The Tomb of st. Francis in history
The Tomb of st. Francis in history legend and art
Thus the Spanish pilgrim Pero Tafur summarised his visit to the tomb of St. Francis at Assisi in the spring of 1436. His unlikely rationale for a missing grave introduces us at once to the singular blend of memory, mystery and belief that has characterised the study of Francis’s shrine over the centuries.
Francis’s tomb has attracted interest from scholars within the Order, and debate is presently dominated by Fra The issue of access to the tomb in the medieval period has proved particularly fraught, with Gatti proposing that the hermetic arrangement unearthed in 1818 was in place as early as the mid thirteenth century. The correct answer to this basic question is given extra weight by the Order’s consistent assertion that the Assisi tomb contained Francis’s complete and undivided body. In 1279 the Podesta and Consiglio of Assisi, responding to false reports of relics from Austria, affirmed that Francis’s whole body was guarded by the friars “in the safest and most secure place” (“in loco tutissimo et firmissimo”). The Basilica held no other corporeal relics of the Saint, save for some of Francis’s hair and vials of blood collected from the Stigmata.
The first part of this essay reviews the evidence—literary, archaeological and representational—for the reconstruction of the medieval tomb, and offers a new synthesis of the available material.
In April Gregory’s bull Recolentes qualiter proclaimed the building of a great church and enjoined the faithful to offer alms to aid its completion.
On pain of excommunication he ordered the Podesta and Consiglio of Assisi to send representatives to Rome to explain their behaviour. Gregory’s tone was uncompromising: “Sciant quam graviter Nos, imo Dominum offenderunt”.
The Pope’s anger was evidently placated, for the Basilica kept its privileges and the Podesta and others escaped excommunication, but the translation remained a matter of controversy within the Franciscan Order. But another tradition questioned the orthodox account. This charge received its fullest treatment in the Chronica XXIV Generalium, compiled between 1365 and 1373: “Brother Elias. . . led by his concern for the remains, had the translation conducted secretly, desiring that none but a few would know where the holy body was buried in the church”.
Did Elias deliberately conceal Francis’s body within a hidden tomb? Even Eccleston’s account, the first to directly level the accusation, postdates the translation by several decades and bears the bitter taste of the general blackening of Elias’s name that characterised so much Franciscan polemic from the mid-thirteenth century on. It is perhaps instructive that another thirteenth- century source, Fra Salimbene da Parma, who missed no opportunity to censure the sometime Minister General, did not mention Elias in connection with the translation, which he entered in his chronicle without further comment.
Irrespective of these specific accusations, the theme of the secret tomb became firmly embedded within the Order’s collective memory. In his mammoth De Conformitate vitae Beati Francisci ad vitam Domini Iesu (1385-90), Bartolomeo da Pisa inevitably linked Francis’s tomb with Christ’s: “As Christ’s tomb was sealed and watched by guards, so St. Francis’s tomb has been sealed, to prevent his body ever being visible to anyone”.
On 28 November, 1442 Perugian forces led by the condottiere Nicolo Piccinino stormed Assisi, and within days the Priors of Perugia had petitioned Pope Eugenius IV to authorise the removal of Francis’s body from the Basilica. Eugenius’s reply, enunciated in the letter Accepimus licteras of 21 December, 1442, strongly rejected the Perugian claims, noting that the removal of Francis’s relics would spell the desolation and ruin of the Basilica.
The ‘F’ initial cannot be treated as a straightforward record of any early tomb arrangement in the Lower Church. The Assisi illumination clearly draws on a generic iconography of supplication ad sanctum. An instructive contrast may be drawn with the mid thirteenth-century panel in the Basilica’s Treasury, which groups four of Francis’s post mortem miracles around a standing figure of the Saint. A passageway giving access from the west would have evoked Early Christian confessio arrangements, notably the annular crypt below the apse of Old St. Peter’s. But Fea’s excavations found no trace of any conduit linking the burial loculus to either the Lower Church or the Sacro Convento.
It is inherently unlikely that his comments on Assisi are later insertions, for the Travels and Adventures have survived through a single copy in Salamanca, itself probably made from the author’s original manu- script.
