The ancient and important church of St Damien Assisi
«This is the blessed and holy place in which the glorious Order of the Poor Ladies, together with the holy virgins, joyfully originated thanks to the work of S. Francesco […] Virgin Chiara, native of Assisi, had been a very powerful and precious stone; the foundation stone of the other overlapping stones».
Celano, Vita I di S. Francesco, n. 18
The ancient small church (built during the VII or the VIII Century) was in a dilapidated condition in the times of S. Francesco: The Poor man of Assisi literally interpreted the invitation of the crucifix; hence, he repaired the church with his own hands (1207). This was the first monastery of the Poor Clares, who lived here from 1211 to 1260. In the small square there is a shrine, decorated with XV Century frescoes realized by the Sienese school (Madonna and Child among S. Francesco, S. Rufino, S. Chiara and S. Damiano).
On the right side of the church you can admire the Cappella di S. Girolamo, a wonderful chapel adorned with frescoes by Tiberio d’Assisi (1517): Virgin on the throne; S. Francesco, S. Chiara, S. Bernardino and S. Girolamo; S. Sebastiano and S. Rocco. Going down a few steps, in front of the square, there is a Franciscan room for conferences and spiritual retreats.
Looking out from the beautiful adjacent lawn, a magnificent view of the Umbrian valley.
Interior of the Church
The charm of the place, surrounded by time and enveloped in a mystical twilight, concurs towards recollection and prayer.
Right to the door is the window, the same window from which S. Francesco threw the money refused by the priest of the church. The Saint, in order to adhere to the invitation of the Crucifix, sold a load of fabrics and his horse to be able to restore the church.
On the altar, there is a copy of the Byzantine Crucifix that once spoke to S. Francesco.
In the apse, there is a Madonna and Child between S. Rufino and S. Damiano (realized in Byzantine style). The choir embraces an antique lectern on a stone jamb, and a beautiful inscription on the inlaid stalls invites to the purest and intimate sense of prayer: “Non vox sed votum – non clamor sed amor – non cordula sed cor – psallat in aure Dei. – Lingua consonet menti – et mens concordet cum Deo”. Really worth noticing is the Crucifix carved by the Franciscan friar Innocenzo da Palermo in 1637, located inside the chapel on the right side of the nave. The terrible suffering of Jesus, expressed with absolute realism in the violent laceration of his members, is enlightened by the divine serenity of his face. The face of Christ carries three characteristic features, clearly visible from different angles: the hardship of the agony; the abandonment of the last breath; the calm of the death.
The Small Chorus of St. Clare
Everything here is perfectly preserved, as during the time of S. Chiara: the stalls, the ridges, the two lecterns… an ancient parchment attests the names of the first Clares, as well as the eternal presence of their spirit. Perhaps, this is the best corner where you can feel the echoes of the typical Franciscan poverty. In this place it is possible to perceive a deep sense of the invisible spiritual values.
On the wall, located to the left of the entrance (which has reduced the space of the ancient choir), you can admire the Crucifix with Madonna and S. Giovanni by Pier Antonio Mezzastris – 1482. The jambs and the threshold of an ancient entrance are located in the left corner. A legend says that S. Francesco hid there to escape from his father, who wanted to bring him back home.
Garden of St. Clare
In this corner of the ancient monastery opening onto the immense and beautiful Umbrian valley, Chiara cultivated a tiny garden. Below the garden was the shelter made of mats, in which the stigmatized and suffering S. Francesco spent the winter between 1224 and 1225; the most ancient literary sources agree on the fact that the Saint wrote the Canticle of the Creatures in this place.
From the garden, climbing uphill, we arrive at the Oratory of S. Chiara.
Oratory of St. Clare
The Oratory has a square plan, a vaulted ceiling and an apse above the ancient choir. It was willed by Chiara as the “Cappella di S. Maria Vergine” (Chapel of the Holy Virgin Mary).
On the left side of the altar, inside the wall, is the ciborium – where the Lord’s Supper was kept for the long hours of day time and night time adoration of Chiara and her sisters. Furthermore, the traces of restored XIV Century frescoes recall the assault of the Saracens at the monastery.
Dormitory of St. Clare
In this room, the Poor Clares rested on humble beds lined up along the wall. The flowers and the cross indicate the place once occupied by S. Chiara, who spent most of her days between work and suffering. Here she received important visits, among which (on the eve of her death) there was that of Pope Innocenzo IV. During the Christmas night of 1252, Chiara spent the night, sick, inside the dormitory. A miracle happened: afterwards she was able to recount in detail the sacred functions celebrated in the Chiesa di S. Francesco in Assisi; for this episode, she was declared by formal decree of the Holy See “Patron Saint of television” (1958). Chiara died in this place on the 11th of August 1253.
Hanging on the wall, there is a wooden crucifix from the XV Century (author unknown).
The cloister, characterised by marvellous harmony in its simple construction, is a real corner of peace. Here the silence is broken only by the chirping of the swallows, whose nests fill up the old beams. In this place (according to the testimonies of the process of Canonization) the already sick S. Chiara – supported by her sisters to reach the door of the refectory – prostrated before the Blessed Sacrament and miraculously rejected the Saracens of Federico II in September 1240, freeing both the monastery and Assisi. A similar prodigy was repeated in 1241, against the adventurers of Vitale di Aversa. This event is celebrated with the Feast of the Vow, that takes place every year on the 22nd of June.
On the wall, immediately adjacent to the church, you can admire two frescoes by Eusebio Perugino (1507): The Annunciation and S. Francesco receiving the Stigmata.
On the opposite side, worth noticing is the “Galleria del Cantico delle Creature” (Gallery of the Canticle of the Creatures) that collects original drawings and art pieces inspired by the Franciscan Canticle.
The Refectory of St. Clare
Here, in the splendour of Lady Poverty, S. Chiara and her sisters gathered together to consume their frugal foods. Her seat is still indicated with a flower vase. One day, in 1228, Pope Gregorio IX was a diner of the Poor Ladies. The Pope asked Chiara to bless the table, and a cross sign was pressed on each loaf of bread.
The infirmary of the ancient monastery is located upstairs; a corner of it has been transformed into an Oratory – Cappella di S. Agnese (Chapel of St. Agnes), sister of S. Chiara.