The cross with a message

The Church of San Damiano was a ruin when Saint Francis knelt before this cross. Stretching out his arms as he prayed.

O great God of Glory
my Lord Jesus Christ,
I entreat you
put light into the darkness of my mind.
Give me right faith, firm hope, and perfect charity.
Help me learn to know you, Lord, so well,
that in all things I may do everything this day
in keeping with your holy will.

Francis prayed these words in the little ruined Church of San Damiano in Assisi, in the autumn of 1205. And as he prayed, he heard a voice which said: "Francis, rebuild my church, which as you see, is falling down."

He did rebuild it - brick upon brick - until he came to understand that what he was called to rebuild was the living Church in the heart of humankind.

As he worked Francis had prophesied: "Here will come to dwell ladies who will glorify our heavenly Father throughout his holy, universal Church by their celebrated and holy manner of life." This prophesy was fulfilled in Saint Clare who lived her life under the shadow of this story of salvation.

Man, woman, child; if I am made in the image and likeness of God I will see some dim reflection of Him if I look into a mirror. Possibly the most beautiful reflection I will see will be mirrored in the eyes of someone who loves me.

St Clare and St Francis also saw the reflection of God's love in an icon - in the San Damiano Crucifix.

To Francis the San Damiano Crucifix seemed to speak. He heard the words , 'Rebuild my Church'. The Church is also an icon of the face of Christ. A human image, marred by that human frailty that distorts each one of us, but she is still the mother of all the living - whom people like us are all called to rebuild with their lives.

The Cross did not speak to Clare in words, she gazed at it beholding God's love, she considered it holding on to what she received in prayer and her life was enfolded in contemplation through it.

The story of the Cross

This icon crucifix is in what artists call the Umbro-Byzantine style. It was painted by an unknown artist probably in the 11th century; the time when the little church of San Damiano outside Assisi in Italy was built. It was already a time-honoured object of veneration when St Francis was struggling to find the Lord. This is an icon which tells the whole story of salvation. It starts before creation, with the hand of the Father - and its story will only end with the ending of time and space.

Prayer is love, and this is a picture to pray before.

Learn its story and then live its prayer with Saint Francis and Saint Clare.



In the Beginning

At the very top of the crucifix is the hand of God in the divine circle in the act of creating all things - and down beside Christ's right leg is our scarcely discernible human origin,


Adam's head alone is shown with the apple gripped between his teeth. Above Adam is the cockerel, not only as the symbol of Peter's denial (and Adam's) but as the herald of the New Day, the third day of Christ's Resurrection.

The Water and the Blood

Running round the entire picture from the hand of the Father at the top to the Patriarchs in Sheol at the foot, are parallel red and blue lines; for Christ came not by water only but by water and blood, the warp and woof of all creation. The blood of sacrifice and the water of cleansing. Baptism and the Eucharist.
In the very centre, Christ stands as one both crucified and risen. His loin cloth has become the priestly vesture of the Old Covenant, but it is cinctured by the three knots of the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience; it may have been this which suggested to Francis the knotted cord of the Franciscan habit.

The Outsiders

In the central section are the two figures, who, after Adam, are most remote in scale from Christ. On the left is Longinus, his slender spear piercing the side of Christ, and on the right is Mockery personified by Pilate, dressed in royal blue, his lips pursed to spit.

The friends of Christ

The Centurion, bearded and with a cloak, stands above Pilate, directly under Christ's left arm. He is looking up at Jesus and exclaiming: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" Next to him are Mary Cleopas and Mary Magdalen. Their faces are serene, Magdalen is even smiling, for they are not only standing under the Cross, they are coming in the early morning to the empty tomb.

The New Covenant

Mary and John stand under the right arm of Jesus, they are the Church under the Cross. John, who is nearest to the breast of Jesus, gestures towards the blood coming from the wound in the right side of Jesus, but he turns towards Mary, for he hears the words addressed to us all: "Behold your Mother". Mary is, in St Francis' words, the "Virgin made Church."

The Third Day

You might, at first, take the black box behind Jesus' outstretched arms to be the cross beam, but it is in fact the tomb. Traditional icons show the tomb, not as a cave alone, but as a long stone box. At either end of the tomb are Peter and John suspended in the act of running to Calvary on Easter morning. They look in at either end and see that the tomb is empty. Two angels greet them on either side. The red draped angels are the tomb angels, their hands point to Jesus, and they look towards the holy women who are simultaneously under the cross and in the garden, saying: "He has risen, he is not here."

King of Kings

The two green draped angels, one hand up, one down, are the angels of the Ascension. They say: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up?" For above them is Jesus, robed and carrying the victorious cross, in a circle of vermilion (the red circle is the traditional iconographic representation of Elijah's fiery chariot - the Old Testament type of the Ascension.) He is entering heaven where he is greeted by angels. These are the ten angels of the Covenant; that Covenant which Christ fulfilled in his Paschal mysteries. That is why two of the angels are in white - they represent the two commandments of the Old Law which are directed to God alone. The others wear red drapes because they represent the commandments that govern the covenant between a person and his neighbour, which can only be fulfilled by participation in the Passion.

The Stone that the builders rejected

Christ's feet rest against the symbolic rock that stands for Daniel's vision, which, in classical icons is shown under the feet of Christ, and of Mary, and of the Trinity, when they sit enthroned. Christ is the foundation stone, the cornerstone which, being torn from the mountain of God has destroyed the old and is the foundation of the new.

The new Anastasis

Beneath the stone, kissed away by the devotion of ages, should be the traditional iconographic representation of the Anastasis, the harrowing of hell. But here it is Christ's blood from his wounded feet which descends into a Sheol, occupied not only by the Fathers of the Old Testament, but by all of us, washed and redeemed by his precious blood and armed with anticipatory halos. Some have in fact said that this is not the properly the Anastasis at all, but Peter and Paul and the Church.

The Pillar of Cloud

The whole Cross is surrounded by what, on the original, is a separate piece of wood, decorated with a rippling shell pattern - the Romanesque artistic shorthand for clouds. For this is the cross of the Exodus, and Christ is not only the new Elijah at his Ascension and he is the new Moses, striking water from the rock and sprinkling the people with the blood of his sacrifice. So, by implication, this stupendous image is not only the Crucifixion - and the Resurrection - and the Ascension, it is also the Transfiguration, cloaked in the cloud of the Divine presence. Yet, like the disciples, we look up and see only Jesus, we look up and see in his face love, forgiveness, peace, suffering, consummation.

Where am I?

Like Francis and Clare, I kneel at the feet of this icon and look up at Jesus who is looking up at the Father. Unconsciously I notice that there is one figure, indeed a whole queue of them, peering shyly over the Centurion's shoulder, looking upwards, dressed in brown. This is Everyman, All-Person, not much bigger than Adam but having thrown in his (or her) lot with the saints.