Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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San Damiano Icon Crucifix

March 20th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie
We continue with our Lenten series on crosses and crucifixes. Previously: here and here.

Click on pictures to see larger images

The San Damiano crucifix which we see here is one of the better known of all images of Christ’s Crucifixion. Its popularity is attributed to its role in the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226) from a life of self-indulgence to a life of total obedience to God. One day in 1206, the saint stopped into the abandoned and dilapidated Chapel of San Damiano just outside of Assisi to pray before this crucifix which was still hanging above the altar. Three times he heard a voice coming from it say, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” He thought he was being enlisted to repair the chapel building but later determined that it was the dilapidated condition of the universal Church at the time to which the voice was referring.

This Crucifixion scene is in the tradition of Byzantine icon painting which took root in Italy as a result of Greek icon painters and monks fleeing from the East during the period of the iconoclastic persecution between 730 and 787. It’s a classic Byzantine dogmatic or programmatic icon which presents us with several stories and doctrines in one unified image. Before us is not just represented the scene of the Crucifixion but the entire Paschal event.

The Crucified Christ is the most obvious image we notice. Like the ivory carving of the earliest Crucifixion scene we looked at in a previous post, this one presents us with a crucified Christ who is not only free of suffering but apparently strong, robust, serene and self-confident. Here, again, we see illustrated the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ: the bleeding wounds of the body indicate His humanity and the calm and serene psychological expression suggests his divinity.

Those who witnessed the Crucifixion (John 19:25–27) are depicted behind Christ at about the mid-point of the cross. On the left is Mary His mother and St. John, the apostle to whom Christ entrusted His mother. Mary’s hand is raised to her face as she mourns for her son. On the right, first is Mary of Magdala, also with her hand to her face, His mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and then the centurion who proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). The smaller figures depict the soldier Longinus on the left with his spear, and on the right, Stephaton who put the sponge soaked in wine to Christ’s mouth. This central part of the image therefore depicts the mystery of the Crucifixion of the Son of God.

Directing our attention now to the bar of the cross, behind the arms of Christ, we can see a long horizontal black shape representing the empty tomb of Easter. Notice the figures of Peter and John, as described in John 20:2–10, peering into the emptiness of the tomb at either end of the tomb. Four angels, two on each side along the bottom of the tomb, excitedly react to the mystery of the Crucifixion and the mystery of the Resurrection.

Finally, the third mystery, the Ascension, is depicted at the top of the cross in the ‘T’ shape. Christ is shown being welcomed by a heavenly host of angels into heaven where he will sit at the right hand of the Father. The Father is symbolized by a blessing hand indicating that His will has been accomplished.

Here is an except of a reflection on the San Damiano cross from The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, San Francisco, California:

“To the world, the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23); but to the eyes of faith the cross is the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension, in their full simultaneous reality…

Francis learned to rejoice in the overwhelming beauty of God’s creation—a beauty signfying God’s love—yet he did not desire anything of the material world for his own fulfillment. Instead, he desired nothing but to receive our Lord with a pure heart and chaste body.

And, as he showed through the rest of his life, Francis fully understood the reason for the odd depiction of Christ’s serenity upon the San Damiano crucifix. For when someone accepts injustice, cruelty, and contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, and endures it all with charity and total faith, what else can we call it but perfect joy? And so, right from the beginning, Francis understood that the “background” to all human suffering must be total faith in the ultimate triumph of the Cross.”

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One Response to “San Damiano Icon Crucifix”

  1. avatar Catholic Dad says:

    Thanks for this nice write-up on this particular cross. I have had a simple wood copy of it on the wall over my desk for 10 years (a gift) and have never appreciated all of the symbolism that you identified here.


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