Reflections on the San Damiano Crucifix from 2010-2011
Purity of Christ
The image of Christ on the San Damiano crucifix is beautiful in its clarity. Christ is portrayed as both strong and gentle, as crucified and risen, as dying yet triumphant over death. A more subtle aspect of His image is that of Christ’s purity. Christ’s body is very clean, and His head bears no thorns. The iconographer seemed to want to show that Christ was not marred by the tortures leading to His death. While the nails and the wound in the side are evident on Christ’s body, they do not mar it. The purity of Christ persists despite the human indignities which He was made to suffer.
The iconographer seems to be saying that a pure heart, that is, one unstained by any sin, persisted in Christ so that, even when subject to the worst sins of humanity, even when dying for those sins, Christ’s purity remained unstained. Just as His Blood does not cling to His Body in this image, but rather seems to flow off it without leaving any stain, so the evil surrounding Christ, the evil perpetrated against Him, the evil which He took upon Himself at His death so that He could redeem us from that evil—all of that could not sully the purity of Our Lord. While every one of our sinful thoughts, actions,and indifferences scar us, He took them upon Himself and remained unscathed. Christ’s infinite purity has become our salvation.
King of the Jews
Above Jesus' head on the San Damiano Crucifix are the words, in Latin, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." The words "Jesus of Nazareth" are written in gold on a red bar background. The words "King of the Jews" are written in gold letters on a black background. The iconographer is showing that this man from Nazareth, whose name is Jesus, is no ordinary man. He is King of the Jews, thus fulfilling the role of King and Son of David as prophesied by Nathan the prophet to King David," When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. .. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2Samuel 7: 12, 13, 16)
The inscription also recalls Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, recorded in the Gospels, when the populace hailed Jesus as "King of Israel" and when He fulfilled the prophecy made by Zechariah that the king and savior of the Jews would come riding on a donkey's colt (Zechariah 9:9). The red coloring around "Jesus of Nazareth" indicates that this Jesus will shed His Blood. The black background for "King of the Jews" indicates that this king, through the shedding of His Blood, will die. John indicates that the inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek--in other words, in all the major languages of the ancient world known to the Jews. Obviously Pilate, who had the inscription written, wanted all passersby to know Who Jesus was. So did St. John the Evangelist and so did the iconographer of the San Damiano Crucifix.
Christ's Long Arms
A person's fingers will fall approximately half way between a person's hip and knee if the person stands erect and lets his or her arms fall naturally to their side. The fingers of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix would fall to His knees if the arms were extended downward. This means that Christ's arms on the San Damiano Crucifix are disproportionably long for His Body. Certainly the iconographer knew the proportions of the human body. So why did the icon master make such a glaring error in proportion?
Perhaps it was no error at all. Not only do the longer arms perhaps look "better" than shorter ones, but the longer arms of Christ also indicate His ability to encircle the world with His Love. Truly any person would be enfolded completely in those arms, no matter how large that person was. "I can embrace YOU," Jesus seems to be saying to the viewer. 'NO ONE escapes my loving embrace."
The woodworker who custom makes San Damiano crucifixes to offer through the CFP Holy Angels Gift Shop made a discovery. The San Damiano Crucifix is asymmetrical. That is, if you folded the crucifix in half directly down the middle, the two sides would not exactly match up. This is not surprising since the crucifix was made in the 1100's when woodworkers did not have the tools of measurement that they have today. But the fact that this lovely icon is asymmetrical holds a lesson for us. We can be beautiful without being perfect, and that refers to inner as well as outer beauty. When we gaze at the crucifix, we do not notice the imperfections. Instead we see the beauty of faith in art. The crucifix teaches us to look for the beauty in others and to appreciate that God has given it to us as well.
On the San Damiano Crucifix, above the head of Christ as He ascends into heaven, is a triangle created by a wing which arches up over the head of the ascending Lord. The wing seems like it may be that of the angel on the left, but the connection to the angel is unclear. The bottom of the triangle is formed by the curvature of the circle which surrounds the image of the ascending Christ. The iconographer no doubt intended to portray this traditionally symbolic image of the Trinity, the equilateral triangle (one geometric shape, three equal sides representing one God in three equal Persons), on the San Damiano Crucifix. It is significant, too, that the triangular shape is made by a wing, since the symbol of the Holy Spirit is a dove. Above the ascending Christ and above the triangular wing is the Hand of God the Father, extended in blessing. Below the triangular wing is Christ entering glory. So we have not only a triangle representing the Trinity but also God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit represented in three vertical images.
