The following detailed presentation in English of an Italian study carried out by Pietro Maranesi serves to lay the groundwork for friars in post-novitiate formation reading the writings of Francis of Assisi in a more critical way. It is particularly helpful for introducing the friar to reading the Testament of Francis critically. What was Francis’ theological and anthropological worldview from which he produced his writings, and especially the Testament that was dear to the friars of the Capuchin reform in the sixteenth century?
After he has looked into your eyes
Francis of Assisi and the Glorious Crosses of San Damiano and San Severino
(Artistic, Historical and Theological-Narrative rereading)
POSTQUAM VIDERIT OCULOS TUOS. FRANCESCO DI ASSISI E LE CROCI GLORIOSE DI SAN DAMIANO E SAN SEVERINO (RILETTURA ARTISTICA, STORICA E TEOLOGICO-NARRATIVA) in Studi francescani Vol. 119 (2022) pages 5-58.
Prepared by Gary Devery OFM Cap
Table of Contents
And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would pray with simplicity in this way and say: “We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the whole world and we bless You because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world”. (Testament 4-5)
These are the words with which Francis recounts an important moment at the beginning of his Christian life, when in a church he experienced the mystery of the Cross, fixing it in that prayer which he then used every time he visited others. Is it possible to connect that text with a specific event? I have often returned to the interpretation of those verses of the Testament by linking them to the time in which, after his conversion (Test 1-3) and before the arrival of his companions (Test 14-15), Francis went to live in the church of San Damiano. There he was struck in the heart and mind by what was placed in the apse, above the altar: the cross. In those days he saw and heard that Christian symbol in a new way, to the point of making it a memory that would accompany him for the rest of his life. But what happened in that place in front of the cross?
According to the first hagiographies, in that little church Francis underwent a disconcerting experience listening to words that came from the cross, which gave him a mission for the benefit of the whole world: “Go and repair my house” (3Comp 13). At that moment his life changed so radically that after that he event, he decided to immediately sell his horse in Foligno and then, on his return, to remain in San Damiano.
However, this narrative does not seem to match what the brief account in the Testament suggests. According to the content of that prayer of adoration and blessing, Francis does not link his amazement to a special mission received from the cross, but to what he saw shining forth from it. According to my reading of the text, Francis’ exultation did not originate from words that came “from the cross”, which sent him on a special mission (thus making him special), but from the word “of the cross” which there, in that little church he listened for the first time contemplating the crucified face.
Hence the fundamental question of our work: what face did the young man see in this experience from which then flowed that response of adoration and blessing? In fact, it is possible to imagine that such feelings of exultation were mediated and aroused by a concrete cross. Therefore the question that in some way moves this work of ours concerns the shape of the cross, or rather the crucified face encountered by Francis. Because that vision, that face marked his entire existence, accompanying him as an evangelical criterion in thinking about the mystery of God and in relating to others.
The underlying hypothesis of these pages is supported by a kind of obviousness, according to which man is what he encounters. The world around us, the cultural one in particular, generates our identity, providing us with an image with which we build our self-awareness and represent God and the world. So what were the images of the cross that “nourished” the heart and imagination of Francis, condensing themselves into that text of adoration and blessing?
To answer this question, it is necessary to carry out a preliminary study relating to the two artistic representations of the cross that alternated in Francis’ time. The theological diversity between the two forms will in fact allow us to then return to the question, to attempt a hypothesis on the crosses “seen” by Francis and thus advance a possible answer on the reasons that pushed him to adore and bless the “holy cross”.
At the beginning of the 13th century, among the many innovations that imposed themselves on Western culture, there was also a change in the iconography of the crucified Christ, who until the end of the 12th century was represented with his eyes open facing the beholder, while starting from the 1230s he will be depicted dead with his head reclining or dangling on his chest.
It has been hypothesized that this transformation followed what had already happened in the previous century in the Byzantine East, where the representation of the triumphant Christ with his eyes open was transformed into the suffering and, even better, “sleeping” Christ. What were the causes that led to this innovation? Was it only due to a process of imitation of the innovation that occurred in the East or was it also caused by a theological innovation that occurred in the West at that time? Below we would like to carry out a double operation on the two types of representations of the crucifix (triumphans, with open eyes and patiens, with closed eyes): first of all, note their iconographic characteristics, and then try to understand both their theological roots is the message they wanted to communicate to the viewer.
Reading the iconographic data
It is an interesting historical fact: in the basilica of Aquileia (early 4th century) among the many Christian symbols present on the floor there is no cross, replaced instead with the tree of life, full of leaves, fruits and birds. The reversed relationship with the tree of paradise narrated by Genesis is precise: just as death had entered from it, life was reborn from the wood of the cross. In this sense, the cross as a symbol of Christianity emerged only in the following centuries, and for a long time always without the Crucified.
The increasingly broad beginning of the representation of Christ on the cross will be precisely in the 12th century. A clue to this change comes from the indications made by Peter Abelard (†1149) to his friend Heloise in the Regola monastica composed for her, where, describing the essentiality of monastic life, he requests that in their female monastery “there be no sculpted images. Let only a wooden cross be placed at the altar and if you want, it is not forbidden to paint the image of the Saviour on it”. He does not specify what iconographic type the image of the crucifix should be, however it would still seem to be an eventuality, granted almost as an exception.
