The pilgrim’s progress
The pilgrim’s progress. Reinterpreting the trecento fresco programme in the lower church at assisi
After praying at the small altar placed before the tomb, the devotee can move freely around its encircling ambulatory, pausing perhaps at the shrines of four of Francis’s early companions, planets orbiting the Saint’s star. When the crypt was opened in the 1820s, it offered the faithful the kind of access to Francis’s remains that, as Donal Cooper argues elsewhere in this volume, had never been possible in the medieval period.
An earlier project to improve lay access to the body of Saint Francis had been set in motion towards the very end of the thirteenth century, when the Lower Church had been substantially restructured. The initial burial arrangements beneath the high altar in the Duecento had set up a conflict between the liturgical needs of the friars in the choir, which was separated from the nave by a solid tramezzo screen, and the demands of the devotees of the Saint’s cult. The new arrangements opened up access into the transepts by demolishing the tramezzo screen, while the space available in the Lower Church was substantially expanded through the addition of side chapels (Fig. 1). Francis’s body remained in situ beneath the high altar, which was now protected and reserved to the friars through the installation at the top of the altar steps of ironwork cancelli, separated by marble columns and topped with a cosmati-work architrave.
The need to improve access to the tomb has been identified as a key motive behind the Franciscans’ decision to restructure the Lower Church. Despite this, very little attention has been paid to the manner in which pilgrims experienced the shrine, and virtually none to the way in which the frescoes may have contributed to that experience.
If we accept that the Trecento decoration of the sanctuary of the Lower Church was devised as a coherent programme, what evidence is there that this programme was intended for an audience of pilgrims? Since the area around the tomb was deliberately opened up and then immediately redecorated, common sense suggests that it would have been highly unlikely that the devisors of the programme would not have considered pilgrims as important viewers of the new frescoes. But the situation is complicated by the fact that the sanctuary continued to serve a dual function and to be used by the friars for liturgical purposes.
Arnald of Sarrant, after telling John of Cappella’s sorry tale, warned his brothers: “Whoever sees this happen to such a chosen companion should watch out if he is standing, lest he fall more severely.” Hence the Suicide of Judas in the Lorenzetti Passion Cycle would have been a perpetual reminder to the friars of the dangers of falling from grace.
What we can glean from the accounts of Pero Tafur and Margery Kempe is that both had close contact with the friars.
In the rest of this article, I will argue that there is a consistent message running through the images of the entire area around the tomb. The artists employ two visual tools to express some overarching themes that are able to transcend the individual meanings communicated through the iconography of the separate narrative cycles. First, specific gestures are used repeatedly to help pilgrims interpret the images (perhaps with the assistance of a guide) without needing detailed knowledge of learned religious texts.
Lobrichon notes that the entire Christological scheme begins with the two halves of the Annunciation on the upper register of the end wall of the north transept and concludes with the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection, which face them on the wall opposite.
Further, she suggests that it may have been the Franciscans rather than the patrons who selected many of the dedications for the new altars. The St. Anthony of Padua Chapel did not acquire a patron until the middle of the fourteenth century, when the arms of the Lelli family were placed on the wall, and its altar may have replaced one that had previously stood in front of the Cimabue Madonna and Child Enthroned in the north transept.
The evidence for the Magdalen Chapel is particularly interesting. The patron of the chapel has been identified as Teobaldo Pontano, the Franciscan Bishop of Assisi from 1296 to his death in 1329.
The St. Louis of Toulouse Chapel was frescoed by Dono Doni in 1573 and the St. Anthony of Padua Chapel by Cesare Sermei and Girolamo Martelli in 1609. The failure to decorate all the new chapels—and to repaint the nave—was probably due to the straitened financial circumstances of the Basilica from the 1320s and a dearth of private patronage. Be that as it may, the eagerness of the friars to complete the decoration of the Magdalen Chapel, forwarding much of the money on the patron’s behalf, might suggest that they considered this chapel an essential component of the overall iconographic programme of the sanctuary. In addition to Hueck’s evidence about the choice of dedication, it may be significant that the frescoes were undertaken at the same time, and by the same group of artists, as the decoration of the north transept.
Penitence was a central theme of the Franciscan message to the laity in general, but it was also of particular relevance to pilgrims, having long been a traditional aspect of medieval pilgrimage. The standard wording of the papal indulgences granted to those visiting the Basilica specified that the devotee must be “vere poenitentibus et confessis”. When he invokes the aid of the Magdalen his wife awakens and tells him that in her dreams, with the Magdalen as her guide, she has been accompanying her husband throughout his entire pilgrimage. In the fresco, we see Pilgrim arriving in his little skiff and reaching out for his child (whose figure is now largely effaced), while his wife still lies motionless on his cloak.
The first scene, Christ in the House of Simon, depicts the Magdalen’s penitence. Professed successively in the Nicene Creed, these are perhaps the two most important “expectations of future bliss” in which all true Christians must place their hope.
In addition, if our pilgrims had just entered the transept from the Magdalen Chapel, they would have seen these images immediately after the Raising of Lazarus, a juxtaposition that would have underlined the theme of Francis alter Christus. Since these miracles appear beneath scenes from the Infancy of Christ, the choice of child miracles also seems natural. But even limiting the choice of scenes to posthumous resurrections of children, the Legenda maior, as well as Thomas of Celano’s earlier Tractatus de miraculis, offer a number of suitable choices.
Below the dedicatory fresco, images of the Penitent Magdalen and St. John the Baptist, both in a rocky desert terrain, are paired to either side of the entrance arch.
Turning their heads to their left, our pilgrims would find themselves confronting Lorenzetti’s monumental Crucifixion (Fig. 19), the largest single painting in the Lower Church.
Once more, the messages inherent in the scene are amplified through the interplay of images across the space of the transept. On the opposite wall from the Crucifixion, on the lowest tier, are the Death of Judas (Fig. 9) and the Stigmatisation of St. Francis (Fig. 20). Like the Good and Bad Thieves, Francis and Judas are paired as meaningful opposites. The despairing Judas, having no hope in God’s mercy, falls to his destruction and eternal damnation. St. Francis, in contrast, ascends to his mystical union with Christ. The Saint’s glorious and incorrupt body is here contrasted with the images below it: to the left, the disembowelled corpse of the damned suicide Judas; to the right, the decomposing cadaver of defeated Death.
The programme of Trecento frescoes in the Lower Church would have enhanced the experience of the shrine for each of them, offering its messages of hope, solace and salvation in dramatic visual language, packing a strong emotional punch.