The Upper Basilica of the Assisi Cathedral hosts Giotto’s frescos depicting the life of Saint Francis. Construction of the basilica began in 1228, the day after Saint Francis was canonized. Saint Francis, the son of a rich Umbrian merchant, abandoned all his wealth and privileges, embodying the return to an evangelical model of Christian charity and humility. The best artists of the day were hired to decorate the basilica. The painter Cimabue came to Assisi with a group of students to begin work. Among them was a young Giotto, who began painting frescos depicting stories from the New and Old Testaments, and on the Story of Isaac in particular.
Nearly 20 years later the apprentice had become a master, and the head of the Franciscan order entrusted Giotto with the task of painting a series of frescos portraying the life of Saint Francis. For Giotto this was the chance of a lifetime. There were no codified iconographic traditions about the Saint’s life tying his hands. He had an enormous white wall he could fill however he liked. The painter chose to depict the humanity of his characters, expressing their physicality and emphasizing natural elements in the landscape, thereby doing his best to interpret the Franciscan message of love for all God’s creations. In the episode in which Saint Francis renounces his earthly goods, the Saint was portrayed naked. God’s hand pointed at Francis as the sole guardian of the Christian message. There were many scenes in which the crowds were drawn as a single, united body. But Giotto did not abandon individuality. He paid attention to the physiognomies of his individual characters, and took care to dress them realistically. The fourteenth-century visitor felt as if he were looking upon a scene taken from real life.
Giotto’s skill in painting with modern perspective is evident in the Presepe di Greccio, where a backwards-leaning crucifix emphasized the depth of the scene. The landscape and background grew richer and more varied from one fresco to the next. The small trees on the rocks of the Miracolo della fonte created a hostile environment and accentuated the uniqueness of the supernatural event, while the thick, blooming trees in the La predica agli uccelli underlined the benevolence of Nature. An earthquake struck Assisi in 1997, damaging the inside of the basilica. A long restoration process was completed in 2006. The basilica hosting Giotto’s frescoes depicting the life of Saint Francis can be found in Assisi, in central Italy.