Enshrined in the sanctuary area of the San Damiano Chapel is a reproduction of the crucifix that made the church of San Damiano outside the walls of Assisi famous. Francis Bernadone came seeking and searching in prayer before this icon crucifix in 1205. As he prayed a voice said, “Francis, go repair my church which is falling into ruins.” His first literal response to this command later became the sense of mission for him and his followers. Carrying out this request led Francis Bernadone to become the originator of the Franciscan movement in the church.
In the Franciscan story, St. Clare was given San Damiano as the first convent for the Poor Ladies. After Clare’s death the Poor Clares in 1257 moved to Santa Chiara Basilica, which was built for them within Assisi’s walls. The two Basilicas of Francis and Clare thus faced each other across the expanse of Assisi. In this move the Poor Clares took the original cross with them where it hangs facing Clare’s tomb. At San Damiano, Italy a copy hangs in the Friar’s choir. The original cross was fashioned in the twelfth century after the Byzantine style, which was common in Italy before Cimabue and Giotto. Only in Cimabue and Giotto’s time did emotion, depth, and perspective enter church art. This Umbrian style of the Byzantine cross was quite heavy, being 6’4” high and 4’ wide and 5” thick.
The San Damiano crucifix shows Christ erect and in a moment of glory, not death. The black background depicts the empty tomb. The seashells that frame the cross are symbols of eternity. The blood red indicates love and life, and the loincloth is the priestly garment worn after sacrifice. We do not see a naked Jesus straddling a beam but an expression of faith. This theology is continued in the hand of God, two fingers up for the two natures, human and divine, and the three fingers down for the Trinity. God’s hand is extended above the ascending Christ carrying a gold cross while being welcomed by ten angels. Near the cross beam still more angels look on in admiration. Along the upright shaft of the cross is a peacock, a frequent symbol of immortality. There are six large figures under Christ’s arms; Mary, the mother of Jesus with her hand on her chin; Mary, mother of James and John; also the centurion who proclaimed, “Truly this is the Son of God.” Mary Magdalene and John, the beloved disciples, stand on the left.
All told there are 35 figures in the depiction. All these are statements of faith. The 27 remaining personages are seen as reflecting the Old Testament and even the Pharisees mocking Jesus. Even the artist and his family are painted in the crucifix. At the foot of the cross are local Assisi patron saints: St. Damian, St. Rufino, St. James, and Sts. Peter and Paul. Of interest is the rooster at the knee of Christ and directly above Peter’s head calling for “a new day”. The reproduction in the retreat house chapel is a faithful copy made by the Franciscan novices from Mission San Miguel. It tries to follow the original in every detail.
Prayer Before the San Damiano Crucifix
Most High, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me true faith, certain hope
and perfect charity, sense and
knowledge that I may carry out
Your Holy and true command.
– Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to discern God’s will