«From Giotto to Cimabue in the Basilica of St Francis I gravitated towards the Byzantine crucifix that spoke to St Francis. In the convent of S. Damiano I began to read the Little Flowers of St Francis (…). A stranger drew me from my solitude and my restlessness and brought me to the Pro Civitate Christiana where, even though its members didn’t know me, I was given a greeting of such affection as I was never to forget. Don Giovanni Rossi asked me in all simplicity if I was thinking of becoming Catholic. My unconvincing “no’ was a confession. It was one of the most decisive moments of my life. “I will return” I said as I left. But I knew I was running away from the very truth I sought, from the very salvation whose sign and symbol had arisen in my paintings.»
In fact it was to be nine years before Congdon was to return to Assisi and convert to Catholicism. Those were years packed with traveling, escapes and returns, but the Basilica of St Francis became, in its absence, the touchstone for every place.
«My romanticism exacted new and stranger sensations. As though assailed by a cosmic urge to embrace the whole earth in one monumental image, I traveled rapidly and constantly, seeking, in the redemptive symbols of others, substitutes for my own salvation. In India, my symbol was the enormous alabaster tomb of the Taj Mahal, candid and pure, while from the skies vultures dove on the cadavers of dogs that floated in the Jumna River below. In Greece, the golden Parthenon reassured me of eternity (…). In Egypt, the Pyramids spread vast triangles of refreshment and consolation against the fire of the desert. In Istanbul, the golden dome of St Sophia maternally nourished the black frenetic city. (…) The disc of light, the image of my salvation which had once been the radiant basilica of San Marco now became a disc of lava, the black core of a volcano in the Aegean Sea.
I returned to my studio in Italy. In my spirit there was no image; I had no will, not even the desperation to paint. The first revelation which was my painting already bore the seed of my second revelation which was my conversion. In other words, the moon or the disc of gold which had risen avove my Black City in 1949 as a sign of yearning for a spiritual haven, ha become the church. In my disc of gold shone the church. I now plunged into it. »
On 15 August 1959, William Congdon was baptized in the Basilica of Assisi. The dissolving city of Venice gave way to the solidity of Assisi, where Congdon went to live on the invitation of Don Giovanni Rossi.«I can never say that I loved it [Assisi] in the sense of the love I have for Venice… because Venice was mine, while Assisi never belonged to anyone because it was St Francis’s (…) Assisi converted me, Venice made me paint… Ah, Venice! It is all tinsel (…) Assisi is stripped clean like a bone, Assisi is the bone (…) the bone is everything because it is nothing. There is nothing. You have to dress it (…) I say that It is Assisi itself, St. Francis that permeates its stones. I don’t love them, he annoys me, St Francis. He bores me. It bores me, but he is the bone… Here is the bone, the base, the skull, it is Christ himself.»