A Message from Father Nick 12
Cross of San Damiano, Basilica of St Clare, Assisi, Italy (12th century)
This week’s image comes originally from the little church of San Damiano just outside Assisi. Praying there one day, a young Francis Bernardone heard Jesus say: “Francis, go and repair my house, which is falling into ruin.” Francis’ response to his Master’s call brought renewal to the universal Church, so this is a very special artefact indeed. It would later be taken to the convent of St Clare.
The crucifix is a painted image; in fact it is a kind of icon. We can’t be sure, but it seems to have been made in the twelfth century by a Syrian monk (at the time there were a number of such monks living in that area). An icon is more formal than a painting, with complex rules of symbolism – we talk about “reading” an icon rather than looking at it. But the special beauty of this cross with its lovely image of Christ is the increased naturalness of the figure. In a way, it represents a stage in the development of western art.
Yet the emphasis here is not on Christ’s suffering. The Lord stands before the cross facing us with head inclined, in a gesture of universal embrace. He seems to be the Christ of John’s gospel (no crown of thorns, but with a spear wound in his side). This is an image of enormous compassion.
Around him are the coded details of his glory, some too tiny for us to make out in this reproduction. There are gospel figures, including Our Lady, and local saints, and angels to complete the cosmic significance. A border of seashells runs around the cross – these were renowned for beauty and endurance: qualities of heaven.
In a circle at the top of the cross, Jesus is shown ascending to his Father (represented by a hand extended in blessing). And, almost imperceptible against the forehead of his main image, we are meant to see the shape of a descending dove – Father, Son and Spirit are all involved in this work of our redemption. No detail is without its meaning.
The crucifix of San Damiano offers us a panorama of salvation; it forms a little summary of faith. But its beauty has a language of its own. It is a timeless reminder of the Lord’s unfailing compassion, and in that sense it speaks to us still.