The San Damiano Cross
The Cross of St. Francis
The San Damiano Cross is the cross in front of which St. Francis was praying when he heard Our Lord speak to him. St. Francis was told to rebuild the Church. The original cross now hangs in Santa Chiarra (St. Claire) Church in Assisi, Italy.
The Origin of Devotion
In the early days of his conversion, Francis was living a penitential life alone in the countryside outside of the walls of Assisi. One day, while passing the rundown church known as San Damiano (St. Damian), Francis heard an internal voice from his spirit tell him to go in and pray. He entered and knelt before the cross. There followed a time of 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 completely to ruin”. Francis responded, “gladly will I do so, Lord”. 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 spiritual lives of God’s people. His commission was confirmed by Pope Innocent III, who had a dream of the church in the form of the Basilica of St. John Lateran leaning over 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 the Franciscans a mission to bring renewal to the Church.
The Icon Cross
The cross is called an icon cross because it contains images of people who have a part in the meaning of the cross (the tradition of such crosses began in the Eastern Church and was transported by Serbian monks to the Umbria district of Italy). The purpose of the icon cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people (these conclusions have been made after a thorough study of the history of the cross and the literature concerning it).
Source: The San Damiano Cross by Fr. Michael Scanlon
The making of the San Damiano Cross was inspired by St. John’s Gospel. It is believed to be a 12th century icon painted by a Syrian monk, created to reveal the essence of profound mystery. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is painted at the extreme right of Jesus, to the east, a place of honor. The several other painted figures on the crucifix are all found in the Gospel of St. John.
The Poor Clare Sisters took the cross from San Damiano in 1257 when they left the little church that also served as their convent. It was preserved for 700 years in the Church of San Giorgio in Assisi. The Icon of San Damiano was placed in public view for the first time during Holy Week 1957. In September 1958, the crucifix that spoke to St. Francis was permanently placed over a new altar in the San Giorgio chapel and is now always available for public viewing. . . .
Source: FRANCIS OF ASSISI, by Arnaldo Fortini
UPDATE: On June 15, 2016, for the first time in almost eight centuries, the Crucifix of San Damiano was returned to San Damiano. It left the basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi, where it has been guarded since the Poor Clares moved there after the death of St. Clare. It went to the place where it was seen by Francis of Assisi and in front of which he prayed at the beginning of his conversion and from which he received the mandate “go and repair my house which as you can see falling into ruins.”
Almighty God, and You my Lord Jesus Christ,
I pray you to enlighten me and to dispel the darkness of my spirit;
give me a faith that is without limit,
a hope that is ever unfailing,
and a love that is universal.
Grant, O my God, that I may really know You
and that I may be guided in all things
according to Your light and in conformity with Your will.
(St. Francis of Assisi)