On the summit of an abrupt height, over a double row of arcades, appears the monastery; at its base a torrent plows the soil, winding off in the distance between banks of boulders; beyond is the old town prolonging itself on the ridge of the mountain. We ascend slowly under the burning sun, and suddenly, at the end of a court surrounded by slender columns, enter within the obscurity of the cathedral. It is unequalled; before having seen it one has no idea of the art and the genius of the Middle Ages. Append to it Dante and the “Fioretti” of St. Francis, and it becomes the masterpiece of mystic Christianity.
There are three churches, one above the other, all of them arranged around the tomb of St. Francis. Over this venerated body, which the people regard as ever living and absorbed in prayer at the bottom of an inaccessible cave, the edifice has arisen and gloriously flowered like an architectural shrine. The lowest is a crypt, dark as a sepulcher, into which the visitors descend with torches; pilgrims keep close to the dripping walls and grope along in order to reach the grating.
Here is the tomb, in a pale, dim light, similar to that of limbo. A few brass lamps, almost without lights, burn here eternally like stars lost in mournful obscurity. The ascending smoke clings to the archcs, and the heavy odor of the tapers mingles with that of the cave. The guide trims his torch; and the sudden flash in this horrible darkness, above the bones of a corpse, is like one of Dante’s visions. Here is the mystic grave of a saint who, in the midst of corruption and worms, beholds his slimy dungeon of earth filled with the supernatural radiance of the Savior.
But that which can not be represented by words is the middle church, a long, low spiracle supported by small, round arches curving in the half-shadow, and whose voluntary depression makes one instinctively bend his knees. A coating of somber blue and of reddish bands starred with gold, a marvelous embroidery of ornaments, wreaths, delicate scroll-work, leaves, and painted figures, covers the arches and ceilings with its harmonious multitude; the eye is overwhelmed by it; a population of forms and tints lives on its vaults; I would not ex-change this cavern for all the churches of Rome!
On the summit, the upper church shoots up as brilliant, as aerial, as triumphant, as this is low and grave. Really, if one were to give way to conjecture, he might suppose that in these three sanctuaries the architect meant to represent the three worlds; below, the gloom of death and the horrors of the infernal tomb; in the middle, the impassioned anxiety of the beseeching Christian who strives and hopes in this world of trial; aloft, the bliss and dazzling glory of Paradise.