Over the years, you will surely have come across this very special and iconic crucifix, known throughout the world as the Saint Damiano Cross. The original one is the large Romanesque rood cross that hung in the abandoned chapel near Assisi, hometown of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. This cross is now over 800 years old and is about six feet tall and four feet wide. It was painted on linen that was glued to walnut wood. The artist’s identity is unknown, but the cross has become well known due to its association with Saint Francis of Assisi.
Have you ever wondered what its history and meaning are?
Find out by reading the following paragraphs.
Image 1: The San Damiano Cross
History of the St. Damian Cross
In 1205, St. Francis of Assisi visited the church of San Damiano. It was in ruins, but this cross was still there. St. Francis knelt in front of the cross and heard the words “Go and repair My Church”. We went out to do so, both physically and spiritually. Later on, the Poor Clares, led by St. Clare of Assisi, took the cross with them to San Giorgio and preserved it for seven centuries.
For this reason, this very iconic cross took on such importance in the Franciscan tradition. In fact, many franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God to commit their lives and resources to renew and rebuild the Church of God, through the power of Christ.
Nobody knows who created this cross, painted in a style popular at the time that served to teach the meaning of the event depicted.
The cross is now kept in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi.
But what can we find represented in this world famous cross?
St. Damiano Cross: a closer look at it
The main and largest figure of this cross is, of course, Jesus Christ, represented both as wounded and strong, standing upright and resolute. The Savior, colored in black, dark red and bright white, projects the life of divine nature in a human body, pierced by nails in the hands and feet, with the crown of thorns on his head and the soldier’s lance in his side. For that time, this representation of Christ was very different from the most famous ones, which portrayed Jesus in regal habits.
Continuing in order of size, the next largest figures are the five witnesses of the crucifixion: the Blessed Mother Mary, St. John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene (on the right), Mary (Mother of James) and the Roman centurion (on the left) who in Matthew’s Gospel account asks Christ to heal his son. Both the Virgin and Mary Magdalene have their hands placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses have halos around their heads, because they are Saints who witnessed the coming of Christ and gave their life for the Lord.
Image 2: The Saints of the San Damiano Cross
On the left and right side of the crossbar are six angels, represented as marveling over the event of crucifixion. Their hand gestures indicate they are discussing the wondrous event of the death and calling us to marvel with them.
Image 3: The Angels of the San Damiano Cross
At the foot of the cross, there is a damaged picture of six figures, two of whom have halos. These sex figures, according to the tradition, are the Patron Saints of Umbria, the Italian region surrounding Assisi. They are St. John, St. Michael, St. Rufino, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul.
On the top of the cross, instead, Jesus appears fully clothed in his regal garments and carrying the cross as a triumphant scepter. He is depicted while climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts surrounding him. Ten angels are crowded around here, five of whom have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Jesus who himself has his hand raised in the form of a warm greeting.
At the very top of the cross is the Hand of God with two fingers extended, to symbolize the blessing of the Lord on the sacrifice of His only son.
Finally, next to the left calf of Jesus there is a small figure of a small fowl, that many art historians have interpreted to be a rooster or a peacock, symbol of immortality in early Christian art. Along the lower right side of the shaft, there is a small animal, probably a cat.
Why is the San Damiano Cross so famous?
The San Damiano Cross is worldwide famous because of its story and the symbolism that it has represented throughout the centuries. As seen in the previous paragraphs, the main characters linked to the crucifixion of Christ are here represented all together, like a sort of tender embrace to the Son of God, who came on earth for our salvation.
Since the first important fact linked to the San Damiano cross is about God asking St. Francis to “rebuild His home”, this cross can be considered as a symbol of rebirth, reparation and resurrection.
If you strongly believe that something in your life needs to be rebuilt or restored, this cross pendant may be of your inspiration.
This is a 18K gold cross pendant for your neck, available in three different sizes.
Prayer of St. Francis to the San Damiano Cross
If you want to dedicate one of your daily prayers to this miraculous cross, here is exactly what Saint Francis used to recite before the San Damiano Cross.
As St. Francis knelt before the cross in the ruined church, he prayed:
cast Your light
into the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith,
firm hope, perfect charity,
wisdom and perception.
O Lord, so that I may do
what is truly Your holy will.