I wrote about our visit to Assisi in an earlier post (Stairway to Heaven). From Assisi, high on its mountain slopes, you can look down onto the flat plain below and see a huge dome, standing out amongst the insignificant buildings that surround it.
Why was there such an enormous church so close to Assisi? What was its significance? This called for a visit to investigate, so we headed to the small town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels) and the church of the same name.
This church revealed a story that had me wondering why so many pilgrims and tourists visit Assisi in their droves, bypassing the place with the strongest links to the life – and death – of Saint Francis. I have a hunch that many of them don’t even know of its existence, based only on speculation and crowd density during our visits: Assisi: thousands of people versus Santa Maria degli Angeli: maybe a hundred.
Saint Francis came from Assisi at a time when the plains below the town were heavily forested. In the forest was a tiny chapel from the 10th or 11th century. This chapel was given to Francis by the Benedictines, and it was here that Francis founded his Order of Friars Minor in 1209. The chapel – known as the Porziuncola – still exists in its original location. And the church was built on top; the chapel is directly under the dome!
The name Porziuncola means “gift”, and derives from the story that Jesus gave Francis the gift of forgiveness, known as the Pardon of Assisi, at this spot.The exterior frescoes, illustrating the Pardon, are a 15th century addition, but the chapel’s structure has apparently not been significantly modified since the 13th century when Francis and his followers were based there.
Just out of view behind the Porziuncola is a small cell, formerly part of the infirmary of the convent on this site where Francis died in October 1226. It is known as the Capella del Transito (Transit Chapel). Inside the cell are a statue of Francis in white, glazed terracotta by Andrea della Robbia from 1490, and a glass case containing what pertains to be the cord from Francis’ robe with its 3 knots representing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Santa Maria degli Angeli is the seventh largest Christian church in the world. It was begun in 1569 and was substantially completed in 1667 when the dome was added. Following the devastating earthquake of 1832, the church underwent some remodelling, particularly of the facade.
Even for the non-believers amongst us, this place has a wonderful, spiritual feel to it. Its credentials – birthplace of the Franciscan Order and the place where Francis died – qualify this church for much more attention than it seems to receive.