This time last week was, for me, the end of an incredible day. We had gathered early to walk up to the Basilica San Francesco, a colossal church on top of a church on top of the tomb of St Francis. Arriving before the crowds, we stood amazed inside the Upper Church as we gazed at the ancient frescoes of Bible stories and the life of St Francis.
The leader of our trip, the Dean of Clare College, gave us a tour of the frescoes. Consulting the little blue guide book and his own wide knowledge he picked out details in the images and brought the story of the Saint’s life to life in front of us. Without his words, however, the story was still told by the pictures.
Looking upwards we could see that the ceiling was as equally decorated as the walls, with mosaic-like patterns bordering vast expanses of star-studded deep blue. The Lower Church was similarly arrayed; no inch of ceiling or wall was left void of colour and life and story (here, mainly Bible stories).
In essence, to visit this Basilica is to walk inside a painting, an incredible three dimensional picture-story of the grace of God as told by the Bible and the life of Francis of Assisi.
In the Lower Church it felt to me as if the bright pigments would start to rub off on you, as if your skin would begin to become the images. Stars would fall from the ceiling and imprint themselves onto your fingertips; the deep blue would begin to spread up your arms. At your shoulders the blue would meet a terracotta mosaic border, a border separating your arms’ painted sky from scenes of Jesus’ life.
Look! Across your body is Mary holding Jesus close; the wise men follow a star to reach him. A little lower he teaches at twelve years old in the temple, and just to the left he teaches at thirty. Next he fills the cleansing jars with water-turned-wine; people stand amazed and overflowing with joy.
Your skin takes on the stories, the paintings of this incredible place. And then you lift your eyes up to the cross – love and sorrow root right into your heart as you see an image of your Saviour’s death. It is more than too much to precisely put into words…and you leave the church, after a time, and walk out into the sunlight.
Looking at your skin you see no stars or paint or deep blue, yet you feel the effects of dwelling inside such a painting for a little while – like a prayer. It’s as if you’ve changed a little in seeing and reflecting on depictions of your faith’s stories, as if you’ve somehow absorbed some of the significance of the stories by being inside them.
Not quite aside from such imaginative reflection, Rowan Williams writes in his book The Lion’s World* (ciao leone) that
what ultimately matters is desire for the truth, whatever the cost; but that desire is only met in the face of the true God and in letting him tell you your story
I think that’s what I felt as I walked through the Basilica just over one week ago – the importance of the story that God is writing over and above any story that I might write about myself or others.
To see images of fundamental scenes in God’s story illuminated on the walls of that incredible building was for me an incredible experience, reminding me just how beautiful it is that God has written each of us into his story and longs for us to let him tell it to us.
So into next week and the week after and the week after that, I take imagined stars painted on my fingertips as reminders that God holds the pen that is authoring my life.
*The Lion’s World, Rowan Williams, p.110 (SPCK 2012)