Notes on the Franciscan Crucifix
by Zachary Roesemann, iconographer
It was while praying before a painted cross in the church of San Damiano that St. Francis was called by Christ in a vision to “Go and repair my house”—a commission that launched the Franciscan movement to work for renewal in the Church. This cross, commissioned for a Third Order Franciscan priest, suggests elements of the San Damiano cross, and is further inspired by a style of cross that became popular in Franciscan communities shortly after the death of St. Francis in 1226.
The Christ figure echoes the pose of Christ in the San Damiano Cross: wounded, yet strong, eyes open and looking outward. Mary and John stand in lamentation, in their traditional positions by the cross. The gold background (usually taken to represent the divine light of Heaven), the absence of ground under their feet, and the stylized, minimal cross unmoor the scene from time and present the Crucifixion as an eternal act. Yet, at the same time, the ground at the foot of the cross, the hill of Golgotha, anchors the cross, which cuts into time and history.
The cave with the skull (of Adam), onto which drips Christ’s redeeming blood, is a very traditional element from Byzantine iconography in scenes of the Crucifixion. Gregory Collins OSB explains the imagery of the skull:
…The foot of the cross pierces the hill of Golgotha, but beneath it lies a black space. Within the space we see a skull, a symbol evoking numerous associations. It represents Calvary, the place of the skull. It is in addition a reminder of mortality from which we will be rescued by the Lord’s self-offering on the cross. It also calls to mind an early Christian tradition, not literally or historically true but true in the world of iconographical symbolism, that Jesus the new Adam was crucified over the corpse of the old Adam, our fallen proto-parent, the source of all humanity’s ills.
Death and decay, our human condition, are thus transformed by the new Adam, who suffered on the cross to bring life and hope to humankind. The two Adams, one earthly, the other heavenly, meet on the common ground of suffering and mortality (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; 42-40). The black space pierced by the foot of the cross suggests the abyss of nothingness above which human existence is suspended by the creative word of God. As a sign of this nothingness out of which God made all things, it is an awesome reminder of what creation means: that all is empty without the constant support of God. (The Glenstal Book of Icons, p. 70)
Many portrayals of St. Francis include a skull as a memento mori, a reminder to “remember one’s death” even as one gives thanks for every moment of life.
St. Francis, kneeling on the earth at the foot of the cross and tenderly venerating Christ’s wounds, is closest to the viewer when the image is on the wall. In this way the viewer can connect with Francis in his humility and “earthiness.” Indeed, the whole structure of the image shows the link, through Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice, of the divine and the human, from the heavenly seraph at the top, through Christ’s living human body to the solid ground and St. Francis at the bottom, and even the “dust thou art” of Adam’s bones.
An important story in Franciscan spirituality is represented at the very top of the crucifix. It was on Holy Cross Day in 1224, while deep in prayer, that Francis received a mystical vision of the Crucified Christ that included flames, cross, and seraph. The intensity of the vision united Francis with Christ in such a way that witnesses said Francis received the stigmata of Christ, bearing wounds in his hands, feet and side. The presence of the seraph (Hebrew for “burning one”) at the top of this crucifix recalls the story of the stigmata, without representing it explicitly. The seraph also refers to the divine nature of Jesus in this scene of his human suffering; seraphim surround the throne of God. The face of this seraph was inspired by glorious mosaics in the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), which were uncovered relatively recently.
A passage from G.K. Chesterton’s spiritual biography of St. Francis catches some of the mystery and ineffable grandeur of these mysterious beings:
…but whatever the meaning of the vision, the general idea of it is very vivid and overwhelming. St. Francis saw above him, filling the whole heavens, some vast immemorial unthinkable power, ancient like the Ancient of Days, whose calm men had conceived under the forms of winged bulls or monstrous cherubim, and all that winged wonder was in pain like a wounded bird. This seraphic suffering, it is said, pierced his soul with a sword of grief and pity; it may be inferred that some sort of mounting agony accompanied the ecstasy. Finally after some fashion the apocalypse faded from the sky and the agony within subsided; and silence and the natural air filled the morning twilight and settled slowly in the purple chasms and cleft abysses of the Apennines.
The head of the solitary sank, amid all that relaxation and quiet in which time can drift by with the sense of something ended and complete; and as he stared downwards, he saw the marks of nails in his own hands. (St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter 5)
The predominance of blue in the crucifix is my small homage to the Master of the Blue Crucifixes, whose work has been an inspiration to me for many years. The color echoes especially one of his works now in the treasury of the Basilica in Assisi. Mary’s and John’s robes in particular are painted with very high-quality lapis lazuli (still from the ancient mines in Afghanistan, source of the best lapis pigment since ancient Egyptian times!). The blue-green of the ground at the foot of the cross is a whisper of a reference to “St. Francis in the Desert,” the great painting by Bellini in the Frick Collection. Also inspired by that wonderful painting are the unostentatious treatment of the stigmata and some details of Francis’ habit.
The inscription at the top of the cross, “INRI,” is the abbreviation for “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews,” in Latin. Greek abbreviations include “ΙС ΧС,” for “Jesus Christ,” and “МР ѲΥ,” for “Mother of God;” and in Latin, “S. IOHS EVE” for “St. John the Evangelist,” and “S. FRANCISCUS” for St. Francis.” The Latin font is adapted from 13th-century mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Franciscan spirituality focuses on the person of Jesus and strives to imitate Jesus’ life and work. May we, like St. Francis before the San Damiano cross, pray for God to “bring light to the darkness of our hearts;” and may we, too, be inflamed with love for Jesus and a desire to follow always in his way of humility and charity. --Zachary Roesemann, iconographer