The founding date of the church is unknown. However, it’s possible that in Pavia (like in Milan) the arrival of the Franciscan order happened at the end of the twenties of the thirteenth century: located at first outside the walls of the city, the friars founded a church in the city from the end of the following decade. Donations for the construction of a church inside the city walls are documented in 1267, 1277 and 1286: they are proof of a particular slowness in the works, but, when in 1298 the Franciscan friars left the outside site giving it to the Carmelite order, the big building was surely finished. The eighteenth-century restructuration of the building, the interpretative restoration works of the end of the nineteenth century and of the fifties of the twentieth century have left deep signs. In particular, after 1732 Giovanni Ruggeri built the Virgin’s chapel in the northern head of the transept; in the eighteenth century, also two lateral portals were opened on the façade (they were probably absent in the original project); at the end of the nineteenth century there was a new intervention on the façade, regaining the original twin portal and the above window, with three lights and tracery oculus into a big lancet arc. Finally, the restoration works by Aschieri at the half of the twentieth century removed all the interior Baroque additions, included the masonry vaults of the central nave.
The building shows a cross-shaped structure, that links a western sector (with a basilican plant and three naves) to the presbytery (with a central plant, same-sized arms and couples of little square chapels on the eastern sides of the transept). The clear difference between the two parts of the building, one in Romanic and the other in late-Gothic style, identifies the back of the more ancient church as the part reserved to the friars and the front as the part dedicated to the churchgoers. This difference is underlined by the different height and system of the vaulted roofs.
Outside, faces and decorative elements show a careful and high quality workmanship: the presbytery is marked by elegant buttresses and crowned by a series of cylindrical spires with conic covering, on the fronts and over the little pediment projecting on the roof. A fine frame with interwoven pensile arcs runs all around the perimetric profile at the base of the roof, standing out on the face, made of bricks connected with great regularity. Above, a motif with polychrome overlapping rhombuses, very usual in the Romanic art of Pavia, decorates also the endings of the buttresses. The presbytery was lighted by windows with one light provided with archivolt and simple moulding, and a big rose window now closed. On the north-eastern corner of the cross, there is the bell tower, adorned by decorative frames with arcs and rhombuses. Probably built between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century, the façade shows usual motifs in the architectural tradition of Pavia, but they are developed in an original way, with suggestions come from abroad. The interior division in three parts is underlined by the presence of buttresses and of the breaking on the pediment. Very striking the originality of the twin portal, that comes from the Franciscan cathedral of Assisi (according to French examples) and is maybe linked to the twin fornix of the urban doors (for example, Porta Nuova in Milan).
The church shows a basilican structure, eastward linked to a Greek-cross body. This body is made up by five spans with groined cross vault, on polystyle pillars. The longitudinal part is divided in three naves through brick columns with a circular section. The aisles have cross vaults, while the main part is covered by a beam trussed roof. On the sides of the aisles and on the eastern side of the transept there are chapels, at first with a constant dimension and lighted by narrow windows with one light.
The narrow windows with two lights are now opened, but the rose window is still closed. The altar is decorated by a frontal made of scagliola and representing the figure of St Francis, surrounded by elegant volutes, according to the eighteenth-century taste. The fifteenth-century wooden Crucifix, attributed to Baldino da Surso, comes from a side chapel, like the frescoes hanged at the walls, as the Virgin Mary with the Child and the Presentation at the Temple. At first, in the presbytery there was also the big allegoric painting representing the Triumph of the Franciscan religion, work of Francesco Barbieri, transferred in 1865 on the counter-façade of the right transept.
The wooden choir
Built about 1484 by the Donati brothers, the wooden choir is made up by 28 stalls with dossals decorated by vegetable motifs. The theme, similar to that of Sant’Ambrogio’s cathedral in Milan, is maybe inspired to the Garden of Eden. Other four dossals, stolen and ended up in the antiquarian market, were recovered and they are now preserved at the Civic Museums.
The Virgin’s Chapel
Far ahead of the proclamation of the dogma in 1854, the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception was working to build a new big chapel, extending the northern transept. Under the direction of the architect Giovanni Ruggeri at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the works started in 1732. The structure, with the precious marble covering, was finished in a decade. Designed by Antonio Longone, the dome is frescoed by Antonio Magatti of Varese, who painted also the four prophets on pendentives: Moses, Salomon, Isaiah, Osea. In 1777 the marble altar was completed, according to the project of the marquis Luigi Malaspina; the altarpiece is a work of art by Bernadino Ciceri. Beside the altar, two gilt wooden statues represent the Innocence and the Purity.
The Chapel of St Francis of Assisi, Francis of Paola and Francis of Sales
Ended at the beginning of the seventeenth century with a dome fitted with a lantern, the chapel still has all the decoration related to St Francis of Assisi. The angels, painted on the medals of the dome, are carrying his symbols (the Franciscan girdle, the roses, the thorns, the lily, the book, the cross, and the cloth with the track of the five stigmata, the wounds received by St Francis from Christ). In the centre, made of plaster, there is the seraph with the Christ’s face. The side walls are frescoed with two episodes of the saint’s life: on the left, Francis throws himself into the thorn bush to win the temptation, on the right the saint in front of the pope. On the underside of the arc, there is the order’s emblem: the crossed Christ’s and St Francis’s arms with the stigmata. On the lateral pilasters, you can see the Franciscan saints Antony of Padua and Chiara. The altarpiece represents St Francis of Paola appearing to St Francis of Sales, attributed to the painter Carlo Sacchi of Pavia, and comes from the abolished church of St Francis of Paola.
St Stephan’s Chapel
The chapel, wanted by the Beccaria family, is dominated by the altarpiece with the Stoning of St Stephan. Besides, on painted niches, there are St Francis and St Antony of Padua. The frescoed decoration, discovered in 2001, is datable between 1576 and 1587 and represents the episodes of St Stephan’s life: the saint in front of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the burial, the dream of the minister Luciano (that was told about the place of the saint’s sepulchre by Gamaliele), the translation of the body from Jerusalem to Costantinopoli and the appearance of the saint saving the sailors from the storm. On the vault, inside an oval frame, there is a beautiful painted representation of the Trinity.
St Mathew’s Chapel
The St Mathew’s Chapel is linked to Matteo Beccaria, died in 1547 and here buried. The altarpiece depicts St Mathew and the angel. It’s signed by Vincenzo Campi and dated 1588. To remember Matteo Beccaria and his wife Margherita Borromeo, the daughter Beatrice committed two elegant stone monuments one in front of the other, on the sides.