The San Damiano Cross (or Crucifix) is an ancient Byzantine-style crucifix, now kept in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi, Italy. The San Damiano crucifix is called an icon cross, because it contains pictures and symbols of people who have a part in the meaning of the crucifix. The purpose was to teach people about the event depicted and strengthen the peoples’ faith in doing so. This tradition, which had started in the Eastern church, was brought to the Umbria area of Italy by Greek monks and many such icon crosses were created in 12th century Italy. The particular icon cross known as the San Damiano crucifix, was the cross St. Francis of Assisi knelt before in the neglected and dilapidated St. Damian’s Church where he was instructed three times by the voice of Christ directing him, “Francis, go and repair my house which you see is falling down.”
The representation of Christ on this icon cross is very meaningful – it is painted to represent the crucifixion, the rising of Christ, and His ascension; one icon to represent the total and universal Paschal mystery. Christ is shown as an image of light, and standing upright, no longer nailed to the cross. His clothing, a white loin cloth, is a symbol of both High Priest and victim. His eyes are open, and His chest and neck are strong. A black rectangle is behind Him depicting an empty tomb, with the red above the black signifying love overcoming death. And in front of the tomb, to each side of Jesus, is a pair of angels, animatedly discussing the events taking place. The ascension is depicted above in a red circle; Christ, clothed in gold garments, is breaking out of the circle, where more angels are gathered to welcome Him into heaven. Above this, at the very top of the cross, the hand of God the father is depicted, extended in blessing with the finger extended in representation of the Holy Spirit.
Behind and around Christ, are depictions of people who participated in the Passion. To Jesus’ right side, are Mary, His mother, and John, the beloved disciple who He entrusted to care for Mary. The colors of their garments are significant as well; Mary is clothed in an inner purple dress to represent the Ark of the Covenant, and John is clothed in a white tunic for purity and a rose mantel for eternal wisdom. To Jesus’ left side are Mary Magdalen, her hand on her chin to signify the secret she shared, He is Risen, Mary Cleopas, and the centurion of Capernaum. The two smaller figures, one next to the centurion and the other by the Blessed Virgin, represent two Roman soldiers: Longinus, who pierced Jesus’ side with a Lance, and Stephen, who offered a wine-soaked sponge to Jesus on the cross. Across the bottom of the crucifix are six unknown saints; scholars speculate on who they may be but the damage to that area of the crucifix is too great for a definitive identification to be made. The calligraphic scrolls that border the cross may signify the mystical vine of John 15:5, where Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches…” and the base of the cross seems to be a section of rock, the symbol of the Church.
The San Damiano Crucifix remains the most popular iconographic cross in the Church to this day. Its popularity and devotion are attributed to the many Franciscan missionaries who have taken the cross around the world while spreading the Gospel of Our Lord.
You can click on the image below to magnify sections of the crucifix and get a description of each symbol.
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