The San Damiano Cross

October 2, 2020

The Pastor's Page

The Franciscan Connection. The San Damiano Cross is especially revered by the Franciscans. The original cross was located in a small, dilapidated country church in Umbria, Italy. One day in 1206 AD St. Francis of Assisi was ambling along a country road, happened upon the church, went inside, and knelt down before the cross. While he was in prayer, he saw the lips of Jesus move and he heard his voice say, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling completely into ruin.” At first, Francis thought Jesus wanted him to repair the building itself, but over time and upon further reflection, it became apparent to him that Jesus did not want him to fix the church building, but to revive the faith of the people which was crumbling, lax, dilapidated, and in ruins. From that time forward, Francis was an animated preacher. He attracted huge crowds and he drew thousands of people back to Jesus and the gospel. He was a master builder of the Body of Christ, the Church.

The San Damiano Cross Present Location. The San Damiano Cross hung in the San Damiano Church from 1206 to 1257 AD. Then the Poor Clare Sisters moved the cross to the Basilica of St. Clare, and it has remained there until the present day where it is on display in its own chapel.

Description. The San Damiano Cross is a painted, icon-style cross. The artist is unknown. It probably was painted sometime in the Twelfth Century AD.

The Major Witnesses. There are five large figures beneath Jesus’ arms that are the major witnesses of the crucifixion. On the left side beneath Jesus’ right arm there are two figures, the Blessed Mother Mary on the outside and the Beloved Disciple on the inside; and on the right side beneath Jesus’ left arm, there are three figures, the closest, St. Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James in the middle; and the centurion on the outside.

The Minor Witnesses. There are two smaller figures below the major witnesses: St. Longinus on the lower left, holding a lance, the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side (Jn 19:34); and Stephanton on the lower right, holding a reed and a sponge, the one who raised a sprig of hyssop to Jesus’ lips (Mt 27:48; Mk 15:36; Jn 19:29).

Other Noteworthy Details. There is a small face behind the centurion’s left shoulder, the “signature” of the artist; there is a tiny rooster on the lower right between Jesus’ left kneecap and ankle, the rooster that crowed when Peter denied Jesus; and in the dark box at the bottom of the cross, there are six important saints. According to one local tradition, they are Peter and Paul, Michael, John the Baptist, John the apostle, and Rufino, a local martyr. According to another legend, the saints are Peter and Paul, Michael, Damian, Rufino, Victorino, and another local martyr.

The Heavenly Welcome. At the top of the cross there is an outstretched hand, a symbol of God the Father welcoming Jesus into heaven. There are ten angels, five to the left and five to the right, all welcoming the risen Jesus to heaven. The circled figure in the middle is Jesus, gloriously triumphant, victor over sin and death, with the inscription, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19).

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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