Past LIFT Studies Page
The Holy Spirit Church Cross
The Holy Spirit Church cross is in the San Damiano Cross tradition. Take a look—it hangs in the church’s tabernacle. (The below information was adapted with courtesy from Monastery Icons.)
History of the San Damiano Cross. When the image of Christ in the crucifix at San Damiano spoke to St. Francis and said, “Go repair my Church, which as you see is falling completely to ruin”, St. Francis awakened with new zeal. First, he concentrated on repairing the San Damiano and nearby church buildings and then founded the Franciscan Order. The original crucifix was painted by an unknown Umbrian artist in the 12th Century. Because of its striking iconographic character, many believe the artist was a Syrian monk. In 1257, the Poor Clares took the crucifix with them when they relocated from San Damiano to San Giorgio. During Holy Week in 1957, it was placed over the altar in San Giorgio’s Chapel in the Basilica of St. Clare of Assisi—its first public viewing in modern times.
Symbolism of the San Damiano Cross. The most striking element of the San Damiano Crucifix is the figure of Christ: not the body of a corpse, but of God Himself, incorruptible unto eternity and the source of life, radiating the hope of the Resurrection. The Savior looks directly at the viewer with a compassionate gaze, regal, triumphant and strong. Chris does not hang on the cross, but seems to be supporting it, standing in His full stature. His hands are not cramped from being nailed to the wood, but spread out serenely in an attitude of both supplication and blessing, which is further emphasized by a tranquil and gentle expression. This iconographic Crucifix does not express the brute horror of death by crucifixion, but the nobility and gentleness of eternal life.
Place image please Above his head, the Ascension is portrayed: Christ emerging from a red circle, holding a golden cross, which is now his scepter. A host of angels welcome him into heaven, while at the scene’s top the right hand of God the Father extends in benediction. Beneath the scene is the inscription (in Latin) described in the Gospels: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.
Place image please Around the cross’ crossbar, a company of angels look in awe on the Divine Sacrifice. Their hand gestures indicate their animated discussion of this wondrous event.
Place image please To the left of the central figure of Christ, at the foot of the cross, stand the Holy Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist. To the right, stand St. Mary Magdalene, St. Mary Cleophas and the centurion. The centurion holds a piece of wood, indicating his building of the synagogue (Luke 7:1-10); the little boy behind him is his son, healed by Jesus. In the lower right- and lefthand corners are small figures of the Roman solider Longinus and the Jewish temple guard Stephaton—one holding the lance that pierced the Savior’s side and the other holding a stick with a vinegar-soaked sponge.
Place image please Near the right border, just below the level of Christ’s knees, a small rooster appears. This recalls the denial of Peter and reminds us not to be presumptuous of the strength of our faith.
Place image please At the very bottom of the cross, several saints are depicted. Their visages in the original cross were damaged over the centuries and are now unrecognizable. In the cross’ recreation, the iconographer chose to identify these saints as the four most beloved of the Franciscan order: St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Bonaventure.
The original San Damiano Cross.
The original cross now hangs in Santa Chiara Church in Assisi and remains guarded with great solicitude by the Poor Clares. The crucifix now hanging over the altar of the ancient church of San Damiano is a replica. All Franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God to commit our lives and resources to renew and build the Church in the power of God.
St. Francis and the San Damiano Crucifix.
(The following information is courtesy of The Confraternity of Penitents.)
Sometime during the summer of 1206, Francis Bernardone, a young, playboy merchant of Assisi, Italy, began to experience conversion. He had always possessed a generous heart for others and for God, but now he began to see that his father's obsession with money, his mother's concerns for his health, and his own desires for sumptuous foods, lavish clothes and extravagant parties were but dead end streets in the city of life. He yearned for more than money, health, recognition and a good time. Life was too short and too bitter for acquisition of these transitory goods to be its ultimate aim.
Francis had lived, although barely, through war and imprisonment and was nursed back from the brink of death by his mother's loving care. He'd come through a period of physical weakness and spiritual confusion. He knew that there had to be more to life than what he'd been seeking. If he gave himself enough time, if he gave God enough emotional space, Francis sensed that he would find whatever it was he sought. Thus, just recovered from illness, Francis began to spend many hours wandering through the woods and visiting the chapels around Assisi, thinking, praying, being before the One who could tell him all, whenever He Who is All was ready to speak.
One of the places Francis frequented was the church of San Damiano, a tumbling down, deserted chapel half way down a steep hill outside the walls of the city. In this decrepit place hung a large, almost life-size painted icon of the Crucified. This summer day in 1206, Francis was walking in the vicinity of San Damiano when he felt an interior tug of the Spirit to go within to pray. Obeying the inner voice, Francis descended the worn staircase into the dark, smoke blackened vault and fell on his knees before the familiar icon, his own spirit alert to what the Lord might wish to convey.
In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the Crucified Lord, the icon's eyes closed in death. "Most High glorious God," he prayed, "enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge, so that I may carry out Your holy and true command." Ever more quietly, he repeated the prayer until the only words spoken were the unspoken ones in his heart.
Almost imperceptibly, the eyes of the icon opened and the head nodded forward toward Francis. Somehow the movements seemed not startling but rather perfectly natural. From the Crucified spoke a tender, kind voice, a voice a parent might use in addressing an obedient but rather uncomprehending child. "Francis, don't you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me."
So this was his mission! God be praised! "I will do so gladly, Lord," Francis joyfully exclaimed. Oh, to finally be given direction, after all these months! To rebuild this crumbling edifice and make it fit again for worship! What a glorious task! Francis leaped to his feet and, with an exultant bow to the Crucified, whirled to leave the vault. He would begin at once.