Santa Maria degli Angeli: from an Umbria Basilica to Los Angeles
Yes, it IS grandiose the 16th-century Franciscan Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli rising up majestically on the plain below Assisi. At first site, one wonders about the reaction of St. Francis, Il Poverello (“the Little Poor Man”) had he ever seen the massive Papal basilica built over his beloved tiny hut-like chapel Porziuncola (“the Little Portion”) and the spot nearby where he died October 3, 1226 as he had wished: “naked on the bare earth.”
Throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrimage throngs gathered around the sacred sites of the Porziuncola and the place where St. Francis had died. Frequently, the pilgrim crowds had to attend liturgical celebrations outside the small chapel in burning sun, driving rains or icy winds; furthermore, many often sought shelter in the nearby Franciscan monastery. Finally, in 1569 at the request of Pope Saint Pius V, the construction of a huge basilica – projected by Galeazzo Alessi of Perugia – was started. Although many of Francis “frati minori” (“little brothers”) were hostile to the construction of a grandiose edifice, the church was an inevitable solution to accommodate the pilgrim flow and protect the sacred sites.
Due to the poverty of the Franciscans, the Holy See, the city of Assisi and the offerings of the faithful financed the project.
Although the splendid mid-13th-century Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi – “tomb church” built to house the Saint’s body- was finished in under 30 years, the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli was not completed until 1679: 120 years after the laying of the first stone. The friars’ antagonism to the building was a factor – but also the need to demolish ancient buildings, incorporating new ones and debates about the structure of Alessi’s dome.
An early disciple of St. Francis, writer, poet and first biographer of the Saint, Tommaso da Celano wrote about Francesco’s wanders in the wooded valley below his Assisi in 1209.Coming across a run-down, nearly abandoned church dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, he set about to repair it, as he had worked on restoration of the Church of San Damiano a few years prior. This small chapel would become a point of reference for his life.
As the number of followers increased daily, Francis felt the need for a small church and humble dwellings for the group. He posed his problems to the Benedictine abbot of the monastery on Mt. Subasio who then gave the Proziuncola and surrounding wooded area to Francesco in 1209. Here Francesco received his first twelve brothers and founded the Order of Friars Minori in 1211 – and here, too, the Order of Poor Clares would be founded. Chapters (general meetings of the brothers) would be held at this small chapel, this “little portion,” and friars were sent out on preaching missions from the Porziuncola.
The Porziuncola chapel still maintains its original form, although altered various times from its 9th-11th century origins – (and a legend maintains that the first structure was actually built in the 4th c. of Mt. Subasio limestone by hermits from Palestine).
Alessi’s dome seems to protectively hover over “the little portion” sitting at the crossing of the the Basilica which is over 115 m. long, with three naves and five side chapels in each of the side naves, painted and frescoed by artists from Umbria and not only.
But the Porziuncola is the heart of the Basilica. The 19th-c fresco on the facade depicts St. Francis requesting from Christ and His Mother il Perdono (“the Pardon”), a plenary indulgence assuring the forgiveness of all sins granted in 1216 to Francis by Pope Honorious III during a visit to him in Perugia).
A Gothic-style spire at the peak of the chapel holds a copy of the 14th-c. La Madonna del Latte (of the Sienese school), ….the original now in the adjacent Museo della Porziuncola:
On the back of the apse, restoration in 1998 confirmed the fresco as a remnant of a masterpiece by the greatest of Umbrian painters, Pietro Perugino, working in this area during the late 15th and early 16th- centuries:
Just one young man all alone was kneeling in prayer inside the Porziuncola during my recent visit there. I’d spent a few days wandering Benedictine and Franciscan sites – the Church of San Damiano, the Eremo delle Carceri, the Church of Santa Croce – appreciating the silence and emptiness, a result of COVID restrictions.
The young man gazed on the splendid painted wooden panel over the altar of the Porziuncola by Prete Ilario da Viterbo (1393), the Annunciation and episodes related to San Francesco’s request for il Perdono.
Backdropped by an elegant golden cloth, the Virgin, seated near a vase of lilies (symbol of purity), holds the Book of Scriptures and seems to tug timidly at her veil – almost in apprehension – as the angel Gabriel, hand raised in blessing, tells her that God wishes her to be the Mother of His Son.
