A Franciscan Icon
Above: The Original Icon in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi
The San Damiano Crucifix, a detail from which forms the background to the home page of this website, has a special place in the hearts of Franciscans throughout the world.
It was before this cross, which was then hanging in the little ruined church of San Damiano (St Damian’s) outside the walls of Assisi, that the young Francis was praying when he heard the words: ‘Francis, go and repair my house’. He took this literally and immediately began to gather stones and other materials for the work; others joined him and through this shared task, a community of brothers began to take shape. Later on, after the task was completed and others were continuing to join them, Francis came to see that his vocation was not just to repair church buildings, nor even to work for the renewal of the Church which was at the time lacking in zeal, but to live and proclaim the Good News of the renewal of all creation in and through Jesus Christ.
The repaired church of St Damian’s became the first home of St Clare and her sisters, but when later in the thirteenth century a much larger convent and church was built within the walls of Assisi to house the body of the foundress and a growing community of sisters, the crucifix went with them; it still hangs in the Basilica of St Clare to this day, a focus for prayer and pilgrimage and a sign of Jesus’ call to each one of us to live the life of the Gospel.
The San Damiano crucifix is a remarkable work of art, probably Syrian in origin and certainly displaying signs of the influence of the eastern tradition of iconography. The figure of Christ is both wounded and strong, upright and resolute; his face looks out at us, the eyes wide open. He is not alone because around the cross are gathered those who were there atCalvary: the Virgin Mary and John the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and the centurion who in St Mark’s gospel exclaims, ‘Truly, this is the Son of God’. There are also two other figures, much smaller than the rest, the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with a lance and the one who offered Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar wine. The effect is to call us, the onlookers, to be part of the scene too. Halfway up the left leg is a cockerel – representing Peter’s (and our) denial of Jesus. At the top we see Jesus fully clothed in his regal resurrection garments, carrying the cross as a triumphant sceptre, from the tomb into the heavenly courts. At the very top God the Father is extending two fingers in blessing and welcome; Jesus is raised from the dead by the right hand of the Father. Heaven and earth are united again!
The colours of the crucifix are rich and glowing and draw us by their warmth. The icon tells the whole story of Jesus’ victory over death and invites us to share in the new life of which his resurrection is the first fruit. Many have felt in the face of Jesus something of his love and compassion for all creation and have been moved to respond with something of the generosity and joy of St Francis.