In Holy Week our eyes are upon the Cross of Jesus. Today we conclude our reflections on the origins and spirituality of the best known Catholic painted crucifix, the San Damiano cross, which today hangs in the Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi.
In Part 1 we saw the role of exiled Syrian hermits in Umbria, and the way their Christology and desert spirituality fed into the vocation of Francis and his first followers. We recalled how the encounter with the San Damiano cross was a key moment in the conversion of Saint Francis, and then we saw how that same Syrian painted cross became the ‘Mirror’ in the Christ-centered spiritual life of Saint Clare and her ‘Poor Ladies,’ as we see in her correspondence with Saint Agnes of Prague.
The next question to explore is what happened to the San Damiano cross, between the death of Saint Clare in 1253 and its reappearance in public view seven hundred years later in 1957.
The Basilica di Santa Chiara was the second of the two basilicas built to honor the two great Franciscan saints of Assisi, and in 1265 the Syrian painted cross was removed from San Damiano and carried up the steep hill, through the olive groves and into the city; and it was positioned in the basilica within the enclosure of the new Poor Clares monastery. We can imagine there would have probably been some joyful liturgical celebration to welcome it into its new home, though there is no record of that; but it was given a central place in the life of the enclosed community. They would have passed on its significance from one generation of sisters to the next, and the oral history would have been told to countless new groups of postulants and novices. The story of how the San Damiano cross was the inspiration for Francis and the spiritual focus for Clare—her ‘Mirror’—would have been a standard formation process: “Clare had taught novices to weep over the Crucified Christ.” It would be difficult to imagine any circumstance in which such an important relic would have been substituted by another or mislaid, so although it ‘disappeared’ from view for so long, we should have no doubt that it remained there.
After the ‘rediscovery’ of Saint Francis in the 19th century and the popularisation of his cult, with new interest from protestant writers like Sabatier and Jorgensen, and also given a boost by the growing interest in classical and medieval history by European travelers to Italy, the historical sites of the Franciscan saints were increasingly sought out. The disused San Damiano church and remains of the Poor Clares’ proto-monastery were bought by an English aristocrat (although it is now back in use by the Franciscan Order for the novitiate), and travelers visited the places they had read about in the Little Flowers of Saint Francis, the Fioretti, or in one of the new popular lives of the saint.
One thing that the 19th-century travelers could not see was the San Damiano cross. It had completely disappeared from public view for seven hundred years, as it was located within the enclosed community of the Poor Clares. In 1926, the first person to describe it in the modern period was Leone Bracaloni and some fairly poor quality black and white photographs showed the obvious deterioration of the painting, although it is not clear whether the photographs were taken in poor lighting or if the cross was really in the catastrophic condition that appears in these images. In 1932 it was enclosed in a glass case for better preservation, but ironically the electric lighting inside the case caused additional heat damage!
When the San Damiano cross was finally put on display in 1957 after extensive restoration work, it caused a sensation because the public had never seen it before. Some people asked, how could it be certain that this two-meter high painted cross, on canvas stretched over walnut board, was the actual artifact that Saint Francis and Saint Clare had contemplated in the little church of San Damiano in the 13th century? Seven hundred years had passed without anyone knowing this cross was still in existence, so skeptics alleged the artifact had been ‘invented’ to support the Franciscan revival that had gathered momentum in the modern period and this San Damiano cross had been created or brought from some obscure origins to support the myth. Such a scenario was well-known in medieval times, with the falsification of relics driven by the lucrative pilgrim trade, so it is perhaps understandable that there were doubters.
However, in addition to Bracaloni’s extensive description in 1926, there is an account from the late medieval period that shows the cross was prominently displayed in the monastery. Evidence is offered in the form of a witness in 1473: a German Franciscan friar visiting the monastery. Obviously, the only men given access were priests, in order to say Mass for the sisters, and this priest’s sighting of the San Damiano cross gives us the only sure description before modern times. This German friar, Konrad von Bondorf says the cross was still “kept with great reverence in the monastery where our most blessed mother Saint Clare rests. It is painted on wood, and is not a carved image; is flat and not raised.” But he says the head was raised from the background, and this identifies the structure exactly. Crucially he reports on its condition: “It was an ugly, old, faded painting.” That gives us a clear indication that the painting had already begun deteriorating, even by that date. This is a convincing report and it appears as a marginal reference in a manuscript in a German monastery.
