Category Archives: Cross

The Configuration of the Tau Cross of Christ

Cross drawn by St. Francis

    In Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions, as told in the book “The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, it is revealed that:

  • “The executioners put the arms of the crosses, which were a little curved and not yet fastened to the center pieces, on the backs of the two thieves, and tied their hands.”
  • “The middle parts (stems) of the crosses were carried by slaves, as the transverse pieces were not to be fastened to them until just before the time of execution.”
  • “Many soldiers, under arms, walked by the side of the procession, and after Jesus came the two thieves, who were likewise led, the arms of their crosses, separated from the middle [stem], being placed upon their backs, and their hands tied tightly to the two ends.”
  • Saint Francis’ understanding of how the cross of Christ was configured, put the “TAU” symbol in chalk on the gardener’s frock which was his habit after his conversion.
  • Indications are that our lord carried the “Cross (beam), but not the “Stem” (the vertical portion of His Cross).

San Damiano Crucifix

By Ruth Vogel, S.F.O. from her book, Reflections of a Secular Franciscan

This crucifix you see above is very important to us, as Franciscans, because it had such a profound influence on St. Francis during his conversion process.

As Christ came to life and opened His lips and spoke to Francis at San Damiano, so should we let Him come alive in us, and speak to us.
Christ’s mouth is small, and to me, it shows great tenderness and compassion. His great eyes seem almost to be pleading and seem to be drawing us to Him.
Jesus does not appear to be nailed to the cross, but rather to be standing out from it.

If we could, for the moment, remove His arms from where they are placed, we would see behind them the empty tomb.
You’ll see, underneath His hands on either side, two angels; you can see that they are talking animatedly before the empty tomb. They are gesturing with their hands towards Jesus. These represent the angels who spoke to the holy women on the morning of the Resurrection.

Some figures are drawn small, some larger; this indicates their importance in this tableau. The small soldier with the lance on the left is the one who pierced Christ’s side. On the right, a small figure in blue is a mocking Jew.

Painted much larger are: on the left, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Apostle John. On the right is Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James, and the Roman Centurion. Note the centurion’s two fingers raised as he proclaims, “Truly this is Christ, the Son of God.” This was the first great acknowledgment by a Gentile that Jesus is the Son of God.

Above the shoulder of the Centurion is a small face, which is believed to be that of the artist himself, who sought a bit of immortality by sneaking his face into the picture.

Below, and obscure, is a painting of a rooster, if you look hard you can see his legs. I used a magnifying glass on the figure. This cock represents the one that crowed when Peter denied Christ, and it tells us, “Don’t be too sure of yourself.” Even Peter, who swore he would never leave Christ, denied Him three times before the cock crowed.

At the bottom, very obscure because of the antiquity of it, are some of the Apostles with upturned faces gazing at the ascending Lord. Remember the Gospel passage, “You men of Galilee, why do you stand there idle? This Jesus, whom you have seen ascending, will come again.”

So, now look away up above Jesus’ head to the red circle where Jesus is, indeed, ascending to heaven. In His hand He carries a slender cross, holding it as a scepter of triumph. Surrounding him is a choir of angels, singing His praises. (Fr. Kenan Morris, O.F.M., however said, this group are saints in heaven. He cited the two figures on either end of the cross shaft as figures of angels.) Father said there are 33 figures in the tableau. He said there might have been jewels at one time studded about the halo over Jesus’ head.

On the Cross of Christ, above the halo, was placed the titulus, in which was written: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Above the circle with the ascending Jesus, in a half circle, is the right hand of the Father — see His two fingers outstretched.

At one of the churches, when I was in Italy we saw another crucifix that looked at first glance just like this one, but a second look showed it was not, because that one was of the dead Christ, his head sagging against His breast.

This one, the San Damiano Crucifix, is a cross of triumph; of victory over death and sin; over that empty tomb. It is the triumph of the risen Christ — Christ ascending into Heaven, into the Presence of His Father.

The entire redemptive process of Jesus is in this Crucifix of San Damiano.
“Go and repair my church,” He said to Francis. He is saying the same thing to us right now.

