Life Intertwined

The Making of Assisi: The Pope, the Franciscans and the Painting of the Basilica

by Donal Cooper and Janet Robson
2013 Yale University Press, 296 pages

The Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi is one of the great monuments of the late Middle Ages. Begun in 1228, less than two years after the death of Saint Francis, it quickly became a magnet for pilgrims, and its construction was a source of controversy under the early minister general Elias of Cortona. In 1288, Pope Nicholas IV (Jerome of Ascoli, the first Franciscan to occupy the See of Saint Peter) issued two bulls, both known as Reducentes ad sedulae, which approved the decoration of the basilica and designated funding for the project. Reducentes is the starting point of Donal Cooper and Janet Robson’s innovative and informative study of the extensive program of pictorial decoration in the nave of the Upper Church, which they date to 1288–97. For much of the twentieth century, historians of Trecento art were consumed by the debate over both Giotto’s participation in the frescoes depicting the legend of Saint Francis and the dating of the frescoes. Cooper and Robson redress this attributional obsession to focus instead on the intellectual and historical context of the pictorial program. Illustrated with excellent and abundant plates, their holistic study highlights the important role of the patrons and the impact of their religious and intellectual formation upon the layout and symbolism of the Upper Church decoration, and analyzes how the artists responded to the patrons’ expectations.

The first two of the book’s seven chapters are devoted to the key figures whom the authors believe were central to the genesis and development of the program. Chapter 1 provides the background by describing Nicholas IV’s artistic patronage in Rome, his close connections to Giacomo Cardinal Colonna, and his profound conviction that the Franciscan Order was essential to the renewal of the Church. While Cooper and Robson see Nicholas IV as a motivating force for the ambitious decorative campaign in the Upper Church, they acknowledge that there is no record that he visited Assisi during his papacy. In chapter 2, they argue that the key figures in the development of the subjects of the fresco program must have been the leading Franciscan theologians and administrators at the Sacro Convento. Chapter 3 reviews the existing imagery that already adorned the apse and transept of the Upper Church, which the friars occupied when the frescoes in the nave, where the laity also circulated, were begun circa 1288.  In chapter 4, the authors turn again to Rome to demonstrate how the Old and New Testament cycles that encircle the two upper registers of the nave at Assisi were consciously adapted from prototypes in early Christian Roman basilicas to underscore the apostolic mission of the order and the close ties between Assisi and Rome. Jacopo Torriti, a Franciscan friar who was also an artist, is a fascinating figure in the initial phase of the nave decoration of the Upper Church: his success in painting the Deësis vault at the middle of the basilica and the first scenes of the Genesis cycle on the north wall of the nave prompted Nicholas IV to call him to Rome to execute apse mosaics in Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore.

Dream of Pope Innocent III

The heart of the book consists of chapters 5–7, which focus on the cycle of twenty-eight scenes from the life of Saint Francis painted in large scale on the lower register of the nave walls just above eye level. The anecdotal charm of these frescoes is deceptive. Cooper and Robson explicate the complex interweaving of compositional and metaphorical relationships that link the scenes in the three registers of the nave so that the life of Saint Francis is intertwined with the life of Christ and the lives of the patriarchs and apostles: the typological interpretation of Scripture that was so central to medieval theology thoroughly suffuses the nave imagery. They masterfully demonstrate the wide range of theological texts that inform the frescoes—not only Saint Bonaventure’s Legenda maior but also other theological and spiritual works by learned thirteenth-century Franciscans such as Matthew of Acquasparta, John of Wales, and Bartholomew of Bologna.

The authors’ analysis of the compositional relationships created among the many scenes in the nave leads to an interesting insight on the impact of the architecture in shaping the program. They propose that the repeated use of rising and falling diagonals in the fresco compositions may have been designed to create a unifying rhythm that would bridge the clusters of engaged columns dividing the bays of the nave. Architects will also find interesting their attentiveness to the abundant architectural symbolism in the Saint Francis cycle, where so many of the episodes take place in urban settings. The book’s sole defect consists in its deferring to the final pages a discussion of the critical ecclesiastical and political disputes that shaped the Franciscan Order in the thirteenth century—conflicts in which the institutionalization that the monumental basilica concretized played no small part.

Dianne Phillips is an art historian specializing in late medieval Italian art. She lectures on religious imagery to parish groups and college classes.