As an atheist, I do not believe in God.

However, as a traveller, I’m interested in God. 

It is important to me to know something about the major forces which define people’s lives in the countries I visit: the politics and economics for example – as well as what they believe in. After all, most human beings on our planet believe in God – or at least, some kind of existence after death.

Travelling for me then is a way of learning as well as reflecting on what I’ve seen. Mulling over the why’s and wherefores of the lot of our human species in all its breathtaking variations. 

In April this year Anya and I flew to Perugia in the province of Umbria in Italy, with the plan of walking and visiting historic towns. We began and ended our Umbrian journey in Assisi.

It was during our time in this well-known historic town that I acquainted myself with the famous Catholic Saint Francis born in Assisi in the 12th century and founder of the Franciscan order – and which led to Assisi becoming a major pilgrimage destination not only for Italians, but also Christians from all over Europe.

Today though, there was not a pilgrim to be seen. Only tourists. What had happened? Why had the Christian religion lost its hold in a country that was home to the Vatican and the Papacy?

And following up that story, a basic realisation occurred to me: religion, in whatever incarnation, is rarely an immutable ideology.

How it is worshipped and what it means for its followers changes in time, no better example than the rise and fall of Saint Francis and the Fransican Order…..

Saint Francis of Assisi was a mystic and ascetic. He embraced a life of extreme poverty in the quest to ‘live like Christ’, which duly became the motto of the order of monks created by the Pope and named after him.

“Follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and walk in his footsteps.”

It struck me that there was a glaring contradiction here.

Jesus Christ was not essentially an ascetic or a mystic.

He preached a message of love, compassion and forgiveness but he also condemned the class of Jewish priests who operated as money lenders in the temples – enriching themselves at the expense of the common people – and in league with the Roman occupiers of Palestine. If there was an ascetic side to Jesus – his communion with God in the desert for example –then it was nevertheless only one side of what was essentially a social reformer; a man who in the modern context might well be accused of being a dangerous left wing agitator (the theme of the legendary song of Woodie Guthrie and used by Mike Moore at the end of his film ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’).

How then to explain the rise of Francis of Assisi with his single minded and extreme ascetism? 

His unfounded belief that to engage in extreme deprivation was ‘walking in the footsteps of Christ’? 

And furthermore, the Pope’s blessing of this fanatic who had no training as a priest?

I mulled over this question as I joined the tourists visiting the church in the centre of Assisi dedicated to Saint Francis and which once long ago had been visited by legions of pilgrims from all over Europe – rather that tourists.


Francis of Assisi was a product of early Medieval Europe.

The Christianity worshipped then was unrecognizable to us today. It was something more akin to one of the Islamist fundamentalist sects we are more familiar with, such as the Taliban or the I.S.

The Medieval epoch was dominated by the idea of ascending to Heaven by sacrificing one’s life on the battlefield. The papacy was the most powerful institution in Europe and the Pope could consign people, including the rich and the powerful, to burn in Hell for ignoring his edicts – and these edicts called for religious war against unbelievers – not only the Moslems occupying Palestine (the ‘Holy Land’) and the Iberian Peninsula – but also deviant Christian sects such as the Cathars in southern France or the pagan tribes inhabiting wide areas of northern and eastern Europe.

It was in this setting that Christ was seen as the son of God and also the proof that the Christians had the right God, the only God. The most important theme regarding Jesus was his crucifixion at the hands of unbelievers – the Romans and the dominant Jewish elites. The crucifixion was a crime which needed to be avenged; it was proof that the infidel wherever they were, had to be fought and subdued. The Sermon on The Mount and the Jesus of love, forgiveness, charity, was conveniently sidelined.   

In Medieval Europe, the artistic portrayal of the crucifixion Christ showed him as an  emaciated, stick like figure, more a symbol than a real human being. His skeletal form was there to remind the viewer of his imminent fate. Angels hovered above him to emphasize the ever present reality of The Beyond. Spirituality was a concept belonging to the realm after death. Life was lived in order to gain ascension to that realm.   

This was the setting in which Francis of Assisi could make the unfounded claim that Christ was an ascetic, a kind of masochistic self-flagellant.  It also explains why he received the blessing of the Pope; his version of Christ was consistent with that propagated by the Vatican. If Francis of Assisi had dared to suggest something different, he would have been burnt at the stake rather than elevated to a saint.


After my visit to the church of Saint Francis, I sat on a bench looking over a wide square thronging with Italian tourists. And it was then that the memories of a former journey to Italy came to mind.

I first saw a copy of a painting of the crucifixion by Giovanni Bellini in the most unlikely place imaginable – hanging on the wall of a seedy hotel in Palermo, Sicily.

I’d spent the previous month in the north of Italy preoccupied with The Renaissance, a time of profound artistic and intellectual change in Europe, in which the city states of northern Italy played a seminal role. Yet it was at the opposite end of Italy, that had played no part in the Renaissance, that I encountered what for me was a painting, an image, which symbolised in a very powerful way the birth of a new version of Christianity. 

The painting was entirely dominated by the three figures of Mary, Jesus and John. There was no cross, no Roman soldiers and no angels – standard fare in the past for portrayals of that quintessential scene of the Crucifixion.

Jesus, with his bearded face and his long hair bound by a crown of thorns, was supported by Mary on his right and John, on his left. His naked body was lean, even athletic, and his face was turned towards Mary and his eyes were closed. He was dead and his face was in deep repose. Striking was the sheer physicality of Jesus; this was a beautiful body, the body of a young man struck down in the prime of his life. He was real, so real, that I had to almost wince at the cruelty of his demise.

Mary, clad in a long black drape was holding his hand with a wound from a nail next to his chest; her face was the face of a mother who has seen her son tortured cruelly to death and her sadness was almost tangible.

John had his right hand on the stomach of Jesus and his was looking away, with his mouth open, in utter shock.

This was an absolute masterpiece not only in terms of the drawing, colour and composition, but above all in its radical and unprecedented portrayal of one of the oldest religious scenes in the world; all the rules and protocols from the past had been broken and in their place was an immensely moving and beautiful scene.

Jesus, Mary and John were portrayed as real human beings with emotions rather than icons of an organized religion.

The painting was timeless, relevant to the sufferings of human beings from whatever time period, place, religion or ethnicity. There was almost a sense in which the painting was suggesting that there was nothing inherently divine about Christ’s crucifixion; he was an ordinary mortal – a human being rather than the son of God –  who had suffered a terrible injustice and been arbitrarily executed. His fate and that of Mary and John was just as applicable to the human lot in today’s world as it was in the ancient.

Here was the basis of a humane religion presaging all of our modern Western ideals of human rights, compassion, anti-racism and equality; ideals which the non-believers shared with the true believers. 

Yes, this was progress: from Saint Assisi to Giovanni Bellini. It was a profound change in the way Jesus was seen and worshipped. 

And Italy was where it all unfolded. 


Today, Assisi is a popular tourist destination.

In early March, the number of tourists was low compared to a month later. The  tourists were mostly Italian. None of them pilgrims. Those days were well and truly over. No one came to Assisi to worship its famous saint.

In a city once thronging with pilgrims were boisterous Italians and their children and their grandparents enjoying time together.

Something was definitely going right with the world…..

Assisi, Umbria

Thank you for looking at my site, cheers, Peter