St FrancisThe Basilica of St. Clare

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

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