San Damiano Cross
PRAYER BEFORE A CRUCIFIX
St. Francis of Assisi
Lord Jesus Christ,
here and in all your
churches in the whole world,
and we bless you,
because by your holy cross
you have redeemed the world.
A Brief Explanation
By: Fr. Michael Scanlon, T.O.R.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Province, USA
The San Damiano Cross
is the one St. Francis was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to
rebuild the Church. The original cross presently hangs in Santa Chiarra (St.Clare) Church
in Assisi, Italy. All Franciscans cherish his cross as the symbol of their mission from
God. The cross is called an icon cross because it contains images of people who have a
part in the meaning of the cross. The tradition of such crosses began in the eastern
Church and was transported by Serbian monks to the Umbria district of Italy.
The San Damiano Cross was one of a number of crosses painted with similar figures during
the 12th century in Umbria. The name of the painter is unknown. The purpose of an icon
cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of
the people. These conclusions have been reached based on a thorough study of the history
of the cross and the literature concerning it. Very little literature is available in
English. Most of it can only be read in Italian or French. The author also found it very
helpful to compare the cross to similar crosses in Umbrian art.
Finally, much of the
English literature on the cross is faulty in its analysis since it dates back to sources
prior to 1938 when the cross was restored to its original depiction.
Reflections on The Cross of San Damiano
By Patrick McNamara, OFM,Cap.
I look to the Cross,
I gaze upon its figure,
I wait, I listen, I hope.
Will you speak, will
you move, will I be moved.
Will you once again
touch the heart of one who seeks.
Of one who questions, of one who seems so lost.
Will you embrace the
soul, as you did that of Francis.
Will you take it to Yourself.
Will you give it
peace, give it comfort, give it love
This soul waits,
listens, prays for such grace.
This soul seeks the Love from the Lover.
It wavers. It
stumbles. It falls.
Your gaze looks down,
Takes all, Loves All. Your Grace heals, accepts.
Again you respond,
Again you Love.
Again you speak to a searching and troubled heart.
I turn. I continue the journey. I continue in Hope.
I too have heard you Speak.
( A More Detailed Explanation )
The Crucifix of
History of the San Damiano Crucifix
An unknown Umbrian artist painted the
Crucifix Icon in the 12th Century. There is strong Syrian influence, and history tells us
that there had been some Syrian monks in the area.
It is painted on wood (walnut) to which cloth had been glued. It is about 190 cm high, 120
cms wide and 12 cms thick. It is more than likely it was painted for San Damiano to hang
over the Altar as the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved in non Parish Churches of those
times and especially those that had been abandoned and neglected as we know San Damiano
had been. In 1257 the Poor Clares left San Damiano for San Giorgio and took the Crucifix
with them. They carefully kept the Cross for 700 years.
In Holy Week of 1957, it was placed on public view for the first time over the new Altar
in San Giorgio's Chapel in the Basilica of St Clare of Assisi.
The Icon of
the Transfigured Christ
For Eastern Christians the Icon is a
representation of the living God, and by coming into its presence it becomes a personal
encounter with the sacred, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. The San Damiano Icon is
then a personal encounter with the transfigured Christ - God made man. The Crucifix
contains the story of the death, resurrection and ascension into glory. It expresses the
total and universal Paschal Mystery of Christ. It invites us all to take part in it with a
lively and lived faith, just as St Francis did. Christ's saving death is shown in John's
Gospel in its serene majesty, and this Crucifix portrays this in picture form. It is not
surprising that Saint Francis was attracted to this Icon and that the inspiration for his
life came from this Christ who spoke to him "Go repair my Church ... ".
The Figure of
The central figure of the icon is
Christ, not only because of the relative size, but because Christ is a figure of light
dominating the scene and giving light to the other figures "I am the light of the
world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
" (John 8:12). Christ stands upright, not nailed. The eyes of Jesus are open: He
looks out to the world, which He has saved. He is alive, the one who is eternal. Jesus'
vestment is a simple loin cloth - a symbol of both High Priest and Victim. The chest,
throat and neck are very strong, Jesus gives power of re-creation to His Disciples (John
22:23). He breathed on His Disciples (John 20:22), the Greek word used recalls the moment
of Creation (Gen 2:7). The shadow over the face of Jesus is increased by the fact the halo
and face are tilted forward on the original Icon. The humanity of Christ veils the true
glory of the Word who lives in the super illuminous darkness of the Godhead. Behind the
outstretched arms of Christ is His empty tomb, shown as a black rectangle.
