SAINT FRANCIS ASSISI AND THE SAN DAMIANO CROSS – Art as an instrument of God

– Miguel Augusto (*)

On October 4th, the Catholic Church celebrates one of Her greatest saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), approved by Pope Innocent III in the year 1209. We take the opportunity to speak about the cross of San Damiano, very cherished by the Franciscans. This cross was an instrument of God in the conversion of St Francis of Assisi, as St Clare used to say. It is a remarkable work of sacred art with a precious theological and evangelical message woven around the Passion of the Lord. The saint’s involvement with this icon gave rise to the admiration we now have for the Crucifix of St Damian.

In the summer of 1206, Francis was walking in the vicinity of San Damiano when he felt an interior tug of the Spirit to go within to pray. Obeying the inner voice, Francis enter the church of San Damiano, descended the worn staircase into the dark, smoke blackened vault and fell on his knees before the familiar icon.

Francis looked up into the serene face of the Crucified Lord, the icon’s eyes closed in death. “Most High glorious God,” he prayed, “enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command.” Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer until the only words spoken were the unspoken ones in his heart.

Almost imperceptibly, the eyes of the icon opened and the head nodded forward toward Francis. Somehow the movements seemed not startling but rather perfectly natural. From the Crucified spoke a tender, kind voice, a voice a parent might use in addressing a child: “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me.”

Francis, full of admiration, almost lost his senses in the face of what had happened. He was ready to fulfill the call of Christ, devoting himself entirely to the reconstruction of the small church in ruins.

Only with the passage of time, did Francis slowly come to realize that, the message to rebuild God’s house, went beyond the three Assisian chapels which Francis rebuild and repaired. God was calling Francis to rebuilt the Church itself.

The Crucifix of San Damiano

It is quite certain that the Crucifix was painted in the 12th century by an unknown artist, probably a monk from Umbria, region of Italy. The painting is of romantic style, under clear Eastern influence. We find the Byzantine style of art that found its way to Italy from Syria: in the beard of Christ; on the face surrounded by the framed hair; in the presence of the angels and on the cross with the long rod held in the hand by the Lord [only visible in the original painting]. The feet of Christ appear separated nailed.

Without the pedestal, the original Crucifix is two meters and ten centimeters high, and one meter and thirty centimeters wide. The painting was done in rough canvas, glued on walnut wood.

At that time, in the little churches, the Blessed Sacrament was not preserved, that is, the Eucharist was not kept, but consumed in the day itself. Therefore, it is supposed that the Crucifix was hung in the apse on the altar of the chapel, in the center of the Church.

Iconography of the Crucifix

The outline is formed with a multitude of shells, which indicates that this icon, is destined by its nature to reveal the heavenly mystery. Shells, for their beauty and longevity, were a symbol of beauty and eternity of Heaven.

The central figure is the Christ, who dominates the “painting,” by its imposing dimension and by the light that His splendid white figure diffuses over all the people that surround Him. This life-giving light that springs from the interior of His Person (Jn 8:12), is further emphasized by the strong colors, especially red and black.

Jesus presents a halo of glory with the eastern triumphant cross, instead of a crown of thorns, because he has become victorious in Passion and Death.

The Lord is naked, covered only by a loincloth tied to his hips. It is very important to point out what Jesus is wearing, because through his vestments we can know what function He exercises in this icon. It is a loincloth of linen hemmed in gold, tied with care at the waist. The linen and gold were used as typical priestly vestments by Jewish high priests of the Old Testament. Jesus then, by wearing this loincloth acts as a priest. He is the new priest but at the same time he is the victim of sacrifice: on the cross, the new altar of God, he becomes the true mediator between God and man by offering Himself – Lamb without blemish – in remission for our sins.

The signs of the crucifixion, and the bloody wounds appear, but the redemptive blood spreads over the angels and saints (blood of the hands and feet) and on St. John (blood on the right side).

Christ appears alive, resurrected, standing on the empty and open tomb (indicated by the black color), visible from behind. With outstretched hands, Christ stands to ascend to Heaven.

The inscription above His head: “Jesus Nazarenus Rex Judaeorum” Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews, is mentioned in the Gospel of St John wish inspires the artist. Above the inscription is a portrayal of the Ascension: Christ emerging from a red circle, holding a golden cross which is now His sceptre. A host of angels welcome him into heaven, while at the very top of this scene, the right hand of God the Father is extended in benediction.

The colors red and purple, are symbols of the divine; the green and the blue, of the terrestrial.

To the right of Christ’s body are the figures of Mary and John, closely united. Mary indicates the beloved disciple with the right hand (Jn 19:26). On the left are the two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, the first witnesses of the Resurrection (Jn 19:25). Although Mary on the right, and Mary Magdalene on the left, both raise a hand to the face in pain, none of the other figures nearby express deep suffering, but a full involvement of faith in the victorious Christ, Savior. To the right of the two women one sees the centurion with the hand raised, looking at the Crucifix. With this gesture he is telling us: “This is truly the Son of God!” (Mt 27:54). On the shoulders of the centurion, we notice the head of a person in miniature, whose identity is discussed: might be the son of the royal official, healed by Jesus (Jn 4:50) or a representative of the crowd, or the unknown author of the painting.

At the feet of Mary and the centurion, is the soldier named Longinus, who pierced the side of Jesus with the spear, and the bearer of the sponge, called Stephaton, according to tradition (Jn 19:29).

Under the hands of Jesus, on the right and left, are two angels with their hands raised, in intense colloquy. They seem to announce the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord. On the extreme right and left of the Crucifix, the two people seem like angels or perhaps women who come to the empty tomb. At Jesus feet, the original painting is very deteriorated. There they are likely to be: St Damien, St Rufinus, St John the Baptist, St Peter and St Paul. Over the head of St Peter is the figure of the rooster [visible only in the original painting], which resembles the denial of Peter to Christ. On the opposite side, is a very faint creature almost impossible to see – intentionally nearly invisible – is that of a cat or a fox, both symbols of secretive, sly acts of treachery and deceit.

In 1257, Poor Clare Sisters took the cross from San Damiano – when they left the little church that also served as their convent – and kept it in the Church of San Giorgio, in Assisi, for several centuries. In the year 1938, it was restored with great precision by the artist Rosaria Alliano.

The Icon of San Damiano was placed in public view for the first time, during Holy Week 1957.

It has been there since 1958, permanently placed over a new altar, protected by a glass, in the San Giorgio chapel, and is now always available for public viewing.

The venerated image, after 800 years, in 2016, as part of the initiatives of the Jubilee of Mercy, has returned to the original temple of San Damiano in a “truly exceptional event”, as the Franciscan community qualifies, with much emotion.

(*) with Franciscan sources

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