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.

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