The Tau Cross

The Hebrew people, like many other ancient cultures, progressively elaborated a theology or a complementary spiritual interpretation proper to each letter of their alphabet.

Because the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore the Hebrew alphabet was not formally codified until almost two hundred years after the birth of Christ, many letters were sometimes shaped in a variety of forms depending on the regions where Jews were living, either in Israel or in the Diaspora: somewhere outside of Israel, usually in the Greek speaking world.

For our purposes, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet represented the fulfillment of the entire revealed Word of God. This letter was called the Tau (or Taw, pronounced “tav” in Hebrew) which could be simultaneously written: /\ X + T.

Cross drawn by St. Francis

When the Prophet Ezekiel (9:4) uses the imagery of the last letter of the alphabet he is commending Israel to remain faithful to God until the last, to be recognized as symbolically “sealed” with the mark of the Tau on their foreheads as God’s chosen people until the end of their lives. Those who remained faithful were called the remnant of Israel , often the poor and simple people who trusted in God even without understanding the present struggle in their lives.

Although the last letter of modern Hebrew (/\), is no longer cross-shaped as described in the variations above, the early Christian writers commenting on the Bible would have used its Greek version called the “Septuagint”. In this Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (which Christians call the”Old Testa- mente”) the tau was written as a T. Naturally, then, for Christians the T came to represent the cross of Christ as being the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. The cross as prefigured in the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represented the means by which Christ reversed the disobedience of the old Adam and became our Savior as the “New Adam”.

During the Middle Ages, the religious community of Anthony, the Hermit, of which Saint Francis was familiar, was very involved in the care of lepers. These men used Christ’s cross shaped like the Greek “T” as an amulet for warding off the plague and other skin diseases. In the early years of his conversion, Francis would have worked with these religious in the Assisi area and may have often been a guest in their hospice near St. John Lateran in Rome. Francis often spoke of meeting Christ disguised in the form of a leper as the turning point of his conversion. It is no doubt then that Francis eventually accepted an adapted the ‘T’ as his own crest or signature combining the ancient imagery of life-long fidelity to the passion of Christ which carried with it the command to serve the least, the lepers of his day.

Even more specifically intensifying was the tau imagery. When Pope Innocent III called for a great reform of the Roman Catholic Church in 1215, Saint Francis would have heard the pope open the Fourth Lateran Council with the same exhortation as the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel: ” We are called to reform our lives, to stand into the presence of God as righteous people. God will know us by the sign of the tau, T, marked on our foreheads.” This symbolic imagery, used by the same pope who commissioned Francis’ new community a brief five years earlier, was immediately taken to heart as his own call to reform. With arms outstretched, Francis often told his brother friars that their religious habit was in the same shape as the tau, meaning that they were called to be walking “crucifixes”, models of a compassionate God and examples of faithfulness until their dying day.

Today, followers of Francis, as laity or religious, would wear the tau cross as an exterior sign, a “seal” of their own commitment, a remembrance of the victory of Christ over evil through daily self-sacrificing love. The sign of contradiction has become the sign of hope, a witness of fidelity until the end of our lives.

The San Damiano Cross

The San Damiano Cross is the one St. Francis was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. The original cross, fashioned about 1100, hangs in Santa Chiara Church in Assisi. When in 1257 the Poor Clares moved to Santa Chiara, they took the San Damiano Cross with them and still guard it with great solicitude. The crucifix now hanging over the altar of the ancient church or San Damiano is a copy. All Franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God to commit their lives and resources to renew and rebuild the Church in the power of God.


In the early days after his conversion, Francis was living a penitential life alone in the countryside outside the walls of Assisi. One day, while passing the run down church known as San Damiano, Francis heard an internal voice from his spirit tell him to go in and pray. He entered and knelt before the cross in contemplation and ecstasy. While gazing at the cross, Francis saw the lips of Jesus move and he heard the words, “Francis, go repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.” At first Francis concentrated on repairing the church buildings of San Damiano and nearby churches. Then when the Lord sent him many followers, he understood his commission to build up the lives of God’s people. Pope Innocent III confirmed this commission. The Pope had a dream of the Church in the form of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. In the dream he saw the church leaning as if to fall and one little man holding it from falling. When the Pope recognized Francis as the little man in his dream he approved the Franciscan order and its rule of life. Throughout the centuries the cross has symbolized for Francis a mission to bring renewal to the Church.