Although not specified by Abelard, we know for certain that iconographic art possessed a precise and uniform style in representing the crucified Christ: erect and with his eyes open. Clearly that representation was not driven by realistic but symbolic canons, as was the nature of Byzantine iconographic painting. And so, the believer who placed himself in front of that face did not see the historical event in its crude factuality but its theological meaning: that image showed something invisible to the eyes of the body but not to the eyes of faith. And what is that?
1. The starting point, from which to hypothesize possible meanings proposed by the face with open eyes, can be taken from a cross painted in a fresco in the 8th century in Rome (fig. 1), where Jesus is represented not only with his eyes open but clad in a sleeveless tunic (Syriac colobium), devoid of royal insignia. The representation of him suggests someone who, sitting on a seat or throne, watches and judges the rest: he is not defeated but conquers the world. Next to him a small crowd, where some, namely Mary and John, contemplate and recognize that face of glory; others instead inflict the torture using the spear stuck in the side and the sponge brought towards the mouth of the crucifix.
Something similar returns in two important wooden crosses from the Carolingian period: the holy face from Lucca (fig. 2) and the one from Sansepolcro (fig. 3), where the crucifixes are clad in a solemn tunic.  Between these last two works and the previous one, however, there is an important difference, relating to the face, in which there is no longer the same expression of serenity of the forward gaze, present in the Roman fresco, an attitude that will again characterise the painted panels of the 12th century. The two wooden crucifixes also have their eyes open but turned gently downwards, almost as if they were animated by a sense of patient humility for what was happening. The facial features are also somewhat different from the fresco: in both there is a thick, long beard, an element that would later return in the pictorial representations of the 12th century panels.
However, before moving on to them, it seems useful to me to pause for a moment longer on wooden crucifixes, focusing on a second series relating to these works, where typical elements of Carolingian crosses are found, but specific aspects that we will find on crosses painted on wood are also introduced.
There are two examples on which I would like to focus: the first is in Numana, near Ancona (fig. 4), a work from the 9th century, the other is from the 12th century and is preserved in San Lorenzo Nuovo (fig. 6), a city near Lake Bolsena.
Both the continuity with the previous works and the innovations introduced in depicting the crucifix seem evident to me. The position of the body on the cross is the same: well erected and with the arms perfectly parallel to the horizontal shaft of the cross. The only important novelty is the divestment of Christ, deprived of the tunic and replaced by a solemn loincloth, blue in the first case and white in the second. The most significant changes, however, relate to the position of the head, the features of the face and finally the expression of the eyes. In both works the head is no longer turned downwards but looks decidedly forward; the face expresses great intensity, not due to suffering, but due to “seriousness” and therefore the solemnity of the event. However, the details of the face such as the beard, moustache and hair are different among them: in the crucifix of Numana (fig. 5), as it was in the Roman fresco, the first two elements are barely accentuated, while in that of San Lorenzo Nuovo (fig. 7) the characteristics present in the holy face of Lucca and Sansepolcro are proposed again, with accentuated beard and moustache; the hair, on the contrary, in both works is always well parted in the centre, then falling neatly towards the neck and shoulders.
There is a detail in the crucifix of Numana (fig. 5) that should be noted: the royal crown with which the head is encircled, the only case among the representations of this period and the following centuries that we will deal with. This detail refers to another crown, that of thorns, which would become increasingly present from the moment in which Louis IX, in the mid-13th century, placed it among the relics of his Sainte-Chapelle after purchasing it from the Latin emperor of Constantinople. It will supplant the royal one to become a further element of the iconographic developments relating to the suffering crucified.
Let us return to the face of the two wooden crucifixes, to dwell on the eyes, which are certainly to be considered the most innovative and characteristic element of these paintings. Unlike the two previous crosses clothed in a tunic, the eyes are no longer turned towards the ground with an attitude of humility, as they appeared in that case, but are wide open and animated by an intensity of gaze that dominates the beholder, making him perceive, however, that they are not directed at him but are looking at an Other, about whom we shall speak in due course. It is these eyes, open with a special force of attraction exerted on the beholder, that characterise the pictorial representations on panel paintings to which we now wish to turn our attention.
2. The first aspect to be noted about this second genre of refigurations concerns the spread of the technique, which not only flanked but often replaced wooden crucifixes in their function as apsidal crosses. Placed above the altar or even above the wall of the iconostasis that concealed the place of the Eucharist, they were turned towards the faithful to offer them a precise and compelling theological representation of the event that had saved the world and was in continuity with the celebration officiated by the priests inside. It should in fact be recalled that at that time there were no sacred objects other than the apsidal cross and the altar, two presences that, together with the ambo, visually displayed the great mysteries of faith.
One of the oldest panels is preserved in the monastery of the Benedictine nuns in Rosano, near Florence (fig. 8), painted by an anonymous master in March 1130, on the occasion of the consecration as a nun of the daughter of the Guidi Counts. Although denuded, the crucifix is depicted with the same solemnity as in the fresco in Rome. The body is well erect, with outstretched arms and open hands, indicating the ability to embrace everything. The toga or tunic of the fresco is replaced by the solemn and regal loincloth seen in the wooden crosses, a broad cloth also supported by a gold band. The face of Christ (fig. 9), depicted with the same profound expression of tranquillity, departs from the face of the Roman fresco, however, to acquire the features of Byzantine icons. The neatly trimmed beard with the pointed moustache and, above all, the position of the hair neatly parted in the middle and distributed on either side of the neck, would seem to recall the representative module of the Mandylion of Edessa (fig. 10), which, according to tradition, was painted directly by God in order to offer men the true image of Christ. Around the cross, however, remain the two spectators already encountered in the Roman fresco, positioned not next to the body but at the sides of the hands and divided into two groups: to the right of the crucified one Mary and John, to the left two pious women (probably Mary Magdalene and Mary of Cleophas, sister of Jesus’ mother, as recorded in the Gospel of John). This displacement of the bystanders allowed the painter to place six scenes on the side of the body relating to the events following the death: the deposition from the cross, the burial, the appearance of the angels to the women, and then on the other side Jesus’ dialogue with the two disciples of Emmaus, the descent into hell and the liberation of those who were imprisoned.
