In my first update I mentioned someone comparing Assisi to Minas Tirith, Tolkien’s imaginary tiered city on a hill. What I didn’t know at the time is that unlike Minas Tirith, where the lowest level is the widest circle and the royal house is at the crown, Assisi’s crown is at the bottom: beneath the lower Basilica of St. Francis, in the crypt where Francis’s tomb is situated in the midst of four of his famous followers.
Not that the crypt is literally the lowest point in Assisi. As far as I know, though, it’s the lowest notable landmark. It’s immediately below the upstairs-downstairs Basilica of San Francesco, the lower basilica adorned by frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto, the upper basilica with its narrative of Francis’s life in frescoes. It’s down the hill from the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), which houses the original Cross of San Damiano that spoke to Francis as well as the body of Francis’s famous spiritual companion. It’s far below the Cathedral of San Rufino, with its dome overlooking Santa Chiara.
There’s also Rocca Maggiore castle, probably the highest point in Assisi, looking like a picture postcard from the piazza of Santa Chiara (my best view of the castle, since we got no higher than the cathedral, and you can’t see the castle from the cathedral). But I don’t think anyone would think of the castle as crowning this city. The crown is at the bottom. If you’re going to climb Assisi from bottom to top, start at the crypt of St. Francis. Or else do the opposite: Take a taxi to the cathedral (or the castle, if you like) and work your way down to the crypt.
Anyway, on Monday morning my daughter Sarah and I start at the crypt with the rest of our fellow pilgrims. Our day begins with Mass at the crypt celebrated by Archbishop Myers. Descending the stairs into that rough, rude crypt—I have nothing to compare it to. Not the crypt under St. Peter’s, with all those interred popes in precious marble. (Francis’s crypt was similarly finished with marble until being redesigned in the early 20th century. The redesign was a good call.) Not the catacombs of San Callixtus, an archaeological site of immense spiritual significance lacking the overwhelming personality of Francis. Perhaps someday if I manage to land a scavi tour of the excavation under St. Peter’s Basilica that unearthed the bones of the Galilean fisherman who received the keys of the kingdom of Heaven from Jesus of Nazareth, I may feel something akin to, or greater than, what I felt at the crypt of Francis.
Francis’s stone coffin is suspended amid stone supports in an altarpiece flanking a rough stone altar. In a circle around the altar, at 90 degree intervals (where the pillars of a canopy might be), are the tombs of Rufino, Angelo, Masseo and Leone. Of necessity, the archbishop celebrates ad orientem, facing the high altar (since there is no “low altar” permitting celebration adversus populum, facing the people). Certainly I would rather see the archbishop celebrating with his back turned to me than turned to Francis. Symbolically, the same consideration applies generally with respect to God: When the priest celebrates ad orientem, he stands with the people in addressing God. Of course it’s still true if he celebrates facing the people, but something of the symbolism is lost with the common adversus populum celebration.
The crypt is just about the right size for our group. During the Mass, we’re joined by a local, an older woman who sits next to Sarah and me. She stands and sits and crosses herself at the right times, but doesn’t speak even to say Amen. After the Our Father, Sarah and I exchange, for perhaps the first time in a Latin rite church, a literal kiss of peace with a non-family member, and certainly with a stranger.
To experience Mass here, to receive communion, is an incomparable gift. Indeed, as soon as Mass is over, there is another group waiting their turn for Mass in the crypt. Whether or not all the churches we’ve seen so far are living churches, there is certainly life here. Before leaving, Sarah and I stop at each of the tombs and pray a Franciscan prayer: Inside an iron grille around Francis’s tomb, we see dozens of photographs, loved ones entrusted by pilgrims to the intercession of the poor man of Assisi.
Ascending from the crypt, we begin our tour of the lower basilica, then climb the stairs to the upper basilica. It’s easily my favorite church of any we’ve seen so far, especially the lower level, with its mad Romanesque vaults and frescoes on absolutely every surface except the floor. I tend to prefer frescoes and icons to statuary—not in a dogmatic way, like the Orthodox, but I understand their point of view. The upper basilica is more Gothic in style, and the frescoes aren’t as well preserved due to the humidity.
From the basilica of Francis we begin climbing up Assisi. We briefly visit Francis’s ancestral home, now a church, naturally (four centuries old and they still call it Chiesa Nuova, “the new church”). We pass one of Assisi’s oldest landmarks, an ancient Roman temple of Minerva converted into a church. The colonnade outside is original—possibly the first artifact Sarah has seen that was set in place over 2000 years ago. As historically notable as it is, it’s not officially on the tour (I guess because it’s not Franciscan), but our local guide allows a brief survey of its rococo Baroque interior.
Finally we come to Santa Chiara. Its plain exterior bespeaks Franciscan humility; inside, alas, the frescoes have nearly all been whited over, a pragmatic iconoclasm dating to an outbreak of plague when the church was converted into a hospital. What I remember most is the chapel with the actual San Damiano cross that spoke to Francis, where Sarah and I kneel and pray Francis’s prayer before a crucifix. Afterward I notice that that prayer is written on the kneelers in various languages, though I don’t notice English (I’m sure it’s there). In the Eucharistic chapel we pray the Divine Praises. Then we descend into the crypt, where we pray at the tomb of Clare and observe some of her second-degree relics, objects she used or in some cases made.
The walking tour ends there as we break for lunch, but Sarah and I continue up the hill to San Rufino Cathedral, which would seem to warrant inclusion in our Franciscan pilgrimage. Francis and Clare were both baptized here, and Francis preached here—and was heard here by Clare.
