Medieval Street Theater on the Move

April 10, 2012 / Events
Assisi, Umbria
Countless religious customs – and innumerable processions in particular – are rooted in medieval street theater. Assisi’s Holy Thursday and Good Friday traditions are living examples. On Holy Thursday night in the 12th-century San Rufino cathedral, the crucified Christ image is detached from His Cross in the ceremony of the scavigliazione (literally: “un-ankle-ing”) and laid on a wine-colored funeral bier, covered with a gold-fringed burgundy canopy.

Then early on Good Friday morning, Confraternity members in their caped tunics heft the funeral bier bearing the Cristo Morto onto their shoulders in solemn procession from the San Rufino cathedral on the eastern end of the town to the Basilica di San Francesco to the west. Barefoot, hooded figures in white tunics – i penitenti – heads crowned with thorns, precede the Cristo Morto, the clergy, and the townspeople with only a lone drum beating a melancholic funeral dirge. (All the bells in Assisi are silenced on Holy Thursday until they erupt in a joyous peal on Easter Sunday morning).

The morning procession then stops at three convents so that the nuns can venerate Christ, kissing His feet, the sword wound in His side, and placing flowers on the bier.

The Procession concludes at the Lower Basilica of San Francesco, where the Cristo Morto remains for popular veneration all day. On Good Friday night, Assisiani and visitors will join in the evocative nocturnal Processione del Cristo Morto (“Dead Christ Procession”) as the statue of the la Madre Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother) – heart pierced with seven swords symbolizing her seven sorrows as she followed her Son on his Via Crucis – is carried out of the Cathedral di San Rufino, in search of her Son.

The Good Friday nighttime procession concludes when La Madre Dolorosa reunites with her Son at the Basilica di San Francesco. The statues of Cristo Morto and la Madre Dolorosa are then born in slow solemnity through the winding medieval backstreets, back to the Cathderal of San Rufino. And the curtain closes on this amazing re-evocation of medieval street theater.

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See for more on her Umbria tours. Do see for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

19 Responses to “Medieval Street Theater on the Move”

  1. Anne Robichaud

    Anne, I do wish we had been there with you. What a phenomenal experience it must have been. Our experience on the Assisi/Spello tour a few years ago was the highlight of our trip. Now we follow you regularly on your blog and on Italian Notebook. You are always our favorite contributor. Can’t wait to be with you on the Perugia/Deruta tour very soon!

  2. Susan Caracciolo

    When I was a child in Brooklyn, NY, we had a similar tradition. On Good Friday evening, our crucified Christ that hung above the altar was detached from His Cross also,laid in a glass ‘casket’ and carried in a somber procession through the nearby streets. I can remember the intense quiet as His ‘body’ passed by. My sister and I were busy coloring eggs and we would stop to witness the procession.

  3. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks, Janet / sorry to have missed you in our tour this year! Remember the wonders? Glad you enjoyed / and pictures are mine…and Kathyt, glad you are here with us in Assisi / looking forward to touring with you again…and sorry you missed Good Friday in Assisi…next yr?.

  4. This procession was beyond stunning! It’s something that everyone should see … Assisi for Easter was perfect. Thanks, Annie!

  5. Deborah Salae


    I’m a relatively new visiter to the Italian Notebook, but I have to say, Anne, that you are by far my favorite contributor. Not only do you showcase such interesting facets of life in Italy, but your photos and your writing are superb. Thank you so much and please keep up the good work!

  6. Angela Melczer

    Beautifully written…I feel like I was almost there! Thanks for sharing this experience with us Annie.

  7. Street theater is probably one of my favorite European traditions. Solemn and powerful. Thanks for this!

  8. Just loved this essay – beautiful photos of the solemn processions take me back to my youth. I always look forward to Anne’s writings because they are so informative and the pictures make me want to be there.

    Hope you had a Wonderful Easter. Thank you, Marianna

  9. Extraordinarily beautiful and very moving. Anne, you are a spiritual and gifted old soul. Thank you, for all your awesome contributions. Does Assisi attract many tourists during holy week to see the solemn processions? I would love to see all this someday.

  10. Mary Cappiello

    As usual, Anne Robichaud’s given us another wonderfully clear and informative bit of Assisi tradition and history, with pictures that so beautifully illustrate it all!

  11. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks to all and CR, yes, many come to participate in the traditions and MOST are Italian! Mostly just the “locals” participate in the morning procession to the cloistered 7 30 a.m

  12. Nancy Mazza

    Anne, what an amzing tradition. I had no idea. Thanks for the thorough explanation and photos. Very moving. I look forward to your next post. I love them all. A little taste of Italy for me in CA.

  13. Kathy Weeks

    When I can’t be in Assisi in person, I love reading Anne’s wonderfully descriptive and emotional writings on everything from daily life to special events. A tour group of mine was very blessed to be present for the processions, traditions, and celebrations honoring St. Francis one October…never to be forgotten. This writing about Pasqua in Assisi was so detailed that I felt I was there…at least in spirit! The photos were superb. Grazie mille come sempre, amica mia!!

  14. Anne, I love your stunning photos and descriptions of the processions and celebrations during the Holy days in Assisi . I have been to Assisi many times on my own, but you bring so much depth and meaning to the experience. I cannot wait to be with you in Assisi this summer to hear all you have to share with our group!


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