Assisi  Whodunit?

Legend of St. Francis fresco cycle --Upper Church, San Francesco, Assisi

It was common for artists in the Middle Ages to paint a series of panels representing progressive scenes in a story. A famous fresco cycle of  this type, in twenty-eight panels depicting the life of St. Francis, is on the lower part of the walls of the nave and entrance in the upper church of St. Francis at Assisi. As is almost always the case in fresco cycles, the first episode is to the right of the church altar as you are facing the altar, and the remaining frescoes circle the church clockwise. The succession of events shown in the fresco cycle follows the story of the saint as set out in St. Bonaventure's Greater Life of St. Francis, written between 1260 and 1263.

The St. Francis cycle is usually dated after 1296: the frescoes supposedly were commissioned by Giovanni da Murro, who only became General of the Franciscans in 1296. Giorgio Vasari, in his biography of Giotto (Ambroggio da Bondone), ascribed the cycle to Giotto, and, until the 1990s, most art historians agreed that he, with his salon, had painted at least the first twenty-five frescoes.  Some experts conjectured that Giotto may have painted the cycle as early as 1290, but this earlier estimate was only to allow time for a supposed change in Giotto's painting style: there are marked differences between the technique used in the Assisi frescoes and Paduan frescoes known to have been painted later by Giotto.  Recent scholarship casts doubt on Vasari's ascription of the cycle to Giotto. At first, Cimabue (Cenni di Peppi), who was known to have painted some of the great frescoes in the basilica, was the prime candidate, but careful comparisons of styles and modern analysis of pigments and paint formulations now point to Pietro Cavallini (with his salon) as the painter. It may have been that Vasari simply assumed that Giotto painted the Assisi cycle because he had painted the Padua frescoes.  Some modern critics go so far as to say that Giotto may never have visited Assisi. The primary evidences of his presence there, after all, were the frescoes that he had supposedly painted.

The scenes of the life of St. Francis, which project slightly beyond the upper part of the wall, have been elaborated by painted mock architectural elements. This begins with the painted curtain running beneath the scenes of St. Francis and also includes false architectural framing of the scenes. Each bay of the nave is divided into three sections (four in the case of the wider bays nearest the entrance) by twisted columns rising from the base painted so that it appears to project above the architrave. There is also a cycle fresco on each side of the main door as part of the clockwise sequence.

In order to impose this system of architectural illusionism the artist distorted the painted framings wherever one met the projection of a real rib descending from the vault: they slant downwards when viewed from the side. The fact that the same framing appears to be perfectly horizontal when viewed from the center provides a valuable indication that the painter had in mind ideal viewpoints for looking at the frescoes.

The frescoes appear to be set in space behind the mock architectural framework, which has been painted to appear as part of the walls of the church. This gives the effect of looking into a series of small rooms, and calls to mind Leon Battista Alberti's later concept (fifteenth century) of the surface of a painting as an open window through which we imagine we are seeing what is represented.

The scenes are planned according to principles of perspective that were first formulated in the two scenes from the life of Isaac on the upper walls. There can be no doubt that such a coherent conception of space was regarded as a discovery, and that it was an innovation of immeasurable value to the future of Western painting. It was just this methodically constructed space of the Assisi frescoes that met with immediate and widespread acclaim, first in Italy, and then abroad, especially from the second half of the fourteenth century and won  the supposed painter, Giotto, his enduring fame as an innovator.

The decoration of the Upper Church was planned from the very beginning to conclude with the Legend of St. Francis on the lower walls. The whole was conceived according to a scheme, which incorporated both the iconographical and the decorative aspects of the frescoes. No representation in the Upper Church is duplicated, except for the Crucifixion, which appears among the scenes in the nave, and is repeated on either side on the east walls of the transept. In this case the repetition was intentional, and must have been planned from the beginning, as is demonstrated by the fact that the two scenes appear in the same position in the Lower Church, where the aim of the old thirteenth century decorations, destroyed when the side chapels were built, was to establish parallels between the life of Christ and that of St. Francis. This idea was repeated in the Upper Church with greater richness and with the inclusion of scenes from the Old Testament. At certain points the parallel becomes very evident; for instance, the Confirmation of the Rule appears below Isaac blessing Jacob, and the Death and Ascension of St. Francis (who has just received the stigmata) below the Crucifixion.

