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San Damiano Cross

About the San Damiano Cross

One of the most distinctive features about our church is the prominent crucifix behind the altar, inspired by the San Damiano cross of Assisi.  As a young man in the midst of an experience of conversion, the young Francis knelt in front of this cross in a dilapidated church on the outskirts of town. In that moment of discernment and deep prayer, a voice came to him and said, “Rebuild my Church.” Ever the literalist, Francis immediately began his rebuilding of that little chapel. That rebuilding prefigured a much more profound spiritual renewal that would be the product of his hands, the renewal of the entire Church throughout Europe.

Obviously then any serious attempt to capture the spirituality of St. Francis must in some way incorporate this abiding symbol. In many ways, our crucifix in our new Church of St. Francis illustrates our guiding philosophy for our entire project. We did not intend to merely replicate that symbol, but instead, we wanted to re-envision it. As part of a living tradition, our task was not merely to ape spiritual forms of the past but to instead embrace them and allow them to transform us. In so doing, they evolve into new forms which in turn challenge our modern world. Francis’ message was and is radical but it remains our task to translate his wisdom into a language which speaks as forcefully to a twenty-first century audience as it did to a thirteenth century one.

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To achieve our symbolic end, we spoke with an artist from Dallas, Nancy Rebal. Pictured right is an example of her work of a crucifix in St. Joseph Church in Richardson. Ms. Rebal researched the original San Damiano crucifix to fully understand its theology and spirituality. From that process of discernment, we spoke to her about what message the cross must convey in our own complex world.  From that discussion, we found a way to create a crucifix which from a distance will be a worthy homage to the cross that inspired Francis. The work of art is our own; our own attempt to take Franciscan spirituality and symbolism.

In a way, this speaks to the principles that guided much of our deliberations of design on this new building. We are faithful to the wisdom of the past, inspired and fed by it, and desirous of bringing it into the future.  Yet we also know that we did not want to build a museum, but a living place of worship for a lively people. To that end we built a church of the present. Our San Damiano cross is a great example of our way of bringing Francis to a new generation.

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Meaning Behind the Crucifix

The San Damiano Crucifix
of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Frisco, Texas
2013 by Nancy Rebal

This new crucifix is modeled after the original 12th century Romanesque cross of the San Damiano Chapel in Assisi, Italy. The most widely familiar of all the Italian painted crosses, it has become the symbol of the spirituality of St. Francis, who lived from 1181to1226.  When Francis first encountered the original in the year 1205, it was hanging in the ruins of the tiny Chapel of San Damiano, outside Assisi.  As he knelt before the cross in deep prayer, a voice came to him saying, “Francis, rebuild my Church”.  Not only did he take this as a reference to the ruined San Damiano structure, which he then did rebuild with his own hands, but to the larger whole of the Catholic Church.  Through his simple piety and deep spirituality, he became a force of renewal that continues to bear fruit today.  This twenty-first century newly made crucifix in Frisco, Texas is created with an intentional dedication to this spirit of St. Francis.

The painter of Francis’ crucifix is unknown.  It is likely to have been an artist/monk who traveled across Umbria fulfilling commission for sacred art in the 1100s. Since 1257 it has been in the care of the Poor Clares, a contemplative order of Franciscan nuns based in Assisi. It is made of solid walnut and stands approximately 6’ 4” tall by 5’ wide.  Elements such as the stylized eyes show a Syrian  influence. The decorative outer border is likely a later addition. The cross was restored and repainted in 1938 and now hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi.  A copy of it hangs in the restored chapel at San Damiano where Francis first saw it.

The San Damiano crucifix is a type of historiated crucifix.  In Italy this type of cross is known as a croce dipinta  (painted crucifix).  Many of these were made throughout the Umbrian region of Italy in the 12th century.  It could also be called an icon cross, one that portrays a number of scenes from the story of the life of Christ to communicate visually to the often-illiterate worshippers. The ability to read was not widespread then.

There are two kinds of historiated crucifixes. The first type ­­that arose is the CHRISTUS TRIUMPHANS, of which the Damiano is an example.  In this version, we see a living Christ who stands erect, with open eyes that look at us. Addressing the Pascal mystery through the transfigured Christ, the viewer moves with him through death, resurrection, and ascension: the full story of God made Man.

The second type, the CHRISTUS PATIENS depicts the suffering Christ on the cross.  His body hangs heavily in a sway, with eyes closed, and head hanging heavily downward.  This type of crucifix is intended to evoke compelling emotion when contemplated.

The 12th century traveling artist left no written explanation for the meanings he attributed to the painted figures.  However, as an icon, this painting is said to be ‘written”, using prescribed figures, styles, gestures, even colors. After centuries of contemplation, there is a general consensus of the meanings in the San Damiano images. This new Frisco crucifix is an interpretation of the same story using the historical visual language.

