The Story of Saint Francis
and the San Damiano Crucifix
Saint Francis was born into a wealthy merchant family in Assisi in the Umbrian region of Italy. He went often to pray in a nearby chapel called San Damiano. One day he heard a voice from the cross: "Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed." Without hesitation Francis took a costly piece of silk from his father’s warehouse, sold it, and with the money bought stones to repair the chapel. Later he came to see that the request was to build up the house of God, the Church. Angry with Francis for his thievery, his merchant father took Francis to the court of the bishop. Francis gave up his inheritance in order to devote himself completely to the mission received from God.
The San Damiano crucifix is referred to as an icon cross because it contains images in a way similar to icons done in the Eastern Christian tradition: Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, John, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and the centurion who expressed his belief in Christ are featured on the painting. The Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus and the soldier who offered Him the sponge dipped in wine are pictured at the bottom. There is a small rooster as a reminder of Peter’s denial, as well as a reminder not to put too much reliance on our own strength.
The figure of Christ is not of a suffering human but of a resurrected Christ, wearing priestly garments and showing little evidence of his suffering except for wounds in his hands, side and feet. At the top of the cross is a fully robed Jesus ascending into heaven.
At the foot of the cross is a picture of six figures that some believe to be the patron saints of Umbria; others believe it is a representation of the Last Supper. This would correspond to the notion that the artist was picturing the redeeming act of Jesus as it was described in John’s Gospel, from the Last Supper through his death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension to the Father. Six angels rest on the crossbar, and at the top of the cross, angels crowd around Jesus as the right hand of God blesses all that He has done.