The cross is called an icon cross because it contains images of persons who have a part in the meaning of the cross. The tradition of such crosses began in the Eastern Church and was carried by the Serbian Monks to the Umbrian district of Italy. The Byzantine style was common in Italy before Cimabue and Giotto. The San Damiano Cross was one of a number of crosses painted with similar figures during the 12th century in Umbria. The purpose of an icon cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people.


Jesus Christ is represented both as wounded and strong. He stands upright and resolute. His halo already includes the picture of the glorified cross. The bright white of the Lord’s body contrasts with the dark red and black around it and, therefore, accentuates the prominence of Jesus. He projects the life of divine nature in a body pierced by nails in the hands and feet, by the crown of thorns on his head, and by the soldier’s lance in his side. This representation contrasts with the regal Christ portrayed on the cross in earlier centuries and the suffering, dying, crucified Christ depicted generally throughout the church beginning throughout the 14th century. Christ is represented in full stature while all the others are smaller in stature. Above the head of Christ is the inscription in Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.


The next largest figures are the five witnesses of the crucifixion and witnesses of Jesus as Lord. On the left side are Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. John the Beloved, to whom Jesus gave his mother. On the right side are Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and the centurion who in Mark’s gospel proclaims, “Truly this is the Son of God.” Both Mary and Mary Magdalene have their hands placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses are saints who gave their lives for the Lord and are therefore represented with halos of sanctity. The names of the five major witnesses are written beneath their pictures.

The three smaller figures are represented as witnessing the crucifixion. On the lower left is Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance. He is represented here holding the lance and looking up at Jesus. The blood running down the arms of Jesus begins at the elbow to drip straight down. It will land on the upturned face of Longinus. In the lower right is Stephaton who is identified as the soldier who offered Jesus the sponge soaked in vinegar wine. From the posture of his figure, you can see that he holds the staff and sponge in the same way that Longinus holds the spear. Peering over the left shoulder of the centurion is a small face. A close look at the face reveals the tops of the heads of three others beside him. In accord with the conventions of the time, this may be the face of the artist who was claiming authorship and immortalizing himself as a witness to Christ.

Six angels are represented as marveling over the event of the crucifixion. They are positioned at both ends of thecrossbar. Their hand gestures indicate they are discussing this wondrous event of the death and calling us to marvel with them.

At the foot of the cross there is a damaged picture of six figures, two of which are represented with halos. In accordance with the traditions of the day, these six are the patrons of Umbria: St. John, St. Michael, St. Rufino, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul.

On the top of the cross, we see Jesus now fully clothed in his regal garments and carrying the cross as a triumphant scepter. He is climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts. Ten angels are crowded around. Five of them have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Jesus, who himself has his hand raised in the form of a greeting.

At the very top of the cross is the right hand of the Father with two fingers extended. Jesus is being raised from the dead by the right hand of God the Father. This can also be understood as the blessing of God the Father on all that Jesus has done.

On the right side of the picture next to the left calf of Jesus is a small figure of a fowl; some art historians have interpreted it to be a rooster, representing the sign of Jesus’ betrayal. Other commentators see it as a peacock, a frequent symbol of immortality in early Christian art. Along the lower right side of the shaft, there is a small animal, possibly a cat.

Great God, full of glory and Thou, my Lord Jesus Christ, I beseech thee to illuminate me and to dissipate the darkness of my spirit, to give me a pure faith, firm hope and perfect charity. Oh my God, grant me to know Thee well and to do all things according to Thy Light and in conformity with Thy most holy will. Amen.

(Adapted from Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. The San Damiano Cross: An Explanation, Franciscan University Press, Steubenvile, Ohio, 1983)