Cittadella Ospitalità della Pro Civitate Christiana

Basilica of St. Clare

The night between the 27th and the 28th of March 1211, Chiara (daughter of Offreduccio di Favarone) secretly left the paternal palace to reach S. Maria degli Angeli in order to meet Francesco and his companions, who were waiting for her. Her hair was shaved off (they are now visible in a reliquary inside the oratory of the crucifix), then she was given to wear a black and grey robe. In order to escape from the violent reaction of her family, she needed to find a hiding place: the first was the monastery of the Benedictine nuns of S. Paolo in Bastia, then she moved inside the monastery of S. Angelo da Panso situated on Mount Subasio. Eventually, Chiara settled in the church of S. Damiano (Church of St. Damien): after a revelatory dream, she gathered her community of Poor Clares and started to live in a courageous condition of isolation and cloister outside the city walls. Even the offer made by Pope Gregorio IX (who proposed her to mitigate that condition of total poverty) remained unheard. Aged 59, she died at S. Damiano in 1253 – seventeen years after Francesco’s death, witness of the same spirit of the Saint.

The construction of the Basilica begun in 1257; eight years later was consecrated by Pope Clemente IV. The Basilica stands on the site of the ancient church of S. Giorgio (the first burial of Francesco and Chiara) and incorporates some parts of it. The walls were also expanded to incorporate the building: at that point, a new urban pole around the new religious fulcrum was defined – specifically, on the opposite side of city from the Franciscan Basilica. The church, with its pure Gothic forms, shows a sober façade made with white and pink limestone of Mount Subasio, adorned by a simple portal and surmounted by a rose window; the side that faces the street is decorated with three large rampant arches. The interior is a Latin cross with a single nave, which leads to the underground crypt where Chiara’s body is conserved. Her holy remains are completely intact, preserved within a precious urn: it seems like the Saint miraculously escaped the substructure of matter, waiting for the day of Resurrection. Whoever has the chance to meet her is overwhelmed with a mystical joy. The frescoes on the walls are realized by the school of Giotto, and they represent the only remains of the precious cycle that illustrated the life of S. Chiara. The panel painting in the right transept “Santa Chiara e otto storie della sua vita” (Saint Clare and Eight Stories of Her Life) has been attributed to the Master of the Basilica di S. Chiara.

God manifested himself to Francesco in an indirect way, but the icon of the Crucified also spoke to him inside the Chiesa di S. Damiano: according to the hagiography of the Saint, God pronounced the words: «Go, Francesco, and repair my house, that as you can clearly see, is all in ruins». The Crucifix is now located inside the Oratorio del Crocifisso (Oratory of the Crucifix) in the Cappella di S. Giorgio (Chapel of St. George): an Umbrian XXII Century artist painted this artwork, strongly influenced by Syrian art, as a consequence of the presence of Syrian monks in Umbria. It was brought there in 1257, when the Poor Clares left S. Damiano for the Chiesa di S. Giorgio. It remained with them for 700 long years, and it was shown to the public for the first time in its new location – over the new altar in the Basilica di S. Chiara di Assisi (Cappella di S. Giorgio) – in occasion of the Holy Week of 1957. For the Christians of the East, this icon is a representation of living God, through which the individual can experience a personal encounter with God through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Crucifix of S. Damiano can be seen as a private meeting with the transfigured Christ, God made man. The Crucifix contains the story of the Death, the Resurrection and the Ascension in glory of Jesus. It invites all of us to open the doors to Christ with a living and lived faith, just as S. Francesco did. The saving Death of Jesus Christ and its composed majesty is shown in the Gospel of S. Giovanni, and this Crucifix represents a pictorial testimony of this event. Consequently, it is not surprising that Francesco was genuinely attracted to this icon, and that the inspiration for his life derived from the words of Christ, who spoke to him.