A Franciscan Journey
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
A Franciscan Journey: La Verna, Le Celle and Assisi
Shake it Up.
It seems fitting with a Pope named Francis and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses to explore a disruptor of the Catholic Church – Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, later known as St. Francis of Assisi. Both Martin Luther and St. Francis desired a more Christ-like existence by turning away from material goods and turning back to a humbler life of faith based on the gospels.
Martin Luther and Francis challenged church authority, experienced pushback and gained great popular support. While Martin Luther wanted to intentionally disrupt the church, St. Francis’ disruption resulted from unintentional consequence. There are two sites in Tuscany and one in Umbria that reveal much about St. Francis’ journey and the end result of the church’s acceptance and ultimate control of the Franciscan movement: Le Celle and La Verna in Tuscany and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.
Federico Barocci, St. Francis of Assisi, Metropolitan Museum, New York. 1600-1604. St. Francis is shown in a grotto of La Verna with the stigmata. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
St. Francis of Assisi is usually depicted receiving the stigmata (the wounds of Christ), surrounded by animals, or praying in a mystical woodland setting. These depictions are all legitimate portrayals of his life. To my knowledge there are no representations of the struggles of the Franciscans to establish the order, the Papal persecution (by Pope John XXII) burning Franciscan non-conformists at the stake in the fourteenth century, or how the church struggled to shape and control a popular and sometimes unwelcome, threatening movement. Change is messy.
Late fourteenth century Tuscan textile with St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. While praying at La Verna, Francis saw a six winged angel on a cross as he received the wounds of Christ. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
A New Order.
Francis, born about 1181 and died in 1226, came from Assisi in Umbria. He was canonized two years after his death. The young Giovanni renounced material goods after experiencing a vision and adopted a mendicant lifestyle. Renouncing family status and goods was an extreme measure at the time. Mendicant refers to living through begging and in poverty, traveling from town to town unlike monks who resided away from urban centers in monasteries.
Alongside the Franciscan movement was another mendicant movement, the Dominicans, started by St. Dominic. The two orders were often rivals for resources, funds and establishing churches. Francis began his radical new preaching in 1208 and traveled widely to spread the word. He had a great love of nature and while on retreat in remote mountains preached to the birds and animals.
While praying in the mountains, he received the stigmata, on his hands, feet, and side while at La Verna in 1224. He later returned to his birthplace, Assisi, and died a few years later. There wasn’t a clear plan at the time of his death as to how to administer to or manage the growing Franciscan following.
The early Franciscan followers took to the streets, dressed in simple brown robes, preaching the gospel to people, going from town to town, ministering and offering spiritual guidance, particularly in urban centers. They resided in homes or churches as itinerant preachers. Their imitation of Jesus centered around living in poverty and preaching directly to the people, meeting the faithful not in necessarily in churches but in homes or public places.
Most people saw the church as out of touch with their needs and remote and inaccessible. Bishops were viewed as the religious elite in their fancy buildings. Parish priests were often illiterate. Because mendicants initially did not have a fixed residence they were free to practice and preach wherever.
The mendicant orders quickly grew and had loyal followers. By the middle of the 1300s there were approximately 30,000 followers, mostly in France and Italy. Clearly Francis’ message resonated strongly with the populace.
Manuscript with Scenes from the Life of St. Francis. Made in Bologna, 1320-42. Francis is depicted with the stigmata and wears the brown Franciscan robe. Scenes from the left counter-clockwise: preaching to animals, reviving a dead woman for her last confession, leading a debtor out of prison, and the death of St. Francis. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
A Struggling Order.
Addressing the logistics and concepts of living in poverty and with humility was a vexing problem for the early Franciscan order following Francis’ death. What did living in poverty mean precisely? What did Francis intend that mean for his growing order? Soon there was much discussion and division between friars and church authority about how poor a Franciscan should be. Seemingly petty concerns were debated as well as bigger conceptual issues.
Were sandals acceptable? If offered clothing was it coarse and “poor” enough? How many tunics might a friar own? Was it OK to wear two tunics when it is cold? Was owning property, such as establishing a church, allowed? When Franciscan churches were eventually built, how would the church be funded if the friars lived in poverty and did not accept money?
As the followers grew so did their need for housing and preaching, and eventually permanent churches, and therefore recognition by the Pope and bishops. That recognition eventually came but not without power struggles and great tensions, especially between the church authority who wanted to rein in the order and those who were committed to a life of genuine mendicant poverty. Papal authority dealt with non-conformists by detention, re-education, re-assignment to another order, or sometimes declaration as heretics. The early Franciscan order was not a unified movement but fractured and geographically diverse.
From Poverty to Establishing Churches.
Eventually the movement and Papal authority sort of came to terms. Mostly the Popes gained more control over the order. Oddly enough the large Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi and other Franciscan churches, such as Santa Croce in Florence, became possible through large donations from wealthy patrons to the Franciscans. In some strange way, preaching poverty became entwined with wealth, mostly due to the popularity of the order and need for new ways of attending to people’s spiritual needs. With the growth of the order, the Franciscans (and Dominicans) needed to establish permanent buildings in urban centers. Nearly every town in Italy has a Franciscan and Dominican church and they house splendid art.