The Ascension is portrayed within this circle of red: Christ is breaking out of the
circle, holding a golden cross which is now His Royal Scepter. His garments are gold - a
symbol of royalty and victory. His red scarf is a sign of His Dominion and Kingship;
exercised in love. Angels welcome Him into Heaven. IHS are the first three letters of the
name of Jesus. The little bracket above indicates it is shorthand. NAZARE is the Nazarene;
REX is' king' and IUDEORUM is 'of the Jews', which is reported in St John's Gospel
"Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews"
The Hand of
From within the semi-circle at the very top of the Icon, He whom no eye has seen reveals
Himself in a benediction. This blessing is given by the right hand of God with the finger
extended - the Holy Spirit. The Father gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to all because of
the merits of the Christ's Passion.
Around the Cross are various
calligraphic scrolls which may signify the mystical vine "I am the vine, you are the
branches... " (John 15), which also contain the words "Greater love has no
one than this, that one lays down one 's life for one friends ". At the base of
the cross there seems to be a section that looks like a rock - the symbol of the Church.
The seashells are symbols of eternity - a mystery hidden in the vast and timeless sea of
eternity is revealed.
As in John's Gospel, Mary and John are placed side by side. Mary's mantle is white meaning
victory (Rev 3:5), purification (Rev 7:14); and good deeds (Rev 19:8). The gems on the
mantle refer to the graces of the Holy Spirit.
The dark red worn under the mantic indicate intense love, while the inner dress is purple
- the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 26: 1-4).
Mary's left hand is raised to her cheek - her acceptance and love of John, and her right
hand points to John while her eyes proclaim acceptance of Christ's words "Woman,
behold your son... " (John 19:26). The blood drips on to John at this moment.
John's mantle is rose color indicating eternal wisdom, while his tunic is white - purity.
His position is between Jesus and Mary as is fitting for the disciple loved by both of
them. He looks at Mary "Son, behold your Mother", but points to Christ.
There are 33 figures in the Icon -
Two Christ figures, 1 Hand of the Father, 5 major figures, 2 smaller figures, 14 angels, 2
unknown at His hands, 1 small boy, 6 unknown at the bottom of the Cross and one rooster.
There are 33 nail heads along the frame just inside the shells and seven around the halo.
The Other Major
Mary Magdalene is next to Christ
making her very special; her hand is on her chin indicating a confided secret "He is
risen ". She wears scarlet, which is a symbol of love; her mantle of blue deepens
Some authorities make her the mother
of James. She wears garments of an earthen color a symbol of humility, and her light green
mantle - hope. Her admiration of Jesus is indicated by the gesture of her hand.
He holds a piece of wood in his left
hand, indicating his building of the Synagogue (Luke 7: 1 - 10). The little boy beyond his
shoulder is his son healed by Jesus. The three heads behind the boy show "he and
his whole household believed" (John 4: 45 - 54). He has extended his thumb and
two fingers, a symbol of the Trinity, while his two closed fingers symbolize the hidden
mystery of the two natures of Jesus the Christ. "Truly He is the Son of God"
The Lesser Figures:
The Roman soldier who pierced Jesus'
side with a lance.
Tradition gives this name to the
soldier who offered Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar wine after Jesus cried out "I
thirst" (John 19: 28 -30).
At the bottom of the Icon are six unknown saints whom Scholars postulate are SSTs Damian,
Rufinus, Michael John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, all patrons of Churches in the Assisi
area. St Damian was the Patron of the Church that housed the Cross and St Rufinus was the
Patron Saint of Assisi. There is too much damage of that area to make a proper
There sat two groups of angels - animatedly discussing the scene unfolded before them.
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever
believes in Him shall not die but have life everlasting" (John 3:16).
As mentioned before behind Christ is the open tomb;
Christ is alive and standing over the tomb. The red of love overcomes the black of death.
The gestures of the unknown saints at His hands indicate faith. Could these be Peter and
John at the empty tomb? (John 20: 3 - 9).
Firstly, the inclusion of the rooster
recalls the denial of Peter who wept bitterly. Secondly, the rooster proclaims the new
dawn of the Risen Christ 1 the true light (1 John 2:8). "But for you who revere my
name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in its wings" (Malachi 4:2 or
3:20 depending on your translation).
The Shape of
The shape of the Cross has changed to
enable the artist to include all who participated in the drama of the Passion. Note that
the arms of the cross lift to Christ's right indicating that the Good Thief (traditionally
called Dismas) went to Heaven; while the left hand dips - the other thief did not.
| Top of Page |