The next event is plain fact supported by administrative processes: in 1939 the cross was removed from the basilica by the Superintendent of Monuments, in order for extensive restoration work to be done by Rosalia Alliana. The records of the work done are vague, but one thing is certain about the restoration: if it had been done just a few years later, it would have been undertaken with an entirely different approach and we would see a quite different artifact today.
The profession of art conservation was totally transformed after 1945 due to the widespread damage caused in World War II. A new ethos developed. Professionals would no longer ‘invent’ missing detail nor ‘interpret’ the work as freely as restorers had previously done. Preservation could have involved action to anticipate and prevent further deterioration of the San Damiano cross, but without interpreting and adding new layers of detail. Today we would perhaps be looking at a more authentic face of this unique item of Catholic spiritual heritage.
Instead, in 1939 the option for a complete restoration was taken, with the objective of returning the severely deteriorated paintwork of the cross to its supposed original condition. This involved removing the marks of the centuries which connect our time to the time of Francis and Clare, in which this relic was imbued with its historical and hagiographical significance. Who could now say with any confidence that this image is the one before which Saint Francis and Saint Clare placed themselves in their devotions? Yes, it is the same walnut board, the same canvas, and the same wooden border frame; but can we say it is the same image? Somewhere in this moral tale of restoration or conservation, you may discern an interesting parable about traditionalists and modernizers, and a via media between the two; but let’s not go there!
Saint Clare died not long after writing her last letter to Agnes in 1253, and it is poignant to imagine the recipient receiving the letter and the news of the death of its writer at about the same time, maybe even from the same Franciscan messenger bringing news and mail to her convent in Prague.
Today in the 13th-century dormitory at San Damiano, on the wall above the bare flagstones in the place where Saint Clare died, there is a beautiful modern icon depicting a full-length standing figure of her, cradling in her left arm the San Damiano crucifix. It is a reminder of her words in the last letter to Agnes: “Your left arm is under my head and Your right will happily embrace me.” In this modern painting, she who holds Christ crucified—the ‘Mirror’—becomes a mirror herself and she invites us to gaze into the cross as she invited Agnes of Prague, encouraging us to draw forward to share in the ever possible joy of sanctity. She found spiritual riches in gazing at the Mirror of the Crucified and she always encouraged others. She wanted them to discover the same joy. That is true Catholic mission, isn’t it?
Of course we shall ever be in awe of such saints as Francis and Clare, but we should also remember that they want us to emulate them, and not simply regard their example as an impossible ideal. Beyond the particular circumstances of her enclosed life and the culture of the times in which she lived, it is not a remote spiritual model that Saint Clare holds out to us, but a sensible and practical one, communicated with wisdom and great clarity. Her genius is not simply to demonstrate that this is true, but it is achievable through the Cross of Jesus, and furthermore to convince the reader that nothing less than Christ can truly satisfy.
Clare points us to the heart of her experience of the Incarnation and reassures us that a life centered on the Cross of Jesus is possible. In Holy Week we have an opportunity again to face into the mirror of Christ on the Cross and ask ourselves once more, are we ready to make the Cross the center of our lives?
The San Damiano cross. Click here for a detailed high–quality photograph (2014 x 3000 pixels) which you can print and mount on board to use for your individual devotions.
Thanks to Br. André Cirino OFM (of the Immaculate Conception Province, NY, USA) and Br. Noel Muscat OFM (of the Holy Land Franciscans) for their help with information regarding the 1939 restoration.
 Noel Muscat OFM, “The Episode of San Damiano in the Sources for the Life of Saint Francis,” https://franciscanstudies.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/sandamiano.pdf
 Leone Bracaloni, Storia de San Damiano in Assisi (Tuderte, 1926)
 Basilica Santa Chiara website: https://www.assisisantachiara.it/il-crocifisso/approfondimenti/
Photo credits: San Damiano cross, Gerhard Ruf OFM (when the cross was taken down in 1999 for cleaning). Copyright www.assisi.de. Pre-restoration black & white photos: source unknown.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).