As well as being part of a series, each of the panels in the St. Francis cycle pictures a single event in the life of the saint and is complete in itself. Francis appears in twenty-six of the twenty-eight panels (all except numbers 21 and 24). He is shown in profile or full face, standing, kneeling or lying down, alive or dead, on earth or in heaven. He can be recognized by the halo, which indicates his holiness, and, apart from in the scenes of his early life, by his brown habit. The artist followed the official biography of St. Francis, written by St. Bonaventure, very closely.  Because the Church was not entirely happy about the "holy poverty" preached by Francis, the biography -- and therefore the fresco cycle -- put more stress on Francis's miracle-working powers and on his close relationship with the popes.

The twenty-eight scenes of the cycle are available on the Internet at

Articles that mention the Giotto/Cavallini authorship debate are at:  0000, and

The English titles and captions for the twenty-eight fresco panels are:

Homage of a Simple Man
An ordinary citizen of Assisi met Francis in the streets of the town and, inspired by God, spread out his cloak for Francis to walk on. The man claimed that Francis was worthy of all reverence, as he would soon do great things and would come to be honored by all Christians. The scene is set in the main square of Assisi, with the temple of  Minerva in the background.

St. Francis Giving his Mantle to a Poor Man
One day Francis met a noble knight who had fallen on hard times. Feeling pity at the man's poverty, he took off his own cloak and gave it to him. The artist set this episode in the vicinity of Assisi, which can be seen on the left. Francis's face expresses tenderness and compassion, while the knightâs gaze is fixed on his benefactor.

Dream of the Palace
The following night, as Francis slept, God showed him in a dream a magnificent palace, full of armor bearing the sign of Christ's cross. The dream was to tell him that the compassion he had shown towards the poor knight would soon be rewarded by a great gift. In this fresco, Francis is depicted sleeping with his head resting on his right hand.

Miracle of the Crucifix
One day Francis went out into the surrounding countryside, in order to meditate. Finding himself near the church of St. Damian, which was badly dilapidated, he felt drawn to go in to pray. As he knelt before the image of Christ crucified, he heard the voice of God saying to him: "Go and repair my church, which, as you can see, is all in ruins."

Renunciation of Worldly Goods
St. Francis's father is very angry when he is told that his son renounces his inheritance to follow a life of poverty.

Dream of Innocent III
When Francis went to Rome, to obtain confirmation of his rule and authorization to preach, Pope Innocent III had a dream which removed any doubt about Francis's future. He saw the basilica of St. John Lateran about to topple. But it was prevented from crashing to the ground by a man of humble appearance, who came to support the building on his shoulder.

Confirmation of the Rule
Pope Innocent III, now full of respect and veneration for Francis, approved his rule and authorized the young man to preach repentance. In this scene, Francis, shown with a beard for the first time, kneels before the Pope to receive the rule.  The brothers kneeling behind him are depicted with the tonsure, the hair-style typical of Franciscan friars.

Vision of the Flaming Chariot
One night Francis was praying with some of the brothers while others slept. Suddenly, a magnificent chariot of fire came and swept through the house in a blaze of glory. The brothers who saw it were amazed. The sleepers woke up terrified.  But all knew that the Spirit of God had descended from heaven and was present among them.

Vision of the Thrones
On one occasion, a monk had entered an abandoned church with Francis to pray. In a moment of religious vision, he saw a number of thrones in heaven, one of which, more sumptuous than the others, was adorned with precious stones and bright with glory. As he wondered who the throne was for, a voice told him that it was reserved for the humble Francis.

Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo
Francis came to Arezzo at a time of bitter civil strife.  From the outlying suburb where he was staying, he saw exultant demons hovering over the city, inciting the inhabitants to murder. He asked Brother Sylvester to stand at the city gate and order the demons to be gone. The friar did as he was told, the demons fled, and peace was immediately restored.

St. Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)
During the crusade of 1217-21, Francis went to the Sultan of Egypt to try to convert him to Christianity.  To demonstrate the power of the Christian faith, he challenged the Sultan's holy men to undergo with him the ordeal of walking through fire. They refused to take up this challenge. They presented Francis with precious gifts, which he scornfully rejected.

Ecstasy of St. Francis
At night Francis would seek out lonely places or abandoned churches in which to pray. On one occasion his brother friars saw him praying fervently with his arms stretched out as on the cross, raised off the ground and wrapped in a luminous cloud. The artist depicted him in this posture, with Christ reaching down from the heavenly realms in an act of blessing.

Institution of the Crib at Greccio
Three years before his death, in order to encourage a spirit of worship in ordinary people, Francis had a crib set up in a cave near Greccio, complete with a manger and a real ox and donkey. He thus started the tradition, which continues to this day, of preparing a crib at Christmas time in memory of Christ's birth in the stable at Bethlehem.

