San Damiano Cross

Francis of Assisi: Rebuild my Church

In the Fall of 1205, as Francis of Assisi prayed in the neglected church of San Damiano, he heard a voice speaking from the icon cross in the sanctuary: “Go, repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin.”  Taking the voice literally, Francis ran to his father’s shop, took some very expensive cloth, sold it and gave the money to the parish priest to repair the church building. His enraged father dragged Francis before the Bishop of Assisi, demanding that his son repay the money. In response, Francis declared that from that point on, God would be his Father; he renounced his inheritance and began the process of discovering that rebuilding the church did not simply mean replacing bricks and mortar.  It meant beginning a new religious movement of friars, sisters and lay people whose rule was to live the Gospel. They would preach peace in a time of violence, embrace poverty in a time of economic change, make brothers and sisters of every living creature, and proclaim the Gospel in the midst of non-believers by living it and, if necessary, using words to explain it.

The San Damiano cross continues to hold a special place in the hearts of all Franciscans because the words, “Rebuild my Church,” remain true today.  Francis listened to the voice of God and discerned what God wanted him to do. His dying wish was that his followers would do the same. “I have done my part,” he said to the friars gathered around him as he lay dying. “May Christ teach you to do yours.”  May we be open to listening to God’s voice as we go into the future!

The San Damiano cross dates from the 12th century and has Syrian origins. It was painted by an unknown artist on cloth glued to the walnut frame. It is about 190 cm high, 120 cms wide and 12 cms thick and was hung above the altar.  It now hangs in the San Giorgio’s Chapel in the Basilica of St Clare of Assisi.

Fr. Scanlon writes: “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.”

 

The figures/ events of Christ’s life depicted on the cross include:

  • The figure of Christ which dominates the scene is a figure of light which gives light to the other figures
  • The Ascension painted in a circle at the top of the cross
  • The hand of the Father at the very top giving a blessing with the finger extended, a symbol of the Holy Spirit
  • Mary and John placed side by side at the foot of the cross
  • Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, the centurion of Capernaum, 2 Roman soldiers traditionally named Longinus (pierced Jesus’ side with the lance) and Stephen (offered Jesus vinegar to drink)
  • 6 unknown saints (saints whom Scholars postulate are SSTs Damian, Rufinus, Michael John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, all patrons of Churches in the Assisi area.)
  • 2 groups of angels

 

by Sr. Joan Kerley, FMSJ (source: an article: A Brief Explanation By: Fr. Michael Scanlon, T.O.R. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Province, USA)