The town of Assisi in Umbria is one of the most significant spiritual centers in the world. A land of religious fervor where saints walked the hillsides and forests and lived lives that changed the world. The gentle spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi continues to influence all who are open to the teachings of Francis who first heard God’s calling in a small church outside the city walls while praying at the iconic cross of San Damiano directing him to “Rebuild My Church”.
The iconic cross of San Damiano is not iconic in the sense of small graphic symbols on a computer screen or as references to powerful cultural figures but iconic as in a religious image or painting on a wooden panel used for prayer and devotion. The iconic Cross of San Damiano was painted in the 12th century by an unknown Umbrian artist living near Assisi. The cross is called an iconic cross because it contains images of persons who have a part in its meaning. As a religious icon and work of art the lines, colors and pictures teach the significance of the event and create a personal encounter with the sacred.
The symbolic meaning of an icon is part of a distinct spiritual tradition of the eastern church. Byzantine icons are religious imagery found in Eastern Christianity (peculiar to Byzantium, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia). Icons are images of a spiritual world both seen and unseen. They evoke a sense of spiritual mystery to engage us in a “more than meets the eye” moment. There’s often a lot going on in an icon (artistically and spiritually) and for early Christians it read like an open book.
Thought to have been painted by an eastern Christian monk living in the area, the imagery of the icon Cross of San Damiano expresses the Paschal Mystery of Christ. It is a layered and varied story with a cast of characters that were part of his death, resurrection and ascension into glory. Golden halos, medallions of red and mantles of blue,calligraphic scrolls, a Roman soldier and his son and groups of astonished angels all join together to teach us about the miraculous intercession of God in the life of mankind. Beautifully and skillfully painted icons, like the mosaics of Ravenna, are a medium for instruction and inspiration and a connection between God and man.
Contemporary iconographer Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) reminds us that icons are more than mere wood and paint making up a physical image rather “icons raise the soul and mind to the realm of the spirit.”
Today the Cross of San Damiano hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi.