Meeting the Real Saint Francis and Saint Clare


Journeys to the Soul of Assisi


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by Michael J. Hartwig, Ph.D. – Illume Scholar-in-Residence

May, 2019


I still remember my first visit to Assisi as an undergraduate studying abroad in Italy.  It was an early spring day. The sky was clear, the grass on the hillsides was bright green, and yellow strands of forsythia stretched across the road as my classmates and I climbed toward the medieval walled city.  The city cast a striking pose of stone stretched between the massive Franciscan monastery and basilica on one end, and the primitive gothic church of St. Clare on the other. As college students we were eager to explore and, once inside the walls, ambled up narrow streets and walkways to the castle (Rocca Maggiore) overlooking the entire town.  We bought cheese, oranges, bread and local wine and enjoyed a picnic on one of the castle walls overlooking the tiers of rooftops descending toward the church built over the tomb of St. Francis. That day began a love affair with the town of Assisi and the story of St. Francis and St. Clare. 

It amazes me how diverse a group of people are drawn to this Umbrian hill town.  Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and those who are not part of organized religion connect deeply with the story of St. Francis and St. Clare.  They are inspired by their simple but richly lived humanity, their compassion for others, their respect for the interconnectedness of life, their desire to make the world a better place, and their personal authenticity. 

Assisi continues to evoke the visionary lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, inspiring pilgrims to live more thoughtful and compassionate lives.  A journey here is transformative. No one leaves untouched by the town’s grace and mystery. Below are some observations and touchstones for connecting with St. Francis, St. Clare and the events and places of their lives.

The Town
Assisi is one of the most beautiful well-preserved medieval hill towns in Europe.  Over the centuries, citizens have sought to preserve the time and spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare by enforcing strict codes for building.  Most of the buildings use soft pink stone from nearby quarries. Like many medieval towns, Assisi is enclosed by walls, is set on a steep hill, and includes a protective castle overlooking narrow streets.  The hillside, walls, castle and narrow streets were essential to security. Assisi was an emerging mercantile city during St. Francis’s time and often found itself at war with nearby cities – such as Perugia seen off in the distance on a clear day.

St. Francis’s father benefitted from the growing trade of cloth, so the stately buildings in and around the bishop’s residence (and under Chiesa Nuova) reflect the way of life St. Francis enjoyed as a young man and the one he abandoned to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. 

The town of Assisi is a healing and calming place.   Nestled in the Umbrian mountains and hillsides, there are beautiful vistas of sweeping valley floors from almost every vantage point.  At certain times of the year mist rises up from the valley in the early hours of the day. There are virtually no cars in the walled upper city and, before tourists arrive later in the morning or after they leave in the afternoon, you can stroll quietly, contemplatively. 

Buildings are constructed of stone and wood beams.  It is a stark contrast to the steel, cement, and plastic cities most of us live in.  One feels instantly connected to the earth, walking on stones that are hundreds of years old.  Venturing to the edges of the town – just outside the city gates – farm houses and stone walls surround historic groves of olives with gnarly trunks plunged deep in the rich soil, shaking gently in the breezes that blow up the hillsides. 

Beyond the main monuments marking the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, one can connect with their lives and time by exploring the narrow streets and walkways that ramble up and down the hillside.  Although it is not well-preserved, the Rocca Maggiore (castle) provides great vantage points of the town below and the mountains that stretch east. 

There are countless souvenir shops that line the main road into the main square of town and around Porta San Pietro and the road that leads up to the Basilica of San Francesco.   Scattered along these main boulevards but, more importantly, off the main beaten path, one finds local artisans who specialize in local Umbrian ceramics, terracotta sculptures, and paintings.  These shops evoke another time and place with arched ceilings, ancient beams, stone floors, and workshops filled with art-in-the-making. 

Convento di San Damiano
The Convento di San Damiano is a small chapel lying in the countryside below the city walls of Assisi.  In St. Francis’ time, a number of these small private chapels had fallen into disrepair. After St. Francis decided to abandon his privileged life for the sake of living out of the Gospel, he wandered into the chapel.  An old Byzantine-style crucifix hung over the altar. In the darkness of the stone structure, St. Francis heard a voice inviting him to rebuild his church. Francis looked about him and assumed Jesus wanted him to rebuild this chapel.  Over the course of several months, he gathered supplies and, with the help of a few new companions, repaired the structure. Undoubtedly, over the course of St. Francis’ life, he realized that his initial encounter with Jesus had much more significance.  His life was devoted to strengthening and healing the larger Church, crumbling under the weight of corruption and worldly alliances that diluted the Gospel.

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Image of Convento di San Damiano

The Convento di San Damiano still evokes the time and spirit of St. Francis.  It is perhaps one of the most charming and enchanting sites for engaging the authentic Francis. The structure remains simple and the main chapel is as it was after St. Francis’ work.  It is set in a grove of olive trees as it was in Francis’s time. It is not a busy place, so it is still possible to experience the solitude St. Francis did when he wandered into the place almost 800 years ago.  A replica of the cross (which is now hung in the basilica of Santa Chiara) hangs in the main chapel. At one point, Saint Clare and her sisters took up residence here, expanded the complex, and made it their convent.

For agile pilgrims, a walk to and from San Damiano helps connect one with the land.  It is about a mile from the chapel to the town square. The walk down is easier than the return.  Both provide a wonderful space for reflection and prayer. For more info:

Eremo dei Carceri
Outside the town walls, at a distance of about 2.5 miles, lies an ancient hermitage where St. Francis and others used to pray.  It is believed that the Benedictines gave the site to St. Francis along with the Porziuncola in the valley below. The hermitage is nestled in a mountainous hillside with natural rock formations that provided protection from the elements.  Over the centuries, additional structures were added, first with a small chapel and friary by St. Bernadino of Siena in around 1400. It is now a sizeable structure where some Franciscans live. 

The site is quiet and invites visitors to enter a state of solitude – whether in the stone structures clinging to the mountain or walking paths that lead up to remote areas of Mt. Subasio.  It is easy to imagine St. Francis and others coming here for prayer and reflection. 

For agile pilgrims, a walk from town is possible.  For others, tour buses or taxis can take you to a parking lot that is roughly a 10-15 minute walk from the hermitage.  For pictures of the site (and text in Italian):

Another favorite site for connecting with St. Francis and his early companions is the Porziuncola.  According to legend, a chapel was originally erected here in the 4th century by some hermits who had come from the Holy Land.  It was later passed to the Benedictines and gained the name, Porziuncola, referring to the small parcel of land it was on.  St. Francis built a hut near the chapel and, shortly after the Franciscan order was founded, the chapel and parcel of land was given to him by the Benedictines.  A complex of buildings was erected adjacent to and near the chapel where St. Francis and his early companions met. It was in the chapel that St. Francis received Clare and established the Order of the Poor Clares.   St. Francis was brought to the complex as he approached his death, and died here.

After St. Francis’ death, pilgrims came to the Porziuncola to honor his life and work.  The small chapel was unable to accommodate the numbers and, in the 16th century, the Pope had the monastic complex dismantled and erected a large basilica over the small chapel. 

For some, the basilica distracts from the simplicity and mystery of the ancient chapel.  For others, the stark contrast between the basilica and the simple stone chapel underscore the life of St. Francis and the special gifts and way of life he advocated.  The chapel includes rich decorations on the façade and part of the interior, but the outer walls remain simple. 

Santa Maria degli Angeli, the basilica built over the chapel, is set within the modern town of Assisi.  It is difficult to imagine the wooded setting during St. Francis’ time. However, a short walk brings one back to the land.  From the Porziuncola, it is a 2.5 mile walk to the medieval walled town of Assisi. Farm land begins just a few blocks away from the basilica.  Again, for agile and athletic pilgrims, one can walk to Assisi. There are some routes that are less traveled by cars and more conducive to reflective walking meditation.

Baslica of San Francesco
Shortly after St. Francis was canonized (in 1228 – only two years after his death), land was donated to build a church and burial site for him.  The Basilica of San Francesco includes an upper church, a lower church, and a crypt where St. Francis is buried. The adjacent Sacro Convento is the headquarters of the order St. Francis founded, the Order of Friars Minor. 

The structure represents a transition from Romanesque to Gothic style and reflects the spirit of St. Francis’ time.  Simple and majestic at the same time, the structure includes frescoes from some of the most important artists of medieval Italy including Cimabue and Giotto. 

The upper church was constructed in early Italian Gothic style.  It is an airy and lofty space that is both inspiring and simple at the same time.  The vaulted ceiling is deep blue. The upper panels of the main nave include scenes from the scriptures.  The lower panels, attributed to Giotto, include scenes from the life of St. Francis based on the biography by St. Bonaventure.  This is a great place to review events in the life of St. Francis. There are important paintings in the side naves, particularly by Cimabue.  These are faded due to the pigments he used. 

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View of the Upper Basilica of San Francesco From the Castle


The lower basilica is, for the most part, constructed in Romanesque style.  The ceiling is lower, befitting its role as the crypt of the basilica. There are small chapels carved out of the walls along the main nave.  The altar is centered by an apse and two transepts. One is immediately struck by the richly decorated ribs, exploding in color and geometric patterns.  The space could be dark and foreboding but the crisscrossing patters of color create the sensation of energy, life and even nature itself. There are various cycles and stories depicted throughout the space.  In the area around the altar there are paintings of the life of Jesus in parallel with the life of St. Francis underscoring their comparison. On the transept wall Cimabue did a painting of Mary enthroned with St. Francis nearby.  This is considered one of the more accurate images of St. Francis.

