Tag Archives: St. Francis of Assisi

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!

A Medieval Dancing Dog for Christmas


An unknown artist created this enchanting image of a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe for his dancing dog between 1370 and 1390. It’s from a lunette–a semicircular fresco, divided into two parts–that once decorated the Monastery of Santa Giuliana in Umbria. Today, what is left of the lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Italy.

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The shepherd and his dog occupy the far right-hand side of the nativity scene above. Why is this simple scene so special?  I love it for the way the ordinary mortals–and the animals–are as important as the Holy Family.

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The musical shepherd, his dancing dog, and the cattle on the right-hand side of the lunette (the semi-circular scene)  are hanging out casually on the hillside, unaware of what’s going on in the stable.


I love the lifelike sheep, with their thick winter coats.


The shepherds stand on a flowery hillside, nudging each other in amazement at what’s happening in the sky above them–no doubt there were once angels.


The left-hand side of the lunette does show the missing angels, hovering over what looks like a typical Italian hill town much like Assisi or Perugia. A lucky cow and a donkey are special guests–or rather, they are hosting special guests in their humble stable.


All the elements of the Biblical story are here, in their simplest form. Gathered around the swaddled baby, we have musical angels, friendly cattle, and a proud mom and dad.


 St. Francis of Assisi, very near to Perugia, created the first three-dimensional manger scenes, in order to make the Christmas story seem more real to those he preached to. In early December when I visited , preparations were underway for a manger scene outside the Basilica in Assisi.

Francis is beloved for many reasons, but especially for his love for the working poor and the homeless.  Francis was all about radical humility. He was in demand in the palaces of the great, but he was determined to spend his time with the poorest of the poor.

Great artists like Giotto created wonderfully colorful frescoes illustrating the saint’s life for the Basilica that was immediately begun after his death in Assisi. A new pictorial language developed around the humble life of St. Francis, emphasizing his love for humanity, the joy possible in the most ordinary of lives, and the goodness of the natural world. The challenge was to honor the saint’s life without unduly glorifying him. The frescoes above were part of this artistic and spiritual movement. No doubt the anonymous artist who created these frescoes for a little monastery had seen the work of Giotto in the Basilica.  Although St. Francis is not the subject of the almost-primitive lunette I liked so much, his influence shines through in the simple everyday images.


I spent several happy hours soaking up the great art in this underappreciated museum. But I circled back several times to the damaged but charming fresco of the Nativity with the dancing dog.