Around the San Damiano Crucifix is a border of scallop shells. Scallop shells were a symbol of baptism and were often used to scoop up water when baptizing an individual. Scallop shells were also the traditional emblem of the apostle St. James and were worn by pilgrims on the way to St. James' shrine in Compestela, Spain. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and he would be given, at any church, abbey, or castle where he stopped, as much food as he could scoop up with the shell. Thus even poor people could afford to show charity to pilgrims.
The border of scallop shells on the crucifix were probably intended to remind the viewer both of his or her baptism into the Catholic faith and also to help the viewer remember that he or she was a pilgrim on the journey of faith. The journey led, not to Compestela, but to Christ Himself, evident by the opening in the shell border at the bottom of the crucifix. It is here, at the feet of Christ, the lowest place, that the faithful servant enters into the life of Jesus. The journey will take the Christian through the experiences of life, including his or her own personal passion and death, into eternal life with Christ, pictured at the top of the San Damiano Crucifix.
Water from the Side of Christ
On the San Damiano Crucifix, the Blessed Mother is smiling and her hand is gesturing toward the pierced side of Christ from which His Sacred Blood is flowing. Saint John the Evangelist, to whom she is talking, is also pointing to that same side of the Lord. A careful study of the side wound reveals a dark line coming forth from the wound. It is not blood. Does it represent a stream of water?
In his Gospel, John describes Jesus’ side as emitting “blood and water” (John 19:34). Also in John’s Gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and tells her to ask Him for “living water.” (John 4:10) That “living water” flowed from His pierced side as an expression of His total self-giving to us and the graces that would bring us. Mary, the virginal mother of Christ, points to the “living water” which her gave to all sinners like the woman at the well. Jesus is more than a well. A well is a man-made place to collect water. Jesus said that the “living water” would become a “fountain” or “spring” of water with us, welling up to eternal life. Water in a fountain or a spring dances and constantly replenishes itself. We do not have to draw water up to our level. We need only drink from the fountain or spring. Jesus offers us the living water, as He offered it to the Samaritan woman. We need only have faith enough to drink.
All crucifixes are a visual portrayal of the mercy of God. This is because each one portrays Christ Who died for us out of love for us. His great mercy caused His great suffering. His great love could do nothing less than take away our punishment at His own expense. The San Damiano Crucifix advances this theme of Mercy by portraying people who are representative of those redeemed by Christ's sacrifice. First shown is the Blessed Mother who, in God's Mercy, was preserved from original sin. Then St. John the Evangelist, the former "son of thunder" who became the apostle of love, a merciful transformation of grace if ever there was one. Then Mary Magdalene, mercifully preserved from destruction when Jesus cast out seven demons who tormented her. Then Mary of Clopas who symbolizes the rest of humanity saved by the mercy of God. Then the centurion whose servant was cured by Jesus and who came to believe in Him, with all of his household, portrayed behind him. We also see the centurion on the left of Christ who came to believe in Him at the crucifixion and another figure on the right who seems to symbolize those who do not yet believe but who, nevertheless, are under the outstretched arms of Christ and who will be embraced by His Mercy should they allow grace to dissolve their skepticism. The angels surrounding Christ sing of His glory, and the saints pictured at the bottom of the crucifix all knew of Christ's Mercy and love for each saint is redeemed by God's grace. God's Mercy pours out in Christ's blood, spurting from His wounds to cascade over the people. May God be praised for His Merciful Love enfleshed in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pacifism is defined as opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes. It is obvious that the San Damiano Crucifix displays an air of pacifism. Here Jesus has met a treacherous death, and yet He looks out upon His murderers with peace and love. Those of His followers gathered around the cross are peaceful, unarmed on-lookers, and those like the centurion and soldier who were not in Christ's circle of friends are peacefully gazing at Him. The angels are praising and the Lord's Hand at the top of the crucifix is blessing those below. Even those who oppose Christ will come away from this Crucifix with a sense of being loved. Jesus said that He came, not to bring peace, but a sword, and that He would set family members against one another. And this is what happens when those who do not believe in Christ rage against those who do. The San Damiano Crucifix, however, is teaching the believers in Jesus to return love for hatred and good for evil, to go two miles if pressed into going one, and to give the tunic as well if someone steals the cloak. Jesus knew that He would bring division, but He asked His followers to shun being sucked into disputes over Himself. On the San Damiano Crucifix, Jesus seems to be saying, "Imitate Me, for I am meek and humble of heart."
Silence of the Crucifix
The mouth of Jesus is closed on this icon, to invite the reader into the silence of the image. The mouths are always closed on icons because the icon beckons the viewer into meditation. Jesus on the San Damiano Crucifix is not speaking to us in words that our ears can hear, but He is speaking. Listen with your heart. What is He saying in the silence? May He open the ears of your spirit to hear.
