The San Damiano Cross is a reproduction of the Cross St. Francis was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. The original Cross presently hangs in Santa Chiara (St. Clare Church in Assisi, Italy).
The Devotion: In the early days after his conversion, Francis was living a penitential life alone in the countryside outside of the walls of Assisi. One day, while passing the rundown church known as San Damiano (St. Damian), Francis heard an internal voice from his spirit tell him to go in and pray. He entered and knelt before the cross. There followed a time of contemplation and ecstasy. While gazing at the cross, Francis saw the lips of Jesus move and he heard the words, “Francis, go repair my house which as you see is falling completely to ruin.” Francis responded, “Gladly will I do so, Lord.” At first Francis concentrated on repairing the church buildings of San Damiano and nearby churches. Then when the Lord sent him many followers, he understood his commission to build up the lives of God’s people. Throughout the centuries the San Damiano Cross has symbolized a mission to bring renewal to the Church.
The Type of Cross: The San Damiano Cross is called an Icon Cross because it contains images of people who have a part in the meaning of the cross. The purpose of an Icon Cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people.
Christ Crucified: Jesus Christ is represented both as wounded and as strong. His halo already includes the picture of the glorified Cross. The coloring of the Lord’s body contrasts with the dark red and black around it and, therefore, accentuates the prominence of Jesus. This representation contrasts with the triumphant, regal Christ portrayed on the Cross in earlier centuries and the suffering, dying, crucified Christ depicted generally throughout the Church beginning in the 14th Century. Christ is represented in full stature. This is done to focus our attention on Jesus as the person to be worshiped. Above the head of Jesus is the inscription in Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Major Witnesses: The next largest figures are the five witnesses of the Crucifixion and witnesses of Jesus as Lord. On the left side are Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. John the beloved, to whom Jesus gave his mother. On the right side are Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and the Centurion who in Mark’s Gospel proclaims, “Truly this is the Son of God.” Both Mary and Mary Magdalene have their hand placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses are Saints who gave their lives for the Lord and are therefore represented with Halos of Sanctity. The Centurion is represented in the classic position of a Christian witness. The three fingers of his right hand are in the traditional sign for “I am speaking.” In a Christian context this means “I am testifying that Jesus is Lord.” The names of the five major witnesses are written beneath their picture.
Minor Witnesses: Three small figures are represented as witnessing the Crucifixion. On the lower left is Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance. He is represented here as holding the lance and looking up at Jesus. The blood running down the arm of Jesus begins at the elbow to drip straight down. It will land on the upturned face of Longinus. On the lower right is Stephaton. Stephaton is identified with the soldier who offered Jesus the sponge soaked in vinegar wine. The name Stephaton is a faulty derivation from the Greek word for sponge. While his knee length garment indicates Roman dress, the rest of his appearance would lead to the conclusion that he is a Jewish Temple Guard. Peering over the left shoulder of the Centurion is a small face. It is likely that the face of the observer is the face of the artist, who in accordance with the practice of the day, was both claiming authorship and immortalizing himself as a witness to Christ. Six Angels are represented as marveling over the event of the Crucifixion. They are positioned at both ends of the crossbar. Their hand gestures indicate they are both discussing this wondrous event of the death of the Son of God and calling us to marvel and worship with them. The Patron Saints: at the foot of the Cross there is a damaged picture of six figures, two of whom clearly have halos. In accordance with the tradition of the day, these six are the Patrons of Umbria: St. John, St. Michael, St. Rufino, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul. On the right side of the picture next to the left calf of Jesus there is a small rooster. This rooster represents the sign of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and is placed there as a warning to all of us not to be presumptuous of our strength or complacent in our faith. We need to turn to the Crucified Lord continually and seek the grace we need for our lives. The Heavenly Welcome: On the top of the Cross we see Jesus now fully clothed in his regal garments and carrying the Cross as a Triumphant Scepter. He is climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts. Ten angels are crowded around. Five of them have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Jesus, who himself has his hand raised in the form of a greeting. The Right Hand of God: at the very top of the cross is the right hand of the father with two fingers extended. Jesus is being raised from the dead by the right hand of God the Father. This can also be understood as the blessing of God the Father on all that Jesus has done. The Foot of the Cross: the black at the foot of the Cross provides a dark background of the wood of the Cross that accentuates the body of Jesus.
The Teaching: We are called first to see in the Cross the Paschal Mystery of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. The painter wants us to relate the parts of the mystery. We see the suffering connected with the wounds; we see the human and divine natures together; we see the rising from the tomb and the ascension into heaven; and we see that this is all done by the power of God. Our second lesson teaches the supreme importance of Christ. He dominates all other figures. The angels are very small in comparison and awed by his deeds. The saints are also considerably smaller and are focused on Jesus. They are witnessing the central event of history. Some are witnessing it in person gathered at the cross, while the Patron Saints continue to witness it in faith by their lives. You and I are identified with the observer. He and those behind him look on this wondrous event and are called to be witnesses as the Saints were. We are invited to adoration by the angels and cautioned not to presume our fidelity by the sign of the rooster.
The Prayer of St. Francis before the Cross at San Damiano
Most high glorious God, bring light to the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, insight and wisdom, so I can always observe your holy and true command.