Miracle of the Spring
One day Francis was unwell. He rode up to his mountain retreat of La Verna on a donkey lent him by a peasant, who followed on foot. Distressed and exhausted by the heat, the poor man pleaded for a drink. Francis got off the donkey and knelt to pray, whereupon water sprang from the bare rock. The spring was never found again.

Sermon to the Birds
St. Francis believed that even the humblest of God's creatures were entitled to hear the Word of God, that they might have the opportunity to enter  the Kingdom of Heaven.

Death of the Knight of Celano
Once, when Francis was preaching at Celano, a knight from the neighborhood invited him for a meal. Foreseeing that the knight would soon die, Francis asked him to make his confession and to set his household affairs in order. As the guests were sitting down to table, the knight did suddenly die. He had made his confession, and so he entered heaven in a state of grace.

St. Francis Preaching before Honorius III
When Francis appeared before Pope Honorius III and his cardinals, his preaching was so sincere and effective that it was clear to them that his words were not merely the result of learned theological study but were inspired by God. The fresco captures the rapt attention of the Pope and cardinals, who appear to hang on Francis's every word.

Apparition at Arles
One day, when St. Anthony of Padua was preaching in the chapter house at Arles, taking as his subject the inscription on Christ's cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews", St. Francis miraculously appeared to the brethren. The artist has portrayed the saint as larger than the other figures, raised off the ground and with his arms extended in blessing.

Stigmatization of St. Francis
One day, when Francis had been praying and fasting at La Verna, Christ appeared to him in the form of a seraph and impressed on his hands, feet and side the marks of the nails and the lance which he himself had sustained on the cross. In this way, God answered the longing of Francis's heart: to be like Christ in his sufferings, before he died.

Death and Ascension of St. Francis
When Francis died, one of the brethren saw his soul, which was now freed from his body, wing its way towards heaven surrounded by a white cloud.  It looked like a bright shining star. The fresco captures the grief of the friars who are gathered around Francis's lifeless body, as they weep, pray, touch him, give way to despair or share their sorrow.

Apparition to Fra Agostino and to Bishop Guido of Arezzo
In a convent near Naples, at the very moment that Francis died, a brother called Agostino, who had been dumb for years and was near to death, cried out: "Wait for me, father, I want to go with you!" At the same time, in the oratory of St. Michael on Mount Gargano, the bishop of Assisi had a vision of Francis saying: "I am leaving the world and going to heaven."

Verification of the Stigmata
On hearing of Francis's death, people flocked to witness the marks of Christ's passion. Many citizens of Assisi were permitted to contemplate and even kiss the stigmata, among them a knight called Gerolamo. He was a doubter, like the apostle Thomas, and insisted on touching the stigmata. His doubts then removed, he became a faithful witness to the truth.

St. Francis Mourned by St. Clare
The funeral procession stopped in front of the church of St. Damian. The convent attached to the church was the home of St. Clare and her sister nuns, to whom Francis had been a spiritual father. Clare and her companions embraced St. Francis for the last time. The fresco shows the great crowd of mourners and St. Clare bending over the body of  St. Francis.

Canonization of St. Francis
On 16 July 1228, Pope Gregory IX came in person to Assisi to canonize Francis, officially declaring him a saint. The solemn ceremony was attended by the friars, a significant group of princes and barons, and a great crowd of ordinary people.  Although this fresco has deteriorated, The artist's skill in portraying realistic human features is still very evident.

Dream of St. Gregory
Before he canonized Francis, Pope Gregory had had some doubts about the mark of Christ's wound in his side. Then he had a dream in which Francis appeared to him to set his mind at rest. In this dream, Francis said: "Give me an empty flask."  Gregory did as he was asked, and the bottle was miraculously filled with blood from the wound in Francis's side.

Francis heals the Man of Urida
In the town of Lerida, in Catalonia, Spain, a man named John had received a fatal wound in an ambush. Given up for lost by the doctors, and abandoned by his wife, who feared infection, he cried out repeatedly to St. Francis. The saint appeared to him, removed his bandages, gently dressed his wounds with an ointment and effected a complete cure.

The Confession of the Woman of Benevento
At Monte Murano in the neighborhood of Benevento, Francis brought a woman back from  the dead, so that she could be freed of a sin she had failed to confess in her lifetime. The artist depicted the devil being forced to flee and make way for an angel, a sign that the woman had been purified and could now die in a state of grace.

The Liberation of Peter the Heretic
A man accused of heresy and imprisoned by the Bishop of Tivoli called on the aid of St. Francis.  When the saint appeared, the man's shackles fell off and the prison doors burst open. The man's cries of amazement alerted the guard, who reported the matter to the bishop. Recognizing the evidence of divine intervention, the bishop knelt and worshipped God.