Assisi’s iconic Basilica of Saint Francis, or San Francesco, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000) is by far Umbria’s most recognized and visited monument, an important destination for travelers interested in both its art and architecture and its spiritual and religious significance.
Dedicated to the memory of Saint Francis of Assisi, this monumental complex including both the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi (mother church to the Franciscan Order, now known as the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor) and the Sacro Convento (Franciscan Friary, which also houses the archives and museum) was begun in 1228, immediately after the canonization of Saint Francis (1182-1226).
Perched on the far west end of the town of Assisi, the complex sits on a hilltop where the gallows for criminals sentenced to death once stood. After the land was donated as the site for the Basilica honoring Assisi’s most famous son, the hill previously known as the Colle d’Inferno (Hill of Hell) was rebaptised Colle di Paradiso (Hill of Heaven). The Basilica and convent cover the top and southern face of the hill; the northern face is home to the recently reclaimed Bosco di San Francesco.
The Basilica is said to have been designed by Brother Elias, one of Saint Francis’ first and most loyal followers, and is composed of two separate consecrated churches on two levels.
Basilica Inferiore or Lower Church
The Basilica Inferiore (Lower Church) was completed first--in 1230—and its simple cruciform floor plan, ribbed semi-circular cross vaults over the nave and barrel vaults over the transepts are typical of the Romanesque style. Later additions, including a Gothic entry portal added between 1280 and 1300, and a Renaissance porch completing the entry to the nave in 1487, diluted the original Romanesque style.
The low ceiling and semi-darkness of the lower church remind visitors that is is also home to Francis’ crypt, which has been open to visitors since the Saint’s body was rediscovered and entombed here in 1818. (It had been buried in a secret location under the floor of the Lower Church to prevent the Saint’s remains being collected and scattered as relics by the faithful).
The Basilica Inferiore is adorned with some of Italy’s finest 13th and 14th century frescoes, including in the right transept Giotto’s “Crucifixion” and Cimabue’s “Madonna and Child, with Angels and St. Francis” (1280). The latter is one of the most famous and accurate likenesses of the Saint.
From the Lower Church, visitors can also visit the chapter house, where a number of Saint Francis’ possessions (including his iconic tunic and some documents written in his own hand) are displayed, and the Basilica’s Museum..
Lower Church Visiting Information:
Hours: 6:00 to 18:45, during daylight savings. May have shorter hours during winter.
Tomb of Saint Francis: 6:00 to 20:00
Continue to Next Page: Upper Church and Interior Photo