Sandals on Saint John the Evangelist
Despite the fact that certain Gospel passages (Mt. 10:10, Lk. 10:4 and Lk. 22:35) have Jesus telling His disciples to take along nothing for the journey, sandals included, Mark notes that, when Jesus told his disciples what not to take, he did tell them to wear sandals (Mark 6:9). In the book of Acts, when Peter is imprisoned, the Angel of the Lord appears to him and tells him to "put on your sandals" (Acts 12:8). Apparently Peter wore sandals. Since Mark's Gospel is a recording of Peter's preaching, we can assume that Peter remembered Jesus' words about sandals and told them to Mark who wrote them down.
The iconographer of the San Damiano Crucifix portrays John the Evangelist as wearing sandals or a similar type of foot covering which, in the icon, resembles a transparent sock. The sandals indicate John's prominence as a traveling preacher and evangelist. They recall this passage from the Prophet Nahum:
Look! On the mountains the feet of one
who brings good tidings,
who proclaims peace! (Nahum 1:15)
The San Damiano Crucifix portrays highlights of Christ's life, most from the Gospel of Saint John. By painting sandals on Saint John, the iconographer may have wanted to indicate that John was the bearer of the "good tidings" pictured on the crucifix. The iconographer seems to be saying, "Be attentive to the full Gospel of John if you wish to learn the extent of the good tidings about Jesus."
Blackness of the Nails
On the San Damiano Crucifix, the nails piercing Jesus' hands and feet are large, black, and round. They almost seem to protrude from the crucifix. This portrayal reflects the reality of what actually happened to Jesus and is a standard feature of all icons and paintings of the crucifixion, although not all renditions make the nails this visible.
Saint Francis frequently and fervently prayed in front of the San Damiano Crucifix. It is plausible that the image of Christ that was burned into his mind was this one, the image at San Damiano. So Francis would have noticed those nails and wept over them.
When Francis received the stigmata, it included the nails as portrayed on the San Damiano crucifix. In his first life of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, Francis' first biographer, writes these words, "His hands and his feet seemed to be pierced through the middle by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on the inner part of his hands and the upper part of his feet, and their points protruding on opposite sides. Those marks on the insides of his hands were round, but rather oblong on the outside; and small pieces of flesh were visible like the points of nails, bent over and flattened, extending beyond the flesh around them. On his feet, the marks of nails were stamped in the same way and raised above the surrounding flesh." (Second Book, Chapter 3: 95)
This description bears evidence of being an eye witness account of the wounds. Note that Celano does not say that these wounds bled. He does say that the wound in the side of Francis did bleed.
The image on the San Damiano Crucifix is Christ crucified but alive, victorious. Because St. Francis, by his active cooperation with the grace of God, gained victory over his own selfishness and self-absorption until he became totally focused on Jesus, Saint Francis was granted a singular grace to become a living image of Christ crucified. His resemblance to the Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix is no coincidence. Could God have designed this so that the followers of Francis would know that we are to look, not to the saint, but to the Lord Who gave him the grace to become saintly? He is the same Lord Who wishes to give us the same grace. How closely can we identify with Jesus? How much do we wish to resemble Him and to follow in His ways? These are profound questions for every new beginning and appropriate not only at new year's but every day of our lives as penitents.
Two of the most striking images on the San Damiano Crucifix are the penetrating eyes of Christ and His welcoming arms. While the arms are stretched in crucifixion, they don't really appear to be arms of a crucified man because a crucified man's arms would sag. These are welcoming arms, arms that invite the viewer to collapse into their embrace of love. The span of the arms is long, quite possibly a bit longer than would be natural for the height of the Lord on the cross. But this makes them able to be wrapped securely around anyone who would dare to approach for an embrace. The crucifix seems to be saying, "Come. Whoever you are, come. I love you. I wish to embrace you. Come, whatever your past, whatever your sins, come. I love you. You are Mine and My blood shall make you whole." Christ, welcome me into Your arms. Amen.
Hand of the Creating Lord
As the viewer faces the Crucifix of San Damiano, to Christ's right below the small rooster superimposed over the black border is what appears to be the robed head of a bearded figure with hand up raised as if in blessing. The hand is disproportionate to the head, as if the hand were extended outward toward the viewer either to bless, to invite, or to reprimand. The fingers of the hand point upward, and the hand appears to be engaging the darkness and eliminating it, because the black border, the darkness, that surrounds the crucifix is missing below the hand yet visible above it. The figure and the hand, which originate in the golden border which lies next to the black one, overflow their border to overtake the darkness. The figure calls to mind this passage from Saint John, the Evangelist:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
The figure and image may represent the Holy Spirit's creative power that, at the beginning of creation, spun the world into being and now, at the crucifixion, makes all creation new through the sacrifice of love undertaken by Christ. Or it may represent Christ in His ministry as He blessed, invited, or reprimanded the people. Perhaps both interpretations are correct.
