Church of San Francesco (1247 - 1303)
Saint Francis visited Ascoli during his extensive travels in 1215, and his example and his work inspired the creation of various Franciscan communities in the area, including those at Campoparignano, Offida, Fermo and Amandola.
We know that there was a Franciscan community in Montefiore in 1200. The Papal Bull of Innocent IV of June 1247 states that the church was built with donations collected by the monks themselves.
Inscribed on a stone still to be found in the cloisters we can read:
URBANUS PAPA IV BENEDIXIT ANNO DOMINI MCCLXIV .(Pope Urban IV blessed (this) in the year of our Lord 1264).
The date is reliable and also the blessing. This Pope was elected in 1261 and it is known that he travelled around Lazio and Umbria and beyond during the first few years of his Papacy. In fact he died in 1264 in a Franciscan convent in Deruta , Umbria.
The architect of this church in Montefiore is almost certainly the same as that of the contemporary churches in Fermo and Ascoli, Antonio Vipera of Ascoli.
The construction of the church certainly took a long time, as is attested by the inscription which was originally on the magnificent Gothic portal, and part of it now can be found in the sacristy:
ANNIS MILLE FUIT TRECENTIS HOC TRIBUS ACTUM / NE VIDEAS PLUS MENTE COLAS QUI LIMINA CERNIS / PULCRIOR IN DOMIBUS LICET ANXIA PORTA SUPERNIS.
(This doorway was constructed in 1303. Do not just contemplate it, you who stand at the entrance. Rather think that it is beautiful if narrow, it is the door to the kingdom of Heaven.)
A few years ago, during soundings carried out as part of work to resolve serious problems with damp at the base of the old façade of the Sacristy, it was discovered that the present walls had been constructed on top of earlier walls, probably the basement of a small chapel dedicated to the Madonna.
The main entrance and the external structure is clearly romanesque-gothic in style, recognisable by a series of small arches at the top of the external walls and the earlier apse (which is the current entrance.) These decorations were only added in 1600 when the whole church was restructured, transforming it into a unique, and yet recognisable example of the Baroque style.
What remains of the original church are significant elements which are striking in their beauty and magnificence. Whoever enters the Church of Saint Francis, after having crossed the small semicircular room which was the original apse, will notice, almost hidden in the left hand wall, the powerful monument commissioned by Cardinal Gentile Partino, in honour of his parents. This monument was described in detail by the famous historian from Fermo, De Minicis.
This monument consists of a large base with steps which are now covered by the floor of the new church, and above this a platform decorated with six columns.
There is a large marble sepulchre with the reclining figures of Partino’s parents in old age. His father is on the right, wearing a cap typical of the 14th century and his mother , on the left, is wearing a veil that hangs down on either side of her head. Both are enveloped in long gowns which reveal the feet of the man but not of the woman. Their hands are folded and they are wearing long gloves. Two angels hold open a curtain, with an inscribed text above them.
On the topmost level there is a statue of the virgin and child in typically romanesque style with two more angels. To the left one can see the coat of arms of the Cardinal consisting of five mountains with an oak tree with acorns on each. All is contained within a kind of niche, the roof of which is decorated with an elaborate leaf pattern.
Unfortunately the artist who created this magnificent, moving sepulchre is unknown.
Moving on into the church, one can find the other major artistic gem that the church has to offer. Up a few steps inside the bell tower one can see the extraordinary cycle of frescoes which decorate the upper part of the apse. This series of paintings was lost for many years, hidden behind a thick covering of plaster which was probably added when the church was undergoing changes in organisation, or after one of the rare bouts of plague, when the church had to be completely disinfected and a layer of whitewash painted all over the walls.
The frescoes consist of a pictorial cycle. At the bottom we can see the last stages of the life of Christ: The meeting with the Madonna on the road to Calvary, Jesus on the cross, Jesus being laid in the sepulchre and Jesus rising into the heavens. Above this we have the childhood of Christ: the massacre of the innocents, the wedding at Canaan, the meeting with Saint Elizabeth and the triumphal entrance of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Higher still we can see the adoration of the magi, the nativity, the dream of Saint Joseph, and the crowning of the Virgin Mary. At the very top the images are in a very poor condition, but represented the Evangelists and other patriarchs of the church.
The restoration of the artwork in the church began in the 1950s and finished in 1971. No one knows exactly who painted these wonderful images, which are put down the anonymous ‘Maestro di Offida’ , but the most convincing theory is that Cardinal Gentile commissioned the work, as he had for the chapel at Assisi, from Simone Martino and his pupils in Siena. Others have suggested that it was someone from the school of Giotto and the Rimini school.
There was another major artwork in this church, the wonderful Polttico of Carlo Crivelli, but that has since been moved to the Polo Museale (Museum centre)
The actual structure of the church underwent a radical transformation in the second half of the 16th century, being completed in 1698. However, internal restructuring continued up to 1752, and this involved complete reorganisation of the internal layout in order to allow the faithful to enter from the town and not from outside the town walls. This work was overseen by the architect from Lombardy, Interlenghi, who had taken on similar undertakings at other churches. Underneath the floor of the church there are still tombs of the most ancient and illustrious families from Montefiore: Luzi, Primari, Caffarini, Barlocci, Pacetti and Mozzoni.
On the right as you enter you will find a sarcophagus made by Luigi Morosini in 1950, dedicated to the illustrious local painter Adolfo de Carolis, with a fresco of the resurrection above it, painted by his student and son-in-law Diego Pettinelli. In the background you can see a scene strongly reminiscent of the local Montefiorean landscape. It can honestly be said that every stone of this church could tell us a thousand stories of the vicissitudes of the town and its people. Locked up inside it is the key to understanding this fertile land, which has produced so many brilliant artists, whose works will never cease to amaze and delight us.
Interior of the church of San Francesco