12. Franciscan Sanctuaries (4)|
Carceri, Basilica of St. Francis,
La Verna, Greccio, Fontecolombo
12.19 From Porta Cappuccini the road winds up Monte Subasio. It was on this
lonely mountain that Francis had one of his most dear hermitages, known as Le
Carceri (800 metres).
|A suggestive view of "Le Carceri"
Monte Subasio was always popular with the hermits, and
the chapel of "Sancta Maria carcerum" was one of the most famous centres of
eremitical life. The actual friary underwent various alterations during the
centures. From the primitive nucleus of the chapel of the Virgin and the small
cave of St. Francis, the buildings included the present-day friary, first built
by the Fraticelli who lived here until 1340 and then enlarged by the Observant
reform friars, and especially by St. Bernardine of Siena in 1426.
expresses well what 2 Cel 95 says about Francis: "All his attention and
affection he directed with his whole being to the one thing which he was asking
of the Lord, not so much praying as becoming himself a prayer".
Basilica of St. Francis
12.20 Pope Gregory IX canonised St. Francis in Assisi on 16 July 1228, and
published the Bull "Mira circa nos" (19 July 1228). The following day he laid
the foundation stone of the basilica ("specialis ecclesia") which he wanted to
be built in honour of the Poverello, and which he announced by the Bull
"Recolentes" of 29 April 1228. This church was to be subject directly to the
Pope himself. Gregory IX declared it "caput et mater" (head and mother) of the
Order of Minors in 1230. In 1228 Brother Elias received from Simone
Pucciarelli on 30 March, in the name of Pope Gregory IX, a plot of land on the
"Colle del Paradiso", on the western side of the town of Assisi. There he
masterminded the building of two superimposed churches, a lower basilica or
burial crypt and an upper basilica or monastic church.
|The lower church at Assisi - site of the tomb of St. Francis
The remains of St.
Francis were solemnly transported to the new church on 25 May 1230. Pope
Innocent IV consecrated the basilica on 25 May 1253. Pope Benedict XIV
declared the church a Patriarchal Basilica and Papal Chapel on 25 March 1754
with the Constitution "Fidelis Dominus". Pius VII, on 12 September 1818, gave
permission to the Minister General of the Friars Minor Conventuals to proceed
with the excavations underneath the main altar of the lower basilica in order
to find the tomb of St. Francis, which had been conceiled by Brother Elias and
then by Pope Eugene IV in 1476.
The tomb came to light on 8 December 1818, and
on 12 December the remains of St. Francis were exhumed. In order to facilitate
the visits of the growing number of pilgrims to the tomb, a new neo-romanic
crypt was opened underneath the lower basilica. On 18 June 1939 Pope Pius XII
declared St. Francis patron saint of Italy. A votive lamp with oil donated by
the various regions of the Italian peninsula burns on the tomb. On 18 January
1978 Pope Paul VI authorised the Minister General of the Friars Minor
Conventuals to proceed with the reopening of the tomb and scientific study of
the remains of St. Francis. This took place between 24 January and 4 March
|The tomb of St. Francis as seen in 1978
On 5 November 1978 Pope John Paul II came to Assisi as a pilgrim and
visited the tomb. He returned on 12 March 1982 with the Italian episcopal
conference, and again on 27 October 1986 for the international day of prayer
for peace. The lower and upper basilica are a splendid monument of art, with
fresoces by Lorenzetti, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Giotto. The friars are
available on request for guided tours of the basilica.
12.21 Il monte della Verna in the Casentino, Tuscany, was the property of Count
Orlando di Chiusi, who offered it to St. Francis on 8 May 1213, when he met the
saint in the castle of San Leo, in Montefeltro. Francis and the brothers went
up for an annual retreat on the mountain during the lent of St. Michael (15
August - 29 September). Count Orlando built a small chapel on the mountain,
dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels. It still forms the primitive nucleus of
the Franciscan hermitage of La Verna. On La Verna, Francis received the gift
of the stigmata on a morning close to 14 September 1224, when he had the vision
of the Crucified Seraph who imprinted his flesh with the wounds of the Passion.
On La Verna Francis composed the Praises of Almighty God and gave a special
blessing to Brother Leo. On La Verna, St. Bonaventure, Minister General of the
Order (1257-1274) had the inspiration to write the mystical treatise "The
Journey of the Soul into God".