The Franciscans found there was good money to be had from allowing elite families to bury the dead in the Franciscan church, exchanging contributions for reduced purgatory time for loved ones, and prayer requests and attending to the dying in exchange for donations. The Franciscans, and Dominicans, were appointed by the Popes to powerful positions as Inquisitors into accusations of heresy, which was also profitable. The heretic's and his family's goods were confiscated and divvied up three ways: to the bishop, the commune and the mendicant order. It's a startling change of direction from preaching poverty to becoming an arm of control and suppression for the church.
However, there were also many pious laity that gave generously to the Franciscans and their patronage greatly benefitted their communities.
The mendicant orders were doing much good in the cities they served and their establishment created a whole new way of ministering. The change St. Francis initiated is still alive today with Pope Francis and his initiatives and focus on the poor and marginalized.
Two sites in Tuscany help visitors reimagine Francis’ life and the early Franciscan movement: Le Celle and La Verna.
Le Celle, literally “the cells” lies in a remote hillside just outside of Cortona, in southeast Tuscany. Also known as Convento delle Celle (Convent of the Cells) or Eremo delle Celle (Hermitage of the Cells), it offers a beautiful peaceful setting just a short drive up the mountain from the urban center.
View from Le Celle.
Francis selected this location to start a following in 1211 and stayed four years. He returned here in 1226, after receiving the stigmata, to found the Convent (convent can also refer to male religious housing) for retreats. There are still about 15 friars of the Capuchin order residing in the Convent. If visitors want to speak with a friar they can ring a bell. Of the three Franciscan sites discussed in this post, this is most peaceful, less touristy and authentic, and less impacted by modernity.
"Stop. In silence in front of God, rediscover yourself."
To assist with stepping back in time and quieting one’s mind, there are various signs along the wooded path in Italian that ask for quiet and introspection. The Convent is a large complex with a beautiful garden and much larger than anticipated. A river torrent runs through the complex with wooded views.
Le Celle complex and garden.
Francis’ cell was small and made of stone. The cell was behind a small altar. Visitors have left many ex-votos of objects or photos of loved ones. The solemnness of the location is moving and gives one perspective on how difficult it would be in the 1200s to travel, live, or find enough to eat in this remote location.
Altar before entering St. Francis' cell.
My visit to Le Celle underscored the difficulties Francis and his followers endured to establish the Franciscan order. Living in a stone cell and later establishing a convent here was no small task in the thirteenth century. They had great devotion to their new order and bringing a new way of spreading the gospel to people.
St. Francis' cell.
The Santuario della Verna (Sanctuary of La Verna) is a much larger site devoted to St. Francis. Although visited by many more people than Le Celle, it remains essentially a spiritual experience and is not as commercialized as Assisi.
Entrance to La Verna site.
Located about one hour north of Arezzo, through twisting mountain roads, the Sanctuary lies in a rugged location. The air is cool and the vistas into the forests are tranquil.
View from La Verna.
Sign asking for silence, respect, and appropriate attire at this holy site.
The location was given to Francis by Count Orlando Cattani in 1213. It is an active Franciscan convent and visitors will find a more participatory rather than passive experience. Mass is celebrated in the unassuming Chiesa Maggiore with friars chanting in Latin and the devoted partaking in mass, which very much makes the experience different from visiting churches in urban areas that feel more like museums.
Franciscans chanting while processing
from the church to St. Francis' cell.
The church was begun in 1348. Francis’ walking stick and his habit when he received the stigmata are displayed in a chapel. A covered corridor with murals of Francis’ life leads to the cell where Francis lived and received the stigmata, down a steep and tight stone stairway. There is only room for one or two people at a time to descend the stairs.
The remoteness of the cell is impressive. The isolation Francis experienced must have been intense. Seeing the friars chanting in Latin walking from the church to the stone cell and back to the church is a moving experience.
Stairs going up from St. Francis' cell.
St. Francis' cell with his bed on the right.
Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.
This large two level church dwarfs Le Celle and La Verna. Mandated by the Pope as St. Francis’ sacred burial place, the Basilica was begun two years following his death and shortly after his canonization. The upper and lower churches contain some of the most important frescoes by renowned artists. An earthquake in 1997 significantly damaged the church and many of the frescoes, but is now mostly restored.
Basilica of S. Francesco, Assisi, lower church.
Basilica of S. Francesco, Assisi, upper church.
Monumental by design, the Basilica was built not by pious laity but by Papal authority. Whoever funds it gets to determine the ideology and message conveyed through architecture and frescoes. Clearly the Pope wanted to send a message that Francis was a founding saint and presented him as an alternate Christ due to the exceptional act of receiving Christ’s stigmata. The location is accessible in an urban location, making this the easiest of all three sites to visit.
This site is also the most commercialized of the three. Almost to the point of the site not feeling very religious but a tourist mecca. St. Francis souvenirs abound – crosses, rosaries, magnets, key chains, statues, any kind of trinket you could imagine bearing his liking or that of the Basilica are for sale. Does that detract or enhance the experience? For me, it detracts. It certainly doesn't jive with the Franciscan concepts of poverty and humility. Thankfully the friars act as hosts to the Basilica which lends authenticity to the site and reminds visitors of its religious significance.
Bruzelius, Caroline. Preaching, Building, and Burying: Friars in the Medieval City. Yale University Press, 2014.
Burr, David. The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
Giorgi, Rosa. Saints in Art. Getty Publications, 2003.
Macadam. Alta. Blue Guide: Tuscany. Fifth edition. Somerset Books, 2009.