In any case, the image shows us that the Lord is at work in eternity, and that His light overtakes and consumes the darkness of the secular and unknowing world.
Drips of Paint
On the San Damiano Crucifix right above Christ's halo, there is a black band on which are written pale white letters "REX IV DE ORV." The letters form the second part of the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" which Pilate had placed on a placard over Christ's head.
The black paint from this band has dripped down in three places so that one blot and two thinner streams of paint end just above the halo. In modern terms, these splotches would be "mistakes," but to the iconographer, who prays before, during, and after writing an icon, everything written on the icon is "good." Iconographers do not go back over their work to paint over what was originally painted. The way the paint falls on the icon is the way it stays.
So what appear to be mistakes are "good." The black splotches fall short of the halo. Darkness and death cannot enter the glory of God and eternal life. The light of Christ, surrounding Him as symbolized by the halo, stop death in its tracks.
But there is a bigger picture. What we consider to be "mistakes" in our lives are God's way of writing into the world something the world would not have written itself. As a Pennsylvania Dutch woman once told me, "God writes straight with crooked lines." Or with what we consider to be blotches in our well ordered plans. May He continue to have His way with us, even as we object!
Crowned with Jewels
The halo of light that surrounds Christ's head on the San Damiano Crucifix is studded with jewels. These are, of course, painted jewels, not real ones, and they differ from the jewels which adorn the crowns of earthly kings because the jewels in Christ's halo are so reflective of light that they appear to be made of light, the same radiance and hue as the halo itself. Therefore, the viewer sees the outlines of the jewels but not their earthly colors since each jewel seems made of light. Perhaps the iconographer intended to convey the great power and riches of Christ by depicting the jewels as unearthly, made of light realities. Certainly all preciousness in heaven is a reflection of the holiness of God. The transformed jewels are a way to indicate this.
The Blue Mantle of Mary Magdalene
On the Crucifix of San Damiano, Mary Magdalene, who stands to the right of Jesus on the Crucifix (as you face the crucifix) is clutching her dark blue mantle in her right hand. Blue symbolized the color of heavenly realities, while red, which is the color of Mary's tunic, symbolized the flesh. Mary was clothed in the flesh originally--she was a sinful woman--but, through the grace of God in answer to her faith, she was given eternal life. Her eternal life in the spirit is symbolized by the blue mantle. Mary is clutching the edge of her mantle as if to say, "I will never let go of my faith in the Lord." She proved this to be true at the Resurrection when she was the first to see the Risen Lord and to believe in His Resurrection.
Jesus the Nazarene
"IHS NAZARE" is part of the banner above the head of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix. The Latin words mean, in English, "Jesus the Nazarene." By making these words so clear on the crucifix, the iconographer calls our attention to Jesus' earthly background. He was a human being who lived in the town of Nazareth. The words, which Pilate had written to place over Jesus' head, indicated to Pilate that this was an ordinary man even though He claimed to be "King of the Jews." What king would come from a little out of the place like Nazareth?
As we gaze at these words on the crucifix, we remind ourselves that we, too, come from locations that may seem to be insignificant in the scheme of things. But are they insignificant in God's eyes? Every human being has value, so every place where human beings live is important. Anywhere life is lived and love is shared, God can be found. By tagging Jesus with the name of His town, the iconographer places Him squarely in our world, and Christ gives it significance because He dwells here.
The Blackness of the Nails
Probably the iconographer of the San Damiano Crucifix thought nothing about painting the nails black. These round, black portrayals on the hands and feet of Christ are surrounded by spurting blood. Saint Francis of Assisi prayed frequently and fervently before the San Damiano Crucifix, and the voice from this Crucifix set him on his mission. "Francis, go and repair My Church which, as you can see, is falling into ruin." When, in the year 1224, the stigmata developed in Francis' hands and feet, they were protrusions of black flesh resembling nails, apparently without much bleeding but with a good deal of pain. Because Francis' stigmata resembled the nails on the San Damiano, he was more closely identified with Christ on the cross, not Christ removed from it. For the last two years of his life, Francis' life was like a continual crucifixion. No doubt he remembered the nails on the San Damiano Crucifix as he went through his own agony.