Certificate of pilgrimage to one Pietro di Giovanni, who thereby fulfilled by proxy the vow of the elderly Francesco d’Enrico. The stipulations for the completion of Pietro’s pilgrimage are revealing. His actions confirm that, for both pilgrims and friars, the high altar of the Lower Church stood for Francis’s shrine. Pietro di Giovanni touched the altar mensa as he might the Saint’s tomb. Legally and spiritually, he had fulfilled his obligation.
Similar tensions are explicitly recorded in relation to the pre-1233 burial of St. Dominic in the floor of the cappella maggiore of S. Nicolo nelle Vigne in Bologna, close to that church’s high altar. A number of early Dominican sources express disquiet at the devotions and offerings of the faithful, the clear implication being that pilgrimage to the tomb was disrupting the liturgical life of the church.
Fragments of the Lower Church pergola are today scattered throughout the Sacro Convento, and the recomposition of its original structure is greatly complicated by the controversial renovation campaign led by Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in 1870-71. On the basis of the cosmati decoration and carved elements, Pietro Scarpellini has dated the surviving fragments in the Chiostro dei Morti to the end of the thirteenth century. The case for the transformation of the entire transept area into a circulatory space around the tomb is supported by some related alterations to the layout of the Lower Church, also effected around the turn of the thirteenth century.
In his 1288 bull Reducentes ad sedulae, the Franciscan Pope Nicholas IV had linked the reconstruction. In terms of sacred space, the new arrangement established the high altar and—by association—the Saint’s tomb as the visual focus for the entire Lower Church in a manner that had not been foreseen by the original thirteenth-century architecture.
Pilgrimage and Thaumaturgy at Assisi
In 1288 Nicholas had linked the reconstruction of the Basilica to the needs of pilgrims, but the reorganisation of the transept in the Lower Church was arguably more than an exercise in crowd control.
This litany of thaumaturgical achievement met an expected criterion for a saint of Francis’s stature. Celano, however, was writing prior to the 1230 translation and these miracles all occurred at the humble wooden shrine in S. Giorgio.
The character of Celano’s later Tractatus de Miraculis Beati Francisci (1250-52) is very different, with few post mortem miracles described before the Saint’s tomb. The imbalance is even more pronounced in the collection of miracles appended to Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior, while the fresco cycle of Francis’s life painted in the Upper Church during the 1290s omits any direct reference to the Saint’s shrine in the Lower Church below.
The unresponsive nature of the Lower Church arrangement during the thirteenth century is implied by a curious tradition associated with the nearby tomb of Brother William of England. William (|ca. 1232) was one of Francis’s first companions, and was buried with several of his early confreres in the right transept of the Lower Church, close to the high altar. In 1313, when Angelo Clareno sought a Franciscan analogy for the mass fervour enveloping Peter John Olivi’s tomb in Narbonne, he cited the crowds that gathered “in festo Sancte Marie de Portiuncola” rather than those venerating Francis’s tomb in the Basilica. At a time when the Basilica’s claim to Francis’s powers of intercession needed to be reasserted in the face of the popular appeal of the Perdono indulgence at the Porziuncola.
In developing the Lower Church, the friars were largely constrained by the architectural choices made during the building of the double basilica. Francis’s body therefore remained physically and visually separated from the flow of pilgrims in the Lower Church throughout the medieval period. This distance, coupled with the insistence that the tomb contained the Saint’s whole and undivided body, resulted in a cult shorn of major relics.
Contemporary responses to Francis’s shrine can be better gauged through a comparison with other Italian shrines in the thirteenth century. It is likely that Francis’s 1230 burial below the high altar at Assisi was intended to evoke Early Christian martyr burials, befitting the Saint’s status as the founder of a new apostolate. In this respect, however, Francis’s tomb ran counter to the dominant trends in thirteenth-century shrine provision. While Francis’s own vita inspired the new biographies of these holy men and women, his tomb offered no such template for their cults.
Even before 1442, the tomb’s inaccessibility would surprise Pero Tafur, while Bartolomeo da Pisa was drawn to rationalise the sealed burial through its conformity to the tomb of Christ.