Episodes of the request for the Pardon in 1216 flank the Annunciation, depicting Francesco kneeling before Pope Honorius III as he requests the indulgence and then announcing of the granting of the indulgence to the faithful, flanked by the seven Umbrian bishops. Do note the depiction of the Porziuncola, to the right of San Francesco, as it looked to the painter in the late 14th-century:
If you head out the small door to the right of this “little portion,” just steps away you’ll find the tiny Cappella del Transito, site of St. Francis death on October 3, 1226 near the former ancient infirmary of the friars. He had composed near this spot the last stanza of his Cantico delle Creature praising Sora Morte (Sister Death) – and died as he wished, “naked on the bare earth.”
A late 15th-century white glazed terra-cotta statue of St. Francis by Andrea Pisano is framed in a sculpted terra-cotta niche…… and on the small altar, a reliquary holds the Saint’s cingulum, the rope girding his waist, with three knots symbolizing the virtues embraced by all Franciscans, poverty, chastity and obedience:
Early 16th-century frescoes of the first followers of St. Francis by a Spanish student of Perugino, Giovanni di Paolo, called “Lo Spagna,” flank the statue of the Saint:
To the right of the altar, a vase of bright pink begonias stands on the site of the death of St. Francis:
Leaving the Cappella del Transito, one passes the Roseto (“Little Rose Garden”) in the area once wooded where the friars had lived in simple huts. According to Franciscan tradition, here Francis threw himself into thorny rose bushes to eliminate temptation and the thorns turned to flowering roses. Another Franciscan tradition recounts that a bleating lamb followed St. Francis everywhere, bleating in union with the frati minori at prayer. A contemporary statue of Francis and the lamb backdrops the rose bushes:
The Cappella delle Rose is steps away, consisting of two sections: the area in the back was built in the mid-14th century on the site of the simple hut of Francesco under direction of another biographer of the Saint, Santo Bonaventura….
..and the area in the front was built in the early 15th-century at the time of San Bernardino da Siena who also oversaw the building of the Eremo delle Carceri monastery on Mt. Subasio. His image is on the side wall of the Porziuncola….
….and here in the Chapel of the Roses, frescoed by Tiberio d’Assisi in the early 16th-century:
He is also depicted in this Chapel of the Roses with the first group of frati minori gathered around San Francesco in the early 16th-century fresco just behind the simple altar of local limestone quarried on Mt. Subasio:
A fresco on the wall of the chapel depicts Francis kneeling before Pope Honorius III in Perugia when requesting the plenary indulgence for those praying in the Porziuncola, il Perdono:
In another fresco, San Francesco – backdropped by the seven Umbrian bishops – proclaims the indulgence to the faithful. This episode faithfully reproduces the Porziuncola’s late 15th-century facade fresco by Niccolo’ di Liberatore (l’Alunno) – since replaced – as well as the friars’ choir and other chapels no longer in existence:
Leaving this frescoed gem, you may wish to head to the Museo del Tesoro to see other treasures once in the Porziuncola, including the oldest Christus paziens crucifix still remaining by Giunta Pisano:
This motif of Christ as a man who suffers as we suffer was very dear to the Franciscans and often figured in their preaching.
Another treasure has also been moved from the Basilica to the museum: the glazed terracotta relief of the “Incarnation of the Virgin” by Andrea della Robbia (1475). You’ll want to take time to explore the other museum treasures and make a stop to see the conventino (small monastery), built over various periods and restored in 2000.
If you have time, you may wish to wander the chapels of the side naves in the Basilica. If you’re fans of modern art, do look for the chapel frescoed by Girolamo Giorgetti at the end of the 17th-century depicting San Francesco receiving the stigmata…… for that chapel now also holds a contemporary olive wood sculpture, Albero Glorioso (“Glorious Tree”), by the famed Pasquale Galbusera:
You’ll want to come soon to explore this glorious Basilica but if travel to Italy is not yet possible and you’re closer to San Francisco, drop into North Beach to see the faithful reproduction of la Porziuncola:
And did you know that the second largest city in the U.S. is named after la Porziuncola? On August 2, 1769 a Franciscan accompanying the first European expedition through California, Frate Juan Crespi, described a beautiful river in his travel journal which the group named “Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula” as that very day – August 2nd – is celebrated as the Festa del Perdono (“the Feast of the Pardon”) at the Porziuncola. That river was later named simply for the angels: the Los Angeles River – as was the nearby city.
Click here to read about the creation of La Porziuncola in San Francisco in 2005.
Read about a guided tour for Nancy Pelosi (from San Francisco) when here for the Festa del Perdono