12.22 The hermitage presents a complex of buildings. The chapel of St. Mary of
the Angels (1216-1218) has some precious terracotta basreliefs by Andrea della
Robbia (1435-1528). The same artist is also the author of other famous
basreliefs in the principal basilica which began to be built in 1348, notably
the terracotta of the Annunciation. Some precious relics of St. Francis are
venerated in this church. The corridor of the stigmata leads you to the chapel
of the stigmatisation of St. Francis on the exteme edge of the mountain face.
This chapel also has a beautiful terracotta by Della Robbia, this time a
Crucifixion. Other areas are associated with episodes of Francis' experiences
on La Verna, notably the cell of St. Francis, the Sasso Spicco, the oratories
of St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure, and the chapel of the Maddalena. The
present-day friary is much larger and was built between 1239 and 1300, together
with the refectory, built in 1518. Other small chapels dot the mountainside,
and especially a small chapel on the top of the mountain, known as La Penna
12.23 The hermitage of Greccio stands some 2 kilometres away from the village
of Greccio, which is a medieval castle, built above the Rieti valley. This
valley was very dear to Francis, who often passed from these surroundings on
his way from Rome to Assisi. In fact we find 4 Franciscan sanctuaries in the
Rieti valley, namely Greccio, Fontecolombo, Poggio Bustone and Santa Maria
The hermitage of Greccio is intimately linked with the celebration of Christmas
which Francis organised here in 1223. Thomas of Celano (1 Cel 84-87) gives us
a clear description of what took place.
12.24 The most important section of the sanctuary is the chapel of the crib,
which was built in the present form in 1228. A rock under the altar indicates
the place where Francis arranged the manger of the crib. The cave wall is
surrounded by a fresco from the school of Giotto. It shows Francis wearing the
dalmatic of a deacon and taking into his arms the infant Jesus. Another
interesting section of the sanctuary is the primitive Franciscan friary, with
the dormitory, the refectory and the cell of St. Francis.
12.25 Another section is made up of the friary dating from the times of St.
Bonaventure. A modern church built in 1959 can take larger groups for prayer
and community celebrations.
12.26 The hermitage of Fontecolombo lies some 5 kilometres from Rieti. It
marks the place where Francis wrote the Later Rule of 1223, confirmed by Pope
Honorius III on 29 November. The name Fontecolombo derives from the latin
"fons columbarum" (the fountain of doves). The place was originally the
property of the Benedictine abbey of Farfa.
12.27 The church of Fontecolombo was consecrated in 1450 by Cardinal
Nicolò di Cusa. It is dedicated to St. Francis and St. Bernardine of
Siena. The original nucleus of Fontecolombo includes the hermitage, in which
Francis underwent the painful operation when he had his temples cauterised in
1225. Further down there is the chapel of St. Mary Magdalen, which is the
original chapel in which Francis and brother Leo prayed. On the side of the
altar one can find the TAU painted on the wall. The Sacro Speco is a kind of
crevice in the rock, and it marks the place in which Francis retreated in
solitude and prayer in order to write the Later Rule. Other holy places
include the chapel of St. Michael and the grotto of Brother Leo.
Other Franciscan Sanctuaries
12.28 Many other places are associated with the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
We shall only mention some of them. The Rieti valley also boasts two other
sanctuaries, namely the church of San Fabiano, or Santa Maria della Foresta,
where Francis was taken when he went to Rieti for the cure of his eyes, and
where his prayers brought forth a mirculous abundance of grapes in the vineyard
of the poor priest, which was trampled upon by visitors. Poggio Bustone is a
small village high up on the valley. The church is dedicated to St. James, and
marks the occasion in which Francis went to this town with his well-known
salutation "buon giorno, buona gente". A small sanctuary further up marks the
place where the saint had the mystical experience of the total remission of his
12.29 An enchanting hermitage in Umbria is the Speco di San Urbano, or as it is
widely known, Speco di Narni.
12.30 In Tuscany, outside Cortona, one can visit the hermitage of Le Celle di
12.31 This has been our last contribution. The aim of this material is simply that of providing
the barest essentials for an initial knowledge of the Franciscan charism.
© copyright FIOR-Malta
Text by Fr. Noel Muscat ofm