As we arrive, we see a casket being carried into the church, and for a moment it looks like our ad hoc pilgrimage is about to be preempted again. But the funeral appears to be in a side chapel, and no one checks our entrance into the church. A few minutes later, though, the doors are barred, despite other sightseers milling about. Presumably we’ll find another way out.
The interior of the cathedral has been completely redone since Francis’s day in a late Renaissance style, with lots of statuary adorning nine paintings on either side of the nave. This combination of paintings framed by statuary strikes me as an ideal blend of both forms. Still, I don’t feel the same connection to the cathedral that I did with Assisi’s Santa Maria, let alone the double basilica. In the rear of the cathedral, sections of flooring have been replaced by Plexiglas or something, revealing ancient Roman foundations underneath. We find the Eucharistic chapel and say a prayer.
Passing into a side corridor, we find an interesting series of paintings up and down both walls—all portraits of John Paul II. Titles give themes to each portrait: Serenity, Joy, Contemplation and so on. But there’s another organizational principle to the series: The portraits are chronological, depicting the late pope aging from the vigorous, granite-jawed pontiff of the 1970s and early 80s to the hunched, frail figure of the late 1990s and 2000s. I’m not sure, but there may have been one painting for each year of the Holy Father’s reign. We also find the way out.
Our Assisi pilgrimage isn’t quite over: A short bus ride takes us to the Church of San Damiano, the church where St. Francis had his vision of Christ speaking from the cross, and which the saint began to literally rebuild until he reinterpreted the saying in a spiritual way. The church became the first monastery of the Poor Clares, and Clare died there (the spot is marked). Both the cross and Clare’s body are at Santa Chiara, but if you want to see where the cross spoke and where Clare died you have to go across town. Maybe moving the cross and the body made sense when San Damiano was less accessible to the public. Or maybe it’s just nice to spread stuff around so more people can see more stuff. Kind of like having St. Catherine’s body in one place and her head and finger somewhere else, but less gross.
And so on to Rome. The bus ride is over three hours, and it’s late afternoon when we arrive. Everyone is excited to see how close we are to St. Peter’s Square—not quite a stone’s throw, but a good Frisbee throw, if you have a good Frisbee and a good arm. Supper isn’t for an hour, and I can’t resist taking Sarah for a quick early peek at St. Peter’s.
Although I’ve been inside St. Peter’s a number of times on my previous visit, the experience loses nothing with familiarity. Someone asked me recently if I had a preference among all the churches we’ve seen (and he suggested another church he liked better than St. Peter’s). I don’t know how to consider other churches alongside St. Peter’s. For me, it stands apart, beyond likes or dislikes and matters of personal taste. The style is late Renaissance, like San Rufino in Assisi, but the sheer grandeur is so overwhelming that I feel it’s me being weighed, not the church.
Don’t get me wrong: I get the principle that grandiosity can be overdone and become alienating. Rome’s controversial Vittoriano monument, a neoclassical blitzkrieg in white marble, is widely regarded as a monstrosity, and understandably so.
But the Vittoriano’s pomposity is largely by way of contrast with its surroundings. Right in the midst of ancient ruins of enormous historical and cultural significance, this pedantic newcomer vaunts itself over the surrounding landscape with its ostentatious hymn of praise to the Italian reunification. Its glaring white marble is out of place amid the dull-colored buildings and ruins. It blocks the view of more important landmarks. No wonder locals call it derisive nicknames like “the wedding cake” and “the false teeth” (though I’m still baffled by “the typewriter”; the first time I heard that one, I thought it was a reference to the also-controversial Palace of Justice, with its keyboard-like façade).
St. Peter’s is the furthest thing from that. It does dominate the Roman skyline—by law no building in Rome is higher than the dome of St. Peter’s—but far from obstructing the view, its location on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the seven hills of Rome, offers one of the best vantage points for viewing the region. As an architectural celebration of Christianity, the Petrine office and St. Peter himself, erected over the very site of Peter’s burial, its grandeur couldn’t possibly outstrip its significance. Designed by Renaissance masters, above all Michelangelo (the principal architect of the church) and Bernini (who created the square), it has a harmony and humanity even on its grandiose scale.
This may sound like a critique after all, but it’s really just a rebuttal of a critique; in the church I experience nothing but awe. I think Sarah feels the same way. We walk around, saying little. Eventually I comment on the preparations for the next day’s Pallium Mass, which include rows of chairs and curtained-off sections throughout the nave: “This stuff isn’t usually here,” I note. “It’s usually more open than this.” Sarah replies, aptly enough, that it’s still pretty open—the church is too big to feel cluttered by some chairs and curtains.
Of course our first stop is Michelangelo’s Pieta, in the first chapel on the right. “There it is,” Sarah says simply. What else is there to say? We kneel and say three Hail Marys.
While there’s so much to see it seems you could never see it all, with the front section of the church blocked off I’m unable to show Sarah the two other figures (along with the Pieta) that most stand out in my mind in connection with St. Peter’s. One is Bernini’s statue of the Roman centurion Longinus the moment after piercing Christ’s side, the exact moment of his exclamation, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” It’s rare for a statue to capture that sense of revelation, of spiritual wonder, but Bernini does it.
The other is the modest bronze statue of St. Peter enthroned, its left foot partially worn away by centuries of pilgrim lips and fingers. Amid so much Renaissance grandeur and superhuman figures in marble perfection, including perhaps Michelangelo’s best known work, this unassuming figure—not centrally located or facing the nave, but merely alongside one of the pillars supporting the dome—is the one work that best honors the prince of the Apostles, the bearer of the keys and the shepherd of Christ’s sheep.
Then it’s time for dinner and bed. Next morning is an early day: The queue for the papal Mass will be a long one.