The lowest level, the crypt, is a stone space carved out around the tomb of St. Francis.  His tomb is a simple stone sarcophagus partially exposed. 

The basilica is attached to the Sacred Convent of the Friars Minor.  This is a massive complex that is, for the most part, off limits to pilgrims.  There is a nice bookstore and gift shop that can be reached from the basilica. It overlooks a stone courtyard.

Although the basilica was built after the death of St. Francis, it represents the architecture of his time and every effort was made to evoke his spirit, life and work.  It is a great place to spend time in reflection. For more information visit:

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Image of the Lower Basilica of San Francesco

Basilica of Saint Clare

 On the opposite side of town, a simple Gothic structure was built to house the remains of St. Clare.  The church was begun a few years after her death. The interior is very simple. It used to include frescoed walls but these have faded and vanished over the years.  In the 1800’s, excavations were done to find her tomb. When officials opened it, they found that although her clothes and skin had decomposed, her skeleton and basic form remained intact.  This was considered a sign of her saintliness. In the crypt today, one can view her body. There are also artifacts of hers and St. Francis’ life – including some of their tunics and personal items.  In the upper church, the Oratory of the Cross includes the Byzantine-style crucifix that spoke to St. Francis in San Damiano. 

Chiesa Nuova
A church was built in the 1600s over the home of St. Francis.  It is typical of 17th century religious architecture – not that evocative of St. Francis’ time – but the visit to rooms associated with his childhood home create another link to his life and the decisions he made to embark on a unique journey.

Further Afield
St. Francis traveled extensively during his life.  Notable amongst destinations include Gubbio, Lake Trasimeno, Greccio, La Verna, Rome and the Holy Land. 

Gubbio is a charming medieval town where, according to legend, St. Francis tamed a wolf that had been terrorizing the town.  It is a nice day excursion from Assisi. 

Greccio is the site of the first manger scene.  St. Francis, having traveled to Bethlehem, wanted to recreate the simplicity of Jesus’ birth for those who couldn’t travel there.  At a site where he would gather for prayer from time to time, he led a procession to a cave and recreated the scene of Jesus’ birth. A Sanctuary built up around the site and is today a focus of pilgrimage. 

Lake Trasimeno is a large fresh water lake/sea in central Italy.  St. Francis spent 40 days during Lent on the Isola Maggiore as a hermit.  A church was built there later, followed by a monastic complex.

La Verna was a mountainous retreat site given to St. Francis by the Count of Chiusi.  St. Francis built a small chapel here and would withdraw periodically for prayer. In 1224, St. Francis withdrew to pray and fast for 40 days. It was a period of tension within the Order he had founded.  He received the stigmata there. Afterwards, the site grew in importance with additions to the original chapel taking place. In the 14th century, the basilica was erected.    This is a popular day excursion from Assisi. 

The Holy Land is, of course, an important pilgrimage destination.  St. Francis attempted several journeys there and ultimately, during one of the Crusades, was in Egypt where he met Sultan Al-Kamil in 1219.  Supposedly the Sultan was impressed with Francis who then traveled to Acre and visited sites in the Holy Land. To this day, the Franciscans have custody over many of the Christian sites in the Holy Land.

In 1209, Francis went to Rome with several of his companions to seek formal approval from the Pope for the Order.  Pope Innocent III wasn’t immediately ready to confirm the Order but had a dream of St. Francis holding up the façade of St. John Lateran.  Afterwards, the Pope granted approval of the Order. Some pilgrims visit the Basilica of St. John Lateran – officially the cathedral of Rome – to commemorate the dream and Pope’s approval of the Order. 

There are many places to encounter St. Francis and St. Clare – places that continue to evoke their time and spirit.  Although many of the monuments in Assisi are important markers of events, it is important to step outside the formal structures and connect with the land.  St. Francis walked and spent time in retreat in places like Eremo dei Carceri, La Verna, and Isola Maggiore. These places invite a quiet contemplative moment in our busy lives.  They help strip away the unnecessary noise and busyness of our lives and bring us back to what really matters.  Assisi Street With View.jpg

In our age of tourism, it is easy to try to pack in a lot of sites.  We want to see everything and get our money’s worth. But, to connect with St. Francis, less is more.  Spending extended quiet time in the Convento di San Damiano or walking from there to the Basilica of Santa Chiara are invaluable ways to connect with the land and connect with these visionary people. 

Many plaques on houses in Assisi say -  Pax Vobiscum – Peace Be With You. The town is a great place to experience peace, to connect with your deeper self, and to embrace the journey of our common humanity. 


Illume specializes in unique and thoughtful itineraries to places of great historical and religious significance.  Contact us to begin the process of organizing a sojourn in the lands of St. Francis and St. Clare: 800-368-6757 ex 131 or


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