Deputy Principal - Mission & Faith

San Damiano Cross

In the last Newsletter I explained how the Catholic identity of Salesian College is central to all we do here at “Rupertswood” and that visible signs of our faith are an important way to communicate this faith.   In relation to this point I outlined the new Campus Icons in place throughout the College.  In addition, we have placed the San Damiano Cross in all classrooms as well as many offices and other places around the College.  The San Damiano Cross is the icon that in the year 1206 spoke to Saint Francis of Assisi asking him to rebuild God’s Church.  This cross has deep meaning and significant.  It gives the College great opportunities to explain the message of Jesus and the Gospels.

The original cross hangs in the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, Italy.  Franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God.  The cross is of a type sometimes called an icon cross because besides the main figure it contains images of other saints and people related to the incident of Christ's crucifixion.  It was fashioned around the year 1100. The purpose of an icon cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people.

Jesus Christ is represented both as wounded and strong. He stands upright and resolute.  His halo already includes the pictures of the glorified cross.  The bright white of the Lord's body contrasts with the dark red and black around it and, therefore, accentuates the prominence of Jesus.  He projects the life of divine nature in a body pierced by nails in the hands and feet, by the crown of thorns on his head, and by the soldier's lance in his side. This representation contrasts with the regal Christ portrayed on the cross in earlier centuries and the suffering, dying, crucified Christ depicted generally throughout the Church since the beginning of the 14th century. Christ is represented in full stature while all others are smaller. Above the head of Christ is the inscription in Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

The next largest figures are the five witnesses of the crucifixion and witnesses of Jesus as Lord.  On the left side are the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted his mother.  On the right side are Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and the centurion who in Matthew's Gospel account asks Christ to heal his servant, who is also depicted on the cross on the shoulder of the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13).  Both Mary and Mary Magdalene have their hands placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses are saints who gave their lives for the Lord and are therefore represented with halos of sanctity.  The names of the five major witnesses are written beneath their pictures.

Other smaller figures are represented as witnessing the crucifixion.  On the lower left is Longinus the traditional name of the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance.  He is represented here as holding the lance and looking up at Jesus. The blood running down the right arm of Jesus begins at the elbow and drips straight down and will land on the upturned face of Longinus.  In the lower right is Stephaton, the traditional name for the soldier who offered Jesus the sponge soaked in vinegar wine.  From his posture, one can see that he holds the staff and sponge in the same way that Longinus holds the lance.

Six angels are represented as marveling over the event of the crucifixion.  They are positioned at both ends of the crossbar.   Their hand gestures indicate they are discussing this wondrous event of the death and calling us to marvel with them.

At the foot of the cross there is a damaged picture of six figures, two of whom are represented with halos.  In accordance with the traditions of the day, these six are the patrons of Umbria: St. John, St. Michael, St. Rufino, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul.

On the top of the cross, one sees Jesus now fully clothed in his regal garments and carrying the cross as a triumphant scepter.  He is climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts.  Ten angels are crowded around, five of whom have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Jesus, who himself has his hand raised in the form of a greeting.

At the very top of the cross is the Hand of God with two fingers extended. This is to be understood as the blessing of God the Father on the sacrifice of his Son.

On the right side of the picture next to the left calf of Jesus, there is a small figure of a fowl. Some art historians have interpreted it to be a rooster, representing the sign of Jesus' denial by Peter, mentioned in all four Gospel accounts.

The San Damiano Cross is a reminder to us all of the gospel story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Like St Francis and St John Bosco, our work too is to build the Church and help our young people to become“upright citizens” and “good Christians”.

Dr Michael Grace

Deputy Principal - Mission & Faith