On Sept. 26, 1997, an earthquake in Assisi destroyed 2,000 square feet of ceiling frescoes by Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302) and Giotto (1266/76-1337). The works had survived 700 years in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis, the church dedicated to the memory of the mysterious saint.
Moving with unaccustomed speed, the Italian authorities immediately set about restoring the Basilica. They hope to have the ceiling completed by the time Pope John Paul II says this year's Christmas Mass there.
Dire reports coming from the scene cast doubts that the Cimabue Saint Matthew, now in a thousand pieces, can be reassembled. The Giotto fresco Eight Saints is in similarly critical condition. There is talk of a computer program that could help by projecting these images onto the ceiling. Meanwhile more than 100 restorers work patiently on the reassembly of these gigantic jigsaw puzzles.
While the restoration is underway, surviving objects from the relatively undamaged Lower Church of Assisi are safe and sound -- and installed in the Metropolitan Museum's Lehman Wing. The show remains on display there until June 27, after which it travels to San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor.
"Treasures of the Basilica of Saint Francis" consists of 70 exquisite tapestries, chalices, paintings and other objects. Italy has graciously turned its misfortune into a rare opportunity for others to view this extraordinary collection.
The story of Saint Francis, or Giovanni de Bernadone as he was first known, is well documented. He was a rich man's son who loved good times and hated school. He volunteered to fight in one of those interminable Italian intercity wars, this one between Perugia and Assisi, and was wounded and imprisoned. Finally released and well again, he experienced a spiritual conversion when a crucified Christ at a wayside spoke to him.
Shedding his wealth, Francis became a beggar, wandering the countryside preaching to man and beast alike. At first his friends thought him strange, but he nevertheless made converts among them. He went to Rome and begged Pope Innocent III to let him found a religious order. Somewhat later, a young woman asked to start an affiliated order of nuns. She was Clara dei Sciffi, also from a wealthy family, and her nuns are today's "Poor Saint Clares." The Franciscan Order continued to grow, joined by professional men who wanted to maintain contact with the outside world. Less than a century later, Franciscans had won high ecclesiastic offices, with Nicholas IV becoming the first Franciscan pope.
Saint Francis was a mystic, pledged to a life of utter poverty and suffering. He would have been appalled by the opulent treasures that bear his name. In 1226, he died quietly of malaria in a hovel near Assisi, and had asked only for a pauper's grave.
But Pope Gregory IX had other ideas. He laid the first stone for the magnificent church that would house Saint Francis's body. From then on, Italy's most creative stained glass artisans, painters, sculptors, gold and silversmiths worked year-in and year-out, to create the Assisi Basilicas, two of the most magnificent, highly decorated edifices of the late Middle Ages.
The ruling heads of Europe commanded the royal workshops and monasteries to present manuscripts, chalices and tapestries to the Saint Francis di Assisi Treasury. Large sums of money were donated by Henry III of England, and by King Wenceslaus of Bohemia. The French houses of Anjou and Valois also showered the treasury with gifts.
Thirty paintings from the 13th to 16th centuries grace the walls of the Lehman Wing at the Met. Outstanding among them are two tempera crucifixes by "The Blue Crucifix Master" dating from the mid-13th century. These Umbrian or Emilian works were probably painted expressly for the Basilica. They are unrivaled for their lyrical quality and the highly stylized rendering of Christ's suffering.
Two panels by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of the principal painters of Siena and the most influential of his day, deserve our special attention. Lorenzetti's Virgin and Child is a mature work completed 10 years after his stint in Assisi working on frescoes in the lower church. The psychological atmosphere here is different from other Madonnas with child -- here the child looks intently into his mother's eyes, while her gaze is directed at the viewer. Lorenzetti abandoned the strictly linear construction of previous artists and worked his painting to the very edge of the panel.
The second Lorenzetti features the image of Saint Margaret, or as some critics had thought, Saint Cecilia. She is a very beautiful, golden-haired young woman. Her left hand touches her red scarf, her right hand holds a crucifix lightly. While the panel shows some wear at the edges, its spirituality and freshness belie the six centuries that have passed since its creation.
Who can deny the majestic quality of the Reliquary of the Seamless Robe, made by a Parisian Workshop late in the 13th century. Undoubtedly a royal commission, it is cast, embossed, chased and rendered in gilded silver. Slender columns support a group of arches, with a radiant Christ at its center. Saint Francis and Saint Clare occupy positions in niches right and left. A nativity scene in low relief is inscribed on the back of the object. The shrine holds a number of relics, most importantly the "Seamless Robe," which represents the unity and indivisibility of the Church.
Twelve manuscripts, mostly of French origin, are a major component of the "Treasury." Two full-page miniatures present a crucifixion and a Christ of the Apocalypse flanked by symbols of the four evangelists. The miniatures are pages from a richly worked 13th century missal, and contain numerous ornamented letters. They were commissioned by French royalty and Franciscan friars who had arrived in Paris in 1219 to fill important university teaching posts. Queen Blanche of Castille, the French queen, entrusted the friars with the education of her son, the future King Louis IV, later Saint Louis.
Contrasting with these many sumptuous objects, are 13th and 14th century ceramics from the workshop of Assisi. Their simplicity of design and high quality are right in step with the taste and philosophy of Saint Francis. Among the rich treasures, these simple ceramics would no doubt have been the saint's choice.