The characters of this panel are also repeated in later works, with a continuity of genre that did not, however, prevent the artist from adding or changing, with a certain freedom, some elements of the depiction of the glorious Christ. It is enough to dwell on a few examples.
The first is the chronologically closest to the previous one: painted in 1138 by Maestro Guglielmo and today conserved in Sarzana, Liguria (fig. 11). In it, the pictorial organisation repositions the two pairs of figures, which in the previous one were placed at the sides of the hands. Firstly, the four figures are placed next to the body of the crucifix, placing Mary and John on the right and the two pious women on the left. In the lower part, extending the lateral pictorial space to the feet of the crucifix, six scenes are introduced relating to the events from the kiss of Judas to the ascension of the Lord. A special note must be made of the representative quality of the face (fig. 12), which is not as perfect as the previous one; however, the same elements as seen in the Rosano painting are re-proposed: the open eyes that gaze serenely and intensely ahead, towards something-someone in the distance.
The other example we would like to examine is found in the cathedral of Spoleto, and is a work created in 1187 by the painter Alberto Sozio (fig. 13). A first element to note is the solemnity of the colours with which the cross is adorned: red that frames a beautiful and intensely blue lapis lazuli, colours that often also return in the other panels and which, as we have already noted in the footnote, refer to the passion and divinity of Christ. The figures next to the crucifix are reduced to two: Mary on the right and John on the left, the two most important characters constantly re-produced and whose presence in the glorious crosses is a clue to their source of inspiration to be found in the Gospel of John. Here too, the body of Christ is upright, with the same position of the open arms, ready to welcome and embrace the whole world. The reproduction of the loincloth that encircles the half-naked body is certainly very special. Already in the Sarzana cross it was no longer red or blue but white and almost transparent; this becomes evident in Sozio’s image, in which the legs can be glimpsed from under the loincloth. In both cases, however, the solemn sash (in this case deep blue) returns that encircles the waist and is knotted with a large bow at the front, descending slightly towards the feet.
In the facial features (fig. 14), one finds the Byzantine beauty and perfection admired in the Rosano crucifix: the neatly trimmed hair that descends to the neck, divided on both sides into three braids; the pointed moustache, the sharp, well-trimmed beard; even the rosy cheeks indicate a face that is anything but suffering. However, what is even more striking in it than in the previous crosses are the large eyes contemplating with peace and surrender something very beautiful in front of them. Another element to note is the halo painted on a wooden support cantilevered in relation to the cross, so as to recline Christ’s face a little forward and allow the faithful a better view.
Without wishing to make a careful reading of them, I think it is interesting to recall some other panels of glorious crosses, distinguishing them into two blocks according to the figures or scenes placed next to the crucified body, a difference already noted in the previous panels. The first block, the majority, concerns the crosses with a series of panels depicting scenes from the passion and glorious events following the death of Christ: the panel in the Uffizi in Florence, from the mid-12th century (fig. 15), the cross of San Sepolcro, also from the same period (fig. 17), and finally, although rather ruined, the panel made in the mid-13th century by Enrico di Tedice (fig. 19). The second block is in relation to the panels that have only single figures (one on each side or two pairs) placed in adoration next to the body of Christ: the most interesting in this respect is the work made in Lucca between 1210 and 1220 by Berlinghieri (fig. 16) who, as Sozio had done in Spoleto (fig. 13), places Mary in the black dress on the right and Jesus’ beloved disciple dressed in red on the left. The panel in Siena, with the crucifix that spoke to St. Catherine (fig. 18), also favours the presence of the two couples already seen in the master’s panel in Sarzana (fig. 11) and in the one in Rosano (fig. 8), at the top next to the hands. In the Siena work, there is also another detail absent in the others: at the bottom, below the four large figures, two crucifixes facing Christ are depicted, a clear reference to the two thieves.
These differences, however, do not prevent the same Byzantine iconographic elements from being repeated in the way both the body and the glorious face of the crucified Christ are depicted. In particular, the eyes dominate, wide open and directed towards a point to which they would seem to be attracted, towards a beauty that, filling that face with serenity and peace, shows itself as a consequence to the faithful who contemplate it, admiring its gaze.
The question to be addressed now is the most challenging one because it is a question of understanding who and what they are contemplating, becoming a message to those who stand before the glorious body. That is, it is a question of identifying the probable ideal sources from which these works were inspired and the possible theological content they wished to communicate.
Some have referred to a text by Augustine written as a commentary on the Gospel of John, where Jesus on the cross is described as a judge who, from the top of his throne, divides the good to the right and the bad to the left, as had happened with the two thieves. Therefore, according to this interpretation, the open eyes are those of a judge who with severity and precision imposes justice on earth. It seems to me, however, that this may be, if anything, the second level or moment of an event in which those open eyes instead see and experience something preliminary and exceptional: before being an act of judgement on others, they are an experience of glory lived by Jesus himself. That face, whose feelings are condensed in the open eyes full of peace, is to be understood from the Johannine theology of the glory shown by the Father to Jesus and, consequently, to the whole world at the place and time when there seemed to be no glory and beauty, namely when the only-begotten Son was lifted up on the cross.
