St. Clare of Assisi

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare, detail of fresco by Simone Martini, circa 1322-1326, Public Domain

St. Clare of Assisi, known also as Santa Chiara in Italy, was born on July 16, 1194 in Assisi, a hill town in Umbria. She was born to a wealthy noble family and was said to be beautiful.  In the natural course of things, she would have been married to a noble man in her early teens.  But she persuaded her parents to allow her to wait until she was 18 to marry.  By that time, she had found another love:  all she wanted was a life of prayer and poverty and service. She was one of the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi, and her presence is felt in Assisi almost as strongly as that of Francis himself.

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The portrait of Clare above is from one of the beautiful frescoes in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis. Masses are held frequently.  I wandered into one and felt immediately welcome in a crowd of people from all walks of life.

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Porziuncula in Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, Assisi

Clare heard Francis preach during Lent in 1212. On Palm Sunday of that year, Clare left her father’s house and went to the small chapel called Porziuncula (which means something like “small portion”). The tiny chapel, down the hill from the main town, still stands.

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But now the Porziuncula is inside the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. When it is still a humble chapel outside the city walls, this is where Clare met Francis, intending to leave her old comfortable life behind for good.  Her hair was shorn and she traded her sumptuous gown for a rough plain robe and veil.

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Some of the rough-woven clothing worn by both Francis and Clare is on display in Assisi.  Ordinarily, I might be sceptical, but both Francis and Clare were sainted very shortly after they died, and it is wasy to believe that their clothing was preserved.

Francis sent her to a nearby convent of Benedictine nuns. Her father was not pleased. He tried to force her to return home, but reportedly she clung to the church altar, showed him her short-cropped hair, and declared that she would marry no one but Jesus Christ. Soon, though, two of her sisters joined her, and eventually even her mother became part of the order she founded.

At the time, monastic life could be fairly luxurious.  Following the teachings of Francis meant seeking out extreme poverty and completely selfless service to the poorest of the poor.  This was a radical choice that could have been dangerous, but Francis and then Clare received approval from the Pope. Clare’s order came to be called the Poor Ladies, and later the Poor Clares.

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Today, the narrow medieval streets of Assisi look much the same as they did in Clare’s day.

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The city may be crowded in summer.  But last year I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of sunny December days there, soaking up great art in situ and being refreshed by the spirituality of the place. I’m hoping to do it again.

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Clare is present in many ways, like this elegant 1888 statue.

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She’s also present in lighthearted personal displays, like this doorside lantern where she stands cheerfully next to St. Francis and his namesake, Pope Francis.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

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