Magazine article The Christian Century

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Article excerpt

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Edited by Gianfranco Malafarina

Thames &. Hudson, 324 pp., $95.00

When I arrived at seminary, I knew nothing about church history, and I found myself instantly enthralled by the christological and trinitarian debates, the rigorous correctives formulated by Augustine and Luther, and Aquinas's and Calvin's meticulously constructed cathedrals of thought.

But the overall impression you could easily take away would be that these centuries of church history were one long seminar conducted in a massive library, with various theologians and bumblers filing in, joining the conversation, dying, and being hauled out--all of this indoors, an endless banter of intangible ideas, the delight of eggheads like me.

In college I'd had a course on medieval history and learned nothing of the Trinity, the nature of the Eucharist, Occam's razor, or atonement theories. Instead the professor kept us entranced by vividly depicting tooth decay, odor in the streets, the grim labor of survival, lots of mud, and cowering before petty sheriffs and, yes, priests. What was real religious life like in the Middle Ages while the theologians were jockeying for predominance in their ivory towers?

The mud and odors are no more, but we have artifacts still standing that affected real people more profoundly and directly than the theology being published. The churches and their architecture and art shaped the religious mind-set of people who could not read or hear well in worship. They gawked at images. And because they lacked technology and travel opportunities, these were the only images they knew.

The darling among splendidly artistic cathedrals is stunningly brought to life in The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It includes text by the noted scholars Chiara Frugoni and Gianfranco Malafarina about construction, Franciscan rivalries, St. Bonaventure, and restoration of the frescoes after the earthquake of 1997. But as I read, I kept hearing Art Garfunkel singing in my head, "Don't know much about the Middle Ages, looked at the pictures and I turned the pages." But I didn't turn them too fast. Photographers Elio Ciol, Stefano Ciol, and Ghigo Roli provide a feast for the eyes and soul as they lead us on a tour of the frescoes by Giotto, Simone Martini, and Cimabue depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis, and also from the Bible and from the lives of other medieval luminaries. You cannot help but linger over the close-ups of faces, the impressive detail, and above all the emotion that seeps out of the walls and ceilings.

For medieval people, and actually for most people throughout history, this was religious formation. They knew what they knew about Francis because they had craned their necks and studied images of his life. And we can be sure that they didn't want merely the straight facts of the story. The fresco sequence that narrates Francis's life moves from the humane--his fractured relationship with his father and his penchant for preaching to birds--to visions of a chariot of fire and Francis's long-distance banishing of demons in Arezzo, then back to the mundane. His death doesn't end the story, as the next scene is of a miraculous healing near where his corpse lay. We may be obsessed with uncovering the real Francis; but those who lived just a few years after the true real Francis were obsessed with the legendary and the miraculous. …

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