Of the many texts that could be read from the Fourth Gospel to highlight this theology, three seem to me to be of extreme clarity. The first is taken from the hymn with which the Johannine text opens. In it there is a passage in which the entire composition finds its best synthesis:
And the Word became flesh
and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14 NRSVCE)
The glory seen by the evangelist is that which shines forth in the relationship between the Father and his Only Begotten, a bond defined as “glorious” because it succeeds in showing, in an unsurpassable manner, the grace and truth of the love that binds them. To see this glory then means to be saved, because with it one enters into God, who is love for the Son and for us.
In this sense we understand the second Johannine text that I would like to quote. It belongs to the famous and intense dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, when the evangelist, for the first time, puts into Jesus’ mouth the anticipation of his own destiny of death:
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God (Jn 3:14-18 NRSVCE).
Several elements encountered in the prologue are taken up in the text, expanded, however, with some fundamental clarifications. The glory of the only-begotten Son sent by the Father, already shown in his coming to dwell among us, will only be fulfilled when he is lifted up, where, in a definitive manner, it will shine before all.
This final act is prepared by John through a very special text in chapter 17 of his Gospel. We are close to the delivery of Jesus to his passion, when he was still in the room where, during the supper, he had washed the feet of his disciples. In that context, after the long and intense mystagogical catechesis held to explain that gesture to them, he, before going out to deliver himself to his now sealed destiny, turns to the Father aware of what was about to happen and the way in which he disposed himself to that destiny. In fact, the long prayer begins with these words:
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:1-3 NRSVE).
What is about to happen is experienced and welcomed by Jesus with his eyes raised to the Father. He knows that what is about to happen is a history of glory, where the one will glorify the other, because at that moment the one will show himself as Father and the other as Son: this is the glory raised up and shown on the cross. The open eyes of the crucified one see and show this event, when the Only-Begotten Son definitively sees the Father, and the Father proclaims him fully Son.
At this moment the judgement on the world is fulfilled because the prophecy of Zechariah quoted by John at the conclusion of that event of glory is fulfilled: “They will turn their eyes to him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). And the judgment will be this: to recognise or not recognise in that face the glory of the Father’s love for Christ and for everyone. Turning one’s eyes to those eyes opened from the height of the cross and recognising in them the glory of the Father and the Son means entering eternal life, because through that glory one believes in and participates in the grace and truth of God, allowing oneself to be illuminated by the crucified and glorious flesh of Christ as a splendid light that illuminates the world (Jn 1:8).
In short, it is possible to imagine that the notation with which John opens chapter 17 of Jesus’ great prayer to the Father remains valid and true throughout the Lord’s passion: those eyes raised to heaven towards the Father will never again be closed. The glorious crosses want to fix this supreme act with which on that night Jesus turns to the Father and remains fixed on him until the end, when, in the place and time of the supreme distance and negation, he will see the glory of that love becoming its manifestation to the whole world.
Reading the iconographic data
Almost unexpectedly at the beginning of the 13th century, the glorious crucifix with open eyes is replaced by the crucifix with closed eyes, due to the death suffered. It is not difficult to realise that we are faced with a precise and conscious representational transformation of that event, implemented, however, in a progressive manner: from an initial continuity with the Byzantine stylistic forms of the glorious crosses, to the definitive assumption of new representational forms of the dead crucified.
Of this substantial transformation, we would like to record two series of works that characterised the two iconographic developments we have mentioned: first of all, the first crucifixes of suffering up to and including Cimabue, in which the presence of many figurative elements of the previous panels can still be felt; the second transition is witnessed in the works of Giotto, in which the depiction of death will now acquire characters of strong realism, breaking away from the previous iconographic canons. Let us attempt to retrace this artistic development.
1. The first attestation of the suffering Christ is from the first decades of the 13th century. The oldest, perhaps, is the panel painting in Pisa, executed by an anonymous painter known as the ‘Byzantine Master’ (fig. 20). It is not difficult to note the closeness of the cross to the iconographic features of the previous ones: the same solemnity and beauty, adorned with gold as testimony to the royalty of the event. The side scenes that continue to narrate the events following the death also remain: from the deposition from the cross of the three images to the right of the crucifix, to the apparitions of the risen Christ on the left side. At the side of the hands, at the bottom of the horizontal part of the cross, the two pairs of figures are still placed: Mary and John on the right and two pious women on the left.
The figure of the crucified also retains some important elements of its predecessors. The loincloth has the same solemnity, also wide and gnarled in the centre with a beautiful band hanging downwards. The only important difference is the physical position of the body, which is no longer erect like the others, but somewhat curved towards the right, as are the arms and hands, which are no longer perfectly horizontal as they were in the glorious crucifixes. Undoubtedly, the position of the head is the one that presents the most important novelty (fig. 21). While on the one hand the face has the same features as the previous crucifixes, in the beard, moustache and hair well parted in the centre and falling neatly over the shoulders, on the other hand it is now reclined on the right side and with its eyes closed as if it were sleeping and entering death. That serene and glorious man, with the wide-open eyes of the glorious crosses, has now fallen asleep in death while maintaining his composure and solemnity.
