Christians can argue and debate amongst themselves all they like, but I believe the San Damiano crucifix is arguably the most famous and revered crucifix ever created. It is often referred to as the “Crucifix that spoke to St. Francis”. The Crucifix itself is an icon of Christ in glory. The actual artist is unknown, but some believe that it was painted by a Syrian monk. Evidence of this is seen in the many features of the painted crucifix, particularly the blood flowing from the right side of Jesus over the disciple, a Syrian tradition dating back to the sixth century. Apparently, Syrian monks lived around Spoleto (Assisi) in Italy for centuries, which also gives more credence to the above theory. It also makes this particular crucifix unmistakably Byzantine in character. If you focus your attention to the women with her left hand raised under her chin, that is apparently Mary Magdala, expressing “confusion and the struggle of human reason before the mystery of faith”, a classic Byzantine representation. Some of the other Byzantine features are the many angels that surround Jesus, the long hair that encircles the face of Christ and the sheer size of the cross itself that Jesus appears to be holding up. It is believed that even though the artist was likely aware of the important significance of the passion of Christ, the emphasis was clearly on portraying Christ not in sorrow but triumph. Therefore, the appearance of Jesus holding up the cross is Christ’s ‘victory over death’.
Some eight hundred years ago in 1205, Francis Bernadone entered the abandoned Chapel of San Damiano. Struggling to find his place in life, he was beset with difficulty and anguish. Upon seeing the imposing two metres high by 1.3 metres wide crucifix he dropped before it to pray. Suddenly he heard a voice calling from the crucifix instructing him on a mission from God. “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.” Dumbstruck, Francis rose to his feet believing he literally had to rebuild the Chapel. He began to repair the church by begging for stones across Assisi. Later, Francis and the followers of his order came to believe that God meant for Francis to ‘rebuild’ the gospel to the world.
This famous cross, which allegedly spoke to St. Francis, has been in the hands of the Poor Clare Sisters since the early days Francis brought them to San Damiano. Some thirty years after his death, in 1257, the Sisters left San Damiano taking the crucifix with them. For over eight hundred years, the order of Sisters has been carefully preserving the original crucifix (painted on linen glued to a cross made of walnut). It is currently located in the Church of St. Chiara, where since 1958, it has been suspended in a spot accessible to pilgrims worldwide. A beautiful replica has been hung in the ancient Chapel of San Domiano out of reverence.
The deep affection Franciscans and pilgrims alike have for St. Francis and the crucifix is immense. My apologies that I have not gone into more detail about the description and theories of what the portrait of Christ on the crucifix represents. I am unfortunately not well versed in such things and don’t see a sense in repeating everything I read. I can only tell you that the cross itself oozes with life and humanity. The expression on Christ face alone with his slightly tilted head speaks volumes to me. “It is the one Christ, human and divine, whom we meet through this icon”.