Properly scaled for this large sanctuary, the Frisco crucifix is fourteen feet in height. The Christ figure is nine feet tall. The darkness of the cross behind him can stand for the empty tomb, as well as the vastness of eternity.  The red panels can stand for compassion and love.  The gold leaf is real 23K gold, beaten into 3” x 3” tissue-thin square sheets and applied over a terracotta red underpainting.  The gold becomes the eternal, pure, uncreated light of God glowing from within.  Thirty-three gold half-spheres (bosses) decorate the border, symbolizing the thirty-three years of Jesus’ time on earth.

This is a living Christ and his wide-opened eyes look boldly into eternity. Above Jesus’ head are written the words that Pontius Pilate ordered to be posted on a sign on the cross: ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’.  Jesus wears a white sacerdotal (priestly) loincloth.  In Biblical times this is what the priest would wear when sacrificing a lamb.  Here Jesus is both the priest and the willing victim.  His gold-colored belt is knotted with three knots, standing for the Holy Trinity.  His cruciform halo, encrusted with 7 symbolic gold bosses, is raised from the background so that his head is tipped forward.  Various reasons have been discussed for this.  It seems a way of symbolizing Jesus’ actual incarnation.  Bending forward into relationship, he joins humanity in the temporal world. His strong arms are no longer hanging from a cross, but are raised in invitation. Angels gather around Jesus’ outstretched arms.  The two angels below each of his elbows calmly discuss the drama, while a third on each end invites the viewer into the relationship. Though his hands, feet and side bear the bleeding wounds of sacrifice, his attitude is that of authority and transcendence. The blood from his wounds flows out to become the wine of the Eucharist. 

On either side of Jesus stand the people who are participants in the crucifixion drama.  Christ’s blood falls on these witnesses and blesses them.  On the far left is the Blessed Virgin Mary, his mother.  Mary’s head is covered by a white mantle to denote her purity.  Her gesture, with her cheek resting on her hand, is an ancient sign of mourning.  Accompanying her is John, the beloved disciple. While he was hanging on the cross, Jesus directed John to care for Mary.  Here John affirms this connection as he looks to Mary while gesturing to Jesus. His rose-colored garment has been called an attribute of holy wisdom, under which he wears a white garment of purity.

At Jesus’ other side stand more witnesses to his crucifixion.  Mary Magdalene is next to Jesus, wearing a red mantle of love and compassion.  Next to her is Mary Clopas, the mother of James, wearing earth colors. To the far right stands the Centurion of Capernaum, featured in the story of John 4: 45-54.  When Jesus healed his son, he promised to build a synagogue in gratitude.  This building is signified by the piece of wood he holds in his hand.  The cloth covering his hand honors the holiness of the building.  The thumb and two raised fingers of his other hand make the symbol of the Trinity while the two lowered fingers demonstrate Christ’s dual nature.  Over his shoulder we see the small figure of his healed son, behind whom are the tops of the heads of his household.  He brings them all to worship God with him.

 

 

 

Moving lower we find two smaller, therefore less significant, figures.  On the far left is Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side to confirm his death.  He holds the piercing lance.  On the far right is Stephen, the name traditionally given to the man who offered Jesus a sponge soaked in vinegar when Jesus said ‘I thirst’.  (John 19: 28-29)

At about the level of Jesus’ knees, close inspection reveals a tiny rooster.  This is the cock  whose morning crowing  would follow Peter’s three denials of Jesus on the night of his betrayal.  This was Jesus prediction and was fulfilled, much to Peter’s shame.  (Luke 22: 61-62)

 

 

The next time frame of the story takes us to the very top of the crucifix. Here we move into the realm of the eternal.  Above the whole drama, in a half circle at the very top, the right hand of God the Father bestows a benediction.  With two fingers extended, he bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the red circle directly below the hand of God, we see a second small figure of Jesus depicted in the next stage of his journey, stepping into eternity.  The cross he carries has been transformed into a royal scepter and a red scarf of royalty flies around his shoulders.  Welcoming Jesus to this heavenly realm is a host of ten angels.  They all wear beatific smiles. Some of them seem to be discussing Jesus’ arrival as others extend hands of welcome to him.

Now look at the figures in the lowest area of the cross.  Below Jesus’ feet, the original Damiano crucifix is damaged and truncated.  The heads of several figures can be made out in the faded fragment.  In an icon, this is traditionally the area in which the patron saints of the particular church are depicted.  In the new St. Francis of Assisi of Frisco crucifix, the figures at the bottom are, fittingly, St. Francis himself accompanied by St. Clare. Francis holds a small reproduction of the Damiano crucifix while Clare carries the monstrance that she raised to turn back a Saracen attack.

 

As is the custom in sacred Christian art, this new original art is a rendition of the earlier historical  icons, keeping the tradition alive and always renewed.  The visual language is prescribed, the artist is simply the ‘writer’ of the icon.  It has been said that new sacred art is like a fresh young branch on a very old tree, laden with meanings through which the Spirit lives. 

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