Jesus' Prayer Shawl
At the top of the San Damiano Crucifix, Jesus is portrayed during His Ascension into heaven. Draped over His shoulders, a prayer shawl is billowing in the breeze of His ascent. The shawl indicates several things. First, Jesus is Jewish as Jewish men prayed with a prayer shawl. Secondly, the shawl is billowing which indicates motion and the wind of the Holy Spirit. It is this invisible wind, evident only by its effects, that portrays the Spirit's Presence on the San Damiano Crucifix. Thirdly, the shawl resembles a giant dead serpent draped around Jesus' neck. The serpent's head with its gaping mouth is behind Christ and its tail before Him. Satan no longer is leading the way--he has to follow Christ. In fact, in satan's scheme, everything is now backwards, much the way a tail leading a head is backwards. The unconscious connection is that Jesus has turned the world of evil upside down and inside out. He has gained victory over "that old serpent satan" and is effortlessly bearing the dead body of the evil one into heaven. Of course, satan, being pure spirit and having no body, cannot die. But the prayer shawl caricature implies that evil is dead, death is dead, both conquered by Christ in His death on the cross and both taken like trophies to God's heavenly throne.
Size of the Crucifix
If you have not seen the actual San Damiano Crucifix, you will be surprised at how large it is. This is a life sized crucifix, with the image of a life-sized Jesus on it. Why would the iconographer have wanted to make the crucifix so large? Could it be to give us the idea that Jesus was really a man, that He really died on a real cross for us?
It follows that, since Jesus is life-sized on the original San Damiano Crucifix, then the other figures on the crucifix are smaller than life. What does that indicate? That we need to put ourselves in perspective where God is concerned. He is far greater than we are. He is far greater than the angels who wait on Him and who adorn the crucifix in several places. He is greater even than the greatest saint of all, His Mother, who stands in jeweled head covering below the cross but larger than the angels. In fact, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Mary Clopas as well as the centurion whose son Jesus cured are all bigger than the angels. This seems to indicate that believing in Christ makes us spiritually greater than the angels who knew God's power and presence first hand. We have to believe from our limited human vision, from faith rather than from sight.
When we stand beneath the original San Damiano Crucifix and gaze up at it, we get the impression that we are in the presence of holiness and grace. We can imagine ourselves at the feet of Christ's cross, along with His Mother and the other figures. And we know that He is God and we are not. If we come away from the crucifix with that impression, it will be sufficient.
The blood from the wounds in hands of Christ on the San Damiano Crucifix are trickling blood that flows down Christ's arms and drips onto the figures below the arms of the crucifix. The blood is a steady stream, coloring the border around the cross as if forming a river of blood. The iconographer seems to be saying that the blood of Christ is plentiful enough to irrigate the world and wash away sin. It is not a stream of blood that dries up but an ever flowing river such as that described in Ezekial 47 that bubbles up from within the temple and grows deeper and deeper until it makes all things fresh and spawns new life. Jesus is the new temple, the living temple of God, and His Blood is the stream of Life.
On the San Damiano Crucifix, over the head of the ascending Christ at the top of the crucifix, the saint to the right is holding what appears to be a palm branch over the head of Jesus Who is looking at him. The image would invoke in the viewer the memory of Palm Sunday when Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed as King of the Jews. On the San Damiano Crucifix, however, His triumph is supreme because Jesus is entering heaven to claim the title King of Heaven and Earth. Beneath the ascending Christ the words, in Latin, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" emphasize in words what the palm branch shows in image. Our King, crucified yet risen, dead yet fully alive, defeated yet irrevocably triumphant--such is Christ of the San Damiano Crucifix.
The Square in the Cross
The shape of the San Damiano Crucifix is unique among most crucifixes. It contains a "square" in the center of the crucifix so that the iconographer could depict innumerable figures to the left and right of Christ. While at first glance, the figures may not appear to be innumerable, they actually are intended to be infinite. To the left are depicted the Blessed Mother, Saint John, and a centurion with a lance. To the right are depicted Mary Magdalene, Mary of Clopas, the official who built the synagogue, and an incredulous and unbelieving onlooker. However, behind the synagogue official is the head of a young man with three other heads depicted behind his, giving the effect that he is first in a line of several others whom we cannot see because he stands in front of them. The presence of these figures in the "square" in the center of the cross gives the impression that all of them issue from Christ as if from a womb. The death of Christ on the Cross birthed the salvation for all of those depicted and those who came after and before them, down through all generations forever. The "square" in the center of the crucifix is not merely an artistic device to show some of the principal figures in the Passion. It is also a reminder that we Christians, the Church, are the fruit of what happened on Calvary.