Fine Arts Column: Seeing through the eyes of Francis


The student body of Franciscan University, to which so many of my readers belong, is no doubt familiar with a certain near-universal experience particular to being on this campus. If you are reading this in a public place, take a look around you. Chances are you’ll see a San Damiano crucifix somewhere in your vicinity. (If not, I would be willing to bet you can find one nearby in less than a minute.)

This crucifix is a well-known and treasured piece of Franciscan tradition, and its proliferation upon our campus seems only natural. However, its ubiquity gives me cause to consider how often we simply glance at it in passing without ever reflecting on its symbolism.

The San Damiano crucifix is a work of iconography, an art form that is sometimes referred to as being written rather than painted because of the sheer depth of meaning that goes into each detail. The figures surrounding that of Christ upon the cross are not unnamed bystanders but for the most part are identifiable. Gazing at this crucifix for more than a few seconds, one begins to notice details so small as to be unnoticeable at first glance. (If you don’t have an image of the crucifix handy, I recommend finding one to reference for these next few paragraphs).

The largest figures surrounding Christ are those who witnessed the crucifixion. To the left are John the Evangelist and the Blessed Mother standing beneath the flow of blood and water from the side of Jesus.

Opposite them are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and the Roman centurion who recognizes Christ’s divinity after his side has been pierced. There is a small face peeking over the shoulder of the centurion. It is possible that this is the centurion’s son whom Jesus healed in the Gospel of John. It is also possible that this likeness is that of the artist, a way of writing himself into the story.

Above the inscription on the crucifix is a smaller image of the resurrection, depicting the risen Christ surrounded by angels. At the very top of the image, the Father’s hand can be seen raised in blessing over his Son and the salvific action taking place.

This glory of the risen Christ, while explicitly displayed in this portion of the image, can also be seen implicitly in the crucifix itself. In contrast to more realistic depictions of the crucifixion, the artist of the San Damiano crucifix shows Christ, though crucified, standing as though he is in fact supporting the weight of the cross rather than the other way around.

If you look closely at the lower right-hand section of the crucifix, a small rooster can be seen slightly to the right of and below Jesus’ knee. Many interpret this as representing Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in Matthew 26. At the very bottom of the image, obscured and disfigured by centuries of wear, six figures are represented: the patron saints of the region of Umbria, where St. Francis lived and first laid eyes on this crucifix.

History leaves us no record of who authored the crucifix of San Damiano. The depth of meaning that can be read from its figures and styling speaks to the power of icons to teach us truths about the faith and lift our minds to contemplation. In so doing, we echo the actions of Francis himself, praying in the church of San Damiano eight centuries ago. On this feast of St. Francis, may we reflect more closely on the image of Christ crucified that so closely follows every moment of ours upon this campus.