San Francesco, Assisi - Lower Church

North (Right) Transept

   The frescoes here are attributed to some of the greatest names in Italian Gothic Art:  Cimabue, Lorenzetti, and Giotto, though the latter attribution is hedged around with the usual 'workshop of', or  'Giottesque Masters' or even 'relatives of Giotto'! The scenes in the vault show the events of the childhood of Christ, and this is regarded as puzzling by some. The right hand side of a church  is seen as the most important, the most sacred, and yet here the most important scenes - the Passion of Christ - are found in the left transept. 
  Two thoughts occur. As already mentioned, the east/west orientation of the church is also not what is expected.  The other thought is that getting right/left correct suggests a preordained plan, while the work here seems far more piecemeal. 

General view of the right transept, with the chapel of San Nicola beyond. The vault is shown below.


Entrance to the Capella Santa Maria Maddelena and the passage through the chapels on the north side.

Possibly the best-know fresco in the entire church is the Maestą, the Madonna and Child in Majesty, pretty solidly attributed to Cimabue. It raises one or two interesting issues. 
  It is sometimes described as 'Christ blessing St. Francis' and there is St Francis on the right. (Christ's left.) The problem is, the blessing seems to be made towards the other side of the picture. Looking at the picture as a whole, it does seem unbalanced and the suggestion is that the fresco has been cut down when the door into the Magdalen chapel was cut through, and there was originally another saint on the left of the picture. But who would it have been? In this context, apart from biblical saints no-one would have outranked St. Francis. My choice, without any evidence at all, would be Saint Martin. 
  There is good evidence that the Cimabue was part of an earlier sequence of frescoes. Ludovico de Pietralunga (Description of the Basilica Di San Francesco d'Assisi and Of Other shrines of Assisi, 1580.) helpfully tells us that  'they say it was not destroyed like the others'. The border certainly seems to have been added later, and the overlapping halo supports that, as does the missing border below the picture - a border here would have removed Francis's stigmatic feet.
  The image of Francis looks as if he has three hands, but this is a misreading of which I was guilty at first. What looks like a hand is the torn habit showing the stigmatic wound in Francis's side. 
  The fresco suffered from much nineteenth century repainting, but it is still an awe-inspiring work. 

  The crucifixion scene is clearly not part of the childhood sequence, but it does perhaps link the Maestą with the scenes from the life of St Francis that run around the transept on the second register.  It is important to recognise that  there were originally altars below the Maesta and the crucifixion: narrative paintings wouldn't do in this context, where something devotional was required. 
      Note the adoring Franciscans in the crucifixion scene, once again on the right-hand side.  Mary Magdalene is at the foot of the cross, and the entrance to her chapel is below and to her right. 

Now let's have a look at the Scenes from the Incarnation and childhood of Christ, beginning with the Annunciation above the entrance to the San Nicola chapel. 



Adoration of the Magi

 Presentation at the Temple

Massacre of the Innocents

Flight into Egypt

Christ among the Doctors

The return to Nazareth from Jerusalem

   Frescoes in the second register show Miracles of Saint Francis, involving the resuscitation of children who had died in a collapsing house or had fallen out of a window.  They may have been chosen to reflect the burial in the chapel of San Nicola which they flank: Giovanni Gaetano, brother of Cardinal Napoleone Orsini Frangipane, who died at an early age following an accident. Presumably St. Francis was unable to help on that occasion. 

Boy of Suessa taken out of the ruins of a house

Resuscitation of the boy of Suessa by Saint Francis 

Miracle of the child who was unhurt after falling from the top of a house.

Other Frescos

  The two frescos below are attributed to Simone Martini. They show an interesting collection of saints. 

St. Francis, St Louis of Toulouse, and three Hungarian saints: St Elisabeth, St Margaret, and St. Henry.

Madonna and child with St Stephen and St Ladislas.

  This rather odd image of St. Francis is at the top of the stairs leading to the cloisters. Francis, showing his stigmata, seems to be welcoming death, shown as a crowned skeleton. Once more there is a powerful suggestion of Francis as a second Christ. Interestingly, its location is matched in the south transept with the fresco of the dead Judas. 

Below the Maesta is a fresco by Pietro Lorenzetti showing five holy friars; these are the five friars whose grave is behind the grille below.  On the left is a portrait of Friar John of England, also buried here, beneath the Altar of St Elizabeth. (See below.)  

 There were two altars in the transept, both removed in the nineteenth century. In the corner beneath the Martini frescos was the Altar of Elizabeth of Hungary. The Altar of Santa Maria Immacalata was beneath the fresco of the holy friars. The stature of the Immaculate Virgin from here was moved to the chapel of San Pietro d'Alcantara in1860, where it remains.  


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