Subsequent works confirm and expand on this process of development, re-proposing the same iconographic basis with some slight changes regarding the image of the crucified body. Four works stand out among the many produced from the first half of the 13th century onwards. The first two can be defined as ‘Franciscan’ and are linked to the art of Giunta Pisano; the second is the qualitative culmination achieved by Cimabue.
In 1236, Brother Elias had commissioned Giunta Pisano to paint a large sorrowful cross for the basilica of St. Francis, a work that was destroyed in the 17th century. We can imagine what that panel was like by looking at the one in the Porziuncola museum, which is a few years later and signed ‘Iunta Pisanus Capitini me fecit’ (fig. 22), as well as the one he made around 1254 for the Church of San Domenico of the Preaching Friars in Bologna, which housed the remains of the founding saint (fig. 22a). These works attest to a double historical fact: the affirmation of the sorrowful cross, whose pictorial characteristics are set by the painter Pisano, and the important influence given to this process by the mendicant orders, in particular the preaching friars and the minors. With regard to the latter, we have a double testimony of the use of the sorrowful crosses in the style of Pisano in their churches. The two works belong to the second half of the 13th century: the first dates back to 1272 and was painted by the ‘master of St. Francis’ for the Church of San Francesco of the Minors in Perugia, a panel that is today conserved in the city’s municipal picture gallery (fig. 23); the other is the crucifix in the Church of Santa Chiara in Assisi, known as ‘of the Blessed Abbess’, also painted in the second half of the 13th century (fig. 23a).
The internal symmetries between the two panels are evident as is the fidelity to the iconographic setting given to the crosses by Pisano. In the two ‘Franciscan’ crosses, the scenes and side figures present in the Glorious Crosses and again in the Byzantine master’s Suffering Crucifix are eliminated, as Pisano had done. However, the shape of the cross remains the same as before, retaining the two side panels alongside the body. It was then a question of filling that empty space. The solution is assumed by Giunta Pisano who had used a play on geometric figures. In the two Franciscan crosses, Mary remains at the sides of the arms on the right and John on the left, who, mourning and weeping, assists that body asleep in death. In continuity with these two presences afflicted by the vision of Christ’s death are two other figures placed at the feet of the crucifix, while they kiss the wounds in an act of veneration and participation in that suffering: St Francis and St Clare. The placing of non-evangelical figures at the feet of the crucifix was nothing new, but the attitude of profound compassion towards the wounds of the crucifix is new. With that addition, the painter, in addition to honouring the two Franciscan saints, places them as the main witnesses of an affective and penitential devotion towards the wounds of Christ, an attitude that every believer must have had before that representation. It could be said that, by adding the two figures turned toward the wounds on the feet with pain and compassion, the painter determined what should be the main object looked at and what feelings to arouse in that encounter: if in the glorious crosses the open eyes of the face were at the centre, here the object of attention and veneration are the wounds that led that body to death.
It is, in fact, in the representation of the face and body, no longer glorious but suffering and dead, that the two works confirm the novelty introduced by the Byzantine painter, which Giunta Pisano had brought to completion.
In the crucifix, the face is now reclining on the right side with its eyes closed, almost asleep in the sleep of death. There is nothing more to see in it because it has entered deep into human weakness, where everything closes in with no more hope of life.
The bowed head corresponds to the bowed body, a precise sign of a dead body, which had not, however, lost its solemnity and perfection. The iconographic choice of keeping the legs straight, although curved together with the torso, can be judged as a sort of compromise between the new representation (which by then had become established) and its stylisation according to the canons of Byzantine art (which had to be maintained). The same incongruity in wanting to show the dead body without, however, its positions responding to a realistic truth, returns in the arms that remain substantially parallel to the horizontal pole of the cross: death had not affected them just as it did not happen with the legs, which remained straight at the knees like those of the glorious crucifixes.
In summary: we are confronted with a representative novelty of the meanings of that event, now centred on the death of Jesus, which, however, is still united to the Byzantine style of representing the solemnity of the crucified body.
The last development of this Byzantine style of depicting the suffering Christ is to be found in the two crucifixes produced by Cimabue, the first preserved in Arezzo and painted between 1268 and 1271 (fig. 24), and the other from 1280 in Santa Croce in Florence (fig. 25). In these works, Giunta’s model reaches its maximum splendour, due to the great Florentine painter’s ability to depict the figure of Christ sleeping in death with delicacy and mysticism.
2. A true figurative and interpretative novelty in the stylistic transition from the glorious crucifix to the suffering and dead Christ is made by Giotto. There are four apsidal panels in which the painter re-proposes the same iconographic shift with great precision: the first, in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, painted around 1290 (fig. 26), then the one in Rimini, painted around 1300 for the church of the Minors (fig. 27), then the very fine and rich work of 1304 done for the Scrovegni chapel in Padua (fig. 28) and finally, in 1315 again in Florence, where he painted the apsidal cross for the All Saints’ friary (fig. 29). As can be seen, the same patronage of the mendicant friars recurs for this painter, who, after having favoured Giunta Pisano’s iconographic shift to the suffering Christ, now chose Giotto with his new realistic canons in depicting the event of death.
In the face of Giotto’s crosses, which are also absolutely similar to each other, two general elements can be observed: continuity with the previous ones in the shape of the cross, and a very evident novelty in the representation of the crucifix.
The cross, still coloured blue in the centre, remains of the same shape as the previous Byzantine-style crucifixes, retaining both the rectangles placed on the sides of the cross shaft, also decorated with geometric elements, and the squares on the sides of the hands, where Mary is placed on the right and John on the left, still half-length and in an attitude of great sorrow for what they are seeing.
The crucifix, on the other hand, presents several changes, clear signs of the desire to abandon the Byzantine representation of the body and choose instead a realistic depiction of Jesus’ death. The first element to be noted is the loincloth, which is no longer as solemn as in the previous ones and supported by a coloured band, but has become a poor white, almost transparent cloth, knotted on itself. Then, moving on to the shape of the body, there are many novelties. The feet are no longer nailed separately but one on top of the other, a position that will remain for the rest of the Western tradition, according to which Christ was nailed not with four nails but with three (a symbolic number of great importance). The legs are also bent at the knees, showing, with clear realism, their inability to support the whole body. The belly also has a very dramatic representation: in contrast to previous crucifixes, the stylised marks that elegantly and symmetrically sculpted the pectorals above the abdominal muscles disappear, to make way for a flat belly, where the ribs of the thorax are evident, fleshed out after the effort of finding breath before dying. Another aspect, expressed very forcefully by the new depiction, is the blood from the wound to the side: unlike the previous panels, where this detail was reproduced in a very delicate and almost hinted at manner, Giotto proposes a flow of blood that literally sprays out of the wound. It was no longer a question of recalling the wound, but of showing its dramatic realism. The arms also undergo a change: they are no longer parallel to the horizontal part of the cross, but, as in reality, stretched and bent downwards by the weight of the dead body. Undoubtedly, the clearest element of this intention is to represent Christ’s death with ‘realism’ is to be found in the head: it is no longer reclined on the right side as if asleep, but languishes forward, leaning towards the ground. Confirmation of this new position is the hair, which, although still parted in the middle, falls in a disorderly fashion into the void like the head.
The death of that man was as real as that of any other man who died on the cross: now with Giotto, the symbolic references of the apsidal crosses are replaced with the dramatic realism of Christ’s suffering and violent death becoming the focus of the view of those who look upon that spectacle.
How to explain this transformation? What were the contents of this development and the reasons for abandoning the glorious crucifix in favour of the representation of his violent death?
Among the many reasons, one answer is to be found, in my opinion, in the Western theological category that, from the middle of the 12th century onwards until imposing itself in the 13th century, increasingly emphasised the cross as an ‘expiatory event’.
1. The link between Christ’s death on the cross and the expiation of sin certainly does not appear for the first time in this period. The atoning category was already present in the New Testament, used as a key to announce the salvific meaning of his violent death. From the very beginning, Paul, repeating in his first letter to the Christians of Corinth (among the very first texts of the NT) what he himself had received as salvific news, places the death of Christ in direct relation to ‘our sins’:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4 NRSVCE).
A clarification of this link between the death of Jesus and salvation from sins occurs in two passages in the first letter of John (one of the last chronological texts of the NT), where the cross of Christ is interpreted using a central term of the Jewish faith:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2).
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 4:10).
In the texts, the category of “atonement” brings together three fundamental elements of its occurrence: who performs it (Christ), why he performs it (for our sins) and, the last implicit element, to whom it is done. In the Johannine passages this third aspect, while remaining unspoken, is clear: it is done towards God on whom the forgiveness of sins depends. The atonement wrought by Christ on the cross (he who is atonement and expiatory) frees humanity from sins because it becomes the motive for forgiveness by God.
2. It is neither possible nor necessary to retrace the evolutionary trajectory of this soteriological category throughout the history of Western theology; however, it is certain that an important moment in its elaboration is linked to Anselm of Aosta when, in 1098, he composed his famous treatise Cur Deus homo to answer why God became man. For the great theologian, the crux of the entire problem concerned the nature of sin: it was an act of disobedience, by which man took away the honour due to the supreme majesty of God. In this context, following feudal legal logic and the social dynamics of the time, the medieval theologian introduces the category of ‘satisfaction’ owed by man to God in order to reorder relationships broken by sin. The term is clearly parallel to that of ‘expiation’: only through suffering and, in the most serious cases, through death, would the offender atone for his guilt by giving satisfaction to the offended, and thus reordering the rightful relationship (of subjection) with the offended. With regard to God, however, expiation was only possible with the death of Christ, the only one capable of repaying the gravity of what man had committed: only infinite satisfaction could balance the infinite offence caused to God.
To all this, however, we must immediately add that for Anselm, the death on the cross of Christ, in addition to being an act of ‘justice’ due to God, also showed the ‘mercy’ with which God himself had acted towards us sinners: in fact, instead of requiring the death of the guilty, incapable beyond all else of satisfying the gravity of the sin committed, the Father gave his Son, the innocent, as a victim of expiation and satisfaction.
Thus, Anselm clarifies the NT’s “for our sins” by specifying two meanings: firstly, Christ died “because of” our sins, that is, to satisfy the justice due to God; secondly, he died “for the benefit” of us sinners, giving himself for us as the supreme act of justice and mercy on God’s part.
It is clear that, when read as a whole, the Anselm proposal has its pivotal moment, from which everything else depends on the direct relationship between man’s sin and God being offended: if sin had not occurred, there would be no need for an act of justice of an expiatory nature as the only way of satisfaction. In short, the cross is essentially an “event of justice” towards God implemented through that “act of atonement” without which there would have been no salvation.
The application of what Anselm proposed can be found in a passage by St Bonaventure, who, in order to explain what the main reasons were that made Christ’s death on the cross necessary, proposes these arguments:
Moreover, since he had to redeem, subject to the honour of God, he redeemed, offering an obsequiousness that satisfies: “on the other hand to satisfy is to restore the honour due to God” (Anselm). Honour, then, subtracted from God through pride and disobedience, with respect to what man is bound to, is in no way better restored than through humiliation and obedience, with respect to what one was not bound to at all. Therefore Jesus Christ, inasmuch as God was equal to the Father in the form of God, inasmuch as he was an innocent man, in no way owed death; at the moment when he annihilated himself and became obedient unto death, he paid to God those things of which he had not appropriated, with a reverence of perfect satisfaction, and offered a sacrifice of supreme suavity, appeasing God perfectly.
The Franciscan theologian not only explicitly quotes Anselm, but also takes up precisely the arguments offered by the latter in his Cur Deus homo: we have been saved because with the cross and his death Christ, as a man who gives himself in atonement, performs an act of honour capable of satisfying God by ‘appeasing him perfectly’. Therefore Christ saved us insofar as he suffered and died. It is clear that in this reading, the cross does not first and foremost narrate an event of communion, as it was in the glorious crosses, but an event of atonement, the only one capable of appeasing God’s wrath by giving him that satisfaction that alone saves us, and risks reducing the whole of Jesus’ story to this last bloody event.
The gaze of the faithful before that spectacle then could not but be full of feelings of compassion and sharing. Bonaventure’s ascetic texts constitute an important example of the life proposal that originates from the contemplation of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Among these writings, the Lignum vitae is certainly the most interesting ascetic work. In it, Jesus is compared to the tree of life, which produces twelve fruits in the faithful through devout meditation on the three fundamental moments of the mystery of Christ’s life: the origin, passion and glorification. With regard to the second mystery, Bonaventure describes four fruits of life obtained by the one who stands before the passion of Christ with devotion and compassion. The general climate with which the sixteen episodes with which Bonaventure punctuates the passion and death of Christ are presented is that of weeping and sorrow, of compunction and repentance, of affective closeness and spiritual imitation to which all those who contemplate that mystery of sorrow should come. Emblematic and summarising this is the closing prayer of this devotional journey:
O my God, good Jesus, although I am utterly undeserving and unworthy, that I, not having deserved to participate in it physically, considering these mysteries with a faithful mind, should experience that affection of compassion towards you, my God who for me are crucified and dead that your innocent Mother and the penitent Magdalene felt at the very hour of your Passion.
What is requested in this prayer as a grace, was instead fully realised in Francis of Assisi. Such, in fact, is the centre of the perfect and unsurpassable holiness of the Saint described in his Leggenda maggiore. In the hagiographical construction of the narrative, the point of arrival of Francis’ full conformity to Christ is certainly represented by the stigmata, an episode to which Bonaventure dedicates the entire chapter XIII, the one that precedes and prepares the following chapter dedicated to the blessed transit of death. The opening of the mystical account of La Varna is introduced by Bonaventure with words that echo the invocation before the mystical writing closes with the mystery of the passion, that is, the affective experience of compassion. Having ascended the mountain with a strong mystical desire to “devote himself more freely to God” (LegM XIII 1: FF 1222), it was revealed to Francis that from reading the Gospel he would understand “what God would most appreciate in him and from him”. And so, after casually opening the Gospel on the passion three times, “he understood that, just as he had imitated Christ in the deeds of his life, so he was to be confirmed in him in the sufferings and pains of the Passion before he passed from this world” (LegM XIII 2). The subsequent vision of the crucified seraphim, which imprinted in Francis’ body the signs of redemptive suffering, was the direct fruit of a great desire:
The seraphic ardour of desire surpassed him in God and a sweet feeling of compassion transformed him into the One who wanted, out of an excess of charity, to be crucified (LegM XIII 3: FF 1225).
It could be said in conclusion that the preaching of the Minors had two great instruments to use to encourage a devout gaze at the cross: on the one hand, Francis of Assisi as a perfect example of full compassion and sharing in the sufferings of Christ, and on the other hand, the sorrowful crosses as visual images capable of arousing the same sentiments in the faithful and thus leading them to repentance of sins and the following of Christ on the way of the cross.
The comparison carried out on the two crucified faces, the one with eyes open, experiencing the astonishment of an unexpected encounter, and the one with eyes closed as a consequence of the tragic event of death, allows us to highlight two different emphases in interpreting and presenting the event of the cross: the first gives an account of communion, the second an account of expiation. In the first there is the Trinitarian encounter between the Father and the Son whose relationship overcame the separation of death, showing the glory of their love; in the second, on the other hand, there is an act of restorative justice necessary to satisfy the supreme majesty of God offended by sin. In the first, salvation is the fruit of love, in the second of justice. The two crucified faces show two faces of God: in the first his fatherhood, in the second his majesty.
At that point in his life Francis of Assisi finds himself placed at the very moment of transition between one and the other iconographic traditions. However, chronologically one can be sure that his eventual encounters with the representation of the cross had to do only with the first tradition. It is true that he does not tell us anything precise about this, that is, he does not tell us whether, when and how he had a particular experience with the cross. Despite this silence, we can however advance a hypothesis concerning two possible historical events in which he had before his eyes each time the glorious cross he encountered first at San Damiano and then at San Severino.
Of the first experience we have already mentioned, when, at the start of these pages, we quoted the verses of the Testament where the Saint recounts the birth of the prayer of adoration and blessing before the cross; in that case I mentioned the hypothesis that it all took place before the crucifix at San Damiano.
Regarding the second event, we have only indirect but equally important information to hypothesise yet another encounter with the glorious cross. Tommaso da Celano in fact tells of the Saint’s arrival, perhaps towards the end of 1220, and of his stay in the monastery of Colpersito in San Severino, where he handed over to the religious women, present there, the sheep he had redeemed in the vicinity of Osimo (1Cel 77-78). There he certainly admired the polychrome wooden cross that then, as now, stood on the altar of the monastery church. However, before discussing the possible resonance of these two figures in the life of the Saint of Assisi, I would like to dwell on them in order to observe the content of their iconographic and theological elements, those precisely that Francis saw and heard as image and news about God and man.
The analysis of the two works will not follow the chronological order probably experienced by Francis, that is, first the panel of San Damiano and then the wooden crucifix of San Severino, but the theological one, according to a hypothesis with which to invert the two moments so as to highlight a possible logical development of the single “event of communion” represented in them.
The Cross of San Severino
The large 12th century wooden cross in the San Salvatore church in San Severino (fig. 30) undoubtedly belongs to the glorious wooden crucifixes we have already mentioned. The artistic elements are the same. The body is in an upright position with the arms perfectly extended in line with the arms of the cross. The loincloth also repeats the characters of solemnity found in both the wooden and painted crucifixes. Equally surprising and perhaps more peculiar are the eyes, which are not only open, but express in a very strong way a feeling of awe and wonder at what they are seeing.
In my opinion, this is the iconographic element that gives that face a special and different content. I have already mentioned the impression one receives when looking at both the eyes of the wooden crucifix in Numana (fig. 4) and the one in San Lorenzo Nuovo (fig. 6), that is, of being in front of someone whose gaze goes beyond the spectators themselves, towards something that attracts his attention and arouses great astonishment in him. The eyes of the crucifix in San Severino not only confirm this feeling but make it a certainty: they are seeing Someone they never thought they would meet at that moment.
1. Jesus, on the cross, “lifting his eyes to heaven” (Jn 17:1), saw the face of the One to whom, in that final prayer, he had definitively handed over his existence. He had set out towards the final events in the certainty that his life belonged to the faithful love of the Father, in whose name he had lived his existence, making it a testimony to the paternity of the One whom he had called, almost scandalously, “Abba”. He therefore left the cenacle, going to encounter the last events of his life, strong and confident in the words he had spoken immediately after raising his eyes to heaven: “Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:1). It was the hour of the glory that the one would give to the other and together they would show it to the world. What the form of this glory would be, Jesus left this to the Father to decide. And he set out to meet him in what was about to happen.
2. Events, however, seemed to disprove that truth proclaimed during his prophetic activity and repeated in the final moment before he handed himself over into the hands of men.
During the trial before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, a qualification was repeatedly applied to Jesus: ‘King of the Jews’. There, in that moment of total helplessness, he is recognised, albeit in mockery, as ‘king’, that is, the one who liberates and saves the people. The title then changes on the cross. For John, however, one thing was certain: he was king, that is, the one who could save, because he was “the only-begotten Son of the Father” (Jn 3:16). This truth would be manifested-completed at the moment of his elevation, there where he would first see the glory with which God would save the world. Thus the relationship between kingship-salvation and sonship-paternity (that is, glory) for John was not only certain, but would be fulfilled on the cross: on it Jesus would become definitively Son because he would have to trust in God without any more conditions or qualms, and God would not only show himself but would also definitively become Father, welcoming him as Son. For both, paternal and filial communion would be fulfilled where such truth seemed radically denied, because annihilated by death.
“He is the King of Israel; come down now from the cross and we will believe in him. He has trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he loves him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’!” (Mt 27:42-43). It seemed as if death was coming as a confirmation of the accusations for which they had condemned him: ‘he makes himself a son of God without being so, nor is God his Father although he has named him Abba’. And so, on the cross was it still possible for Jesus to believe in the glory of God who would show himself as Father? Or was he bitterly acknowledging that he was throwing his life away behind an illusion? In those supreme moments, the drama he experienced touched the global meaning of his existence: was it still possible to believe in the Fatherhood of God in that place of death?
3. “It is fulfilled” (τετέλεσται)” (Jn 19:30). It is the word with which Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, closes his life. To whom was he saying this? To whom was he addressing himself, affirming that fulfilment? The answer is certain: the last interlocutor to whom Jesus turns his gaze, after having spoken to Mary and John and then having asked for vinegar, is towards “his Father”, to whom he surrenders himself definitively and fully. In his surrendering himself to death, he was abandoning himself definitively to the Father, thus reaching, at that very moment, the “end”, the “telos” (τετέλεσται) of his existence: he became Son because he was handed over without any more reservations.
According to John’s account, after that act of surrender, Jesus closed his eyes “and bowed his head and expired” (Jn 19:30). The glorious crucifix of San Severino, on the other hand, more clearly than the others we have proposed, recounts another development, interpreting in a surprising way the fulfilment of the final request made by Jesus in his prayer before handing himself over into the hands of men: “Now, Father, glorify me before you” (Jn 17:5). According to the account that shines in the glorious crucifix of St Severinus, those eyes did not close because, dying “before the Father”, they saw him present. The astonishment they expressed was in proportion to what was before them: the faithful love of God who at that moment became definitively Father. Their eyes met, and one saw the glory of the other, a glory made of fatherhood and sonship. Then we understand why Jesus sensed that God’s glory would only be fully manifested when he would be lifted up: because on the cross, where everything and nothingness met in a radical alternative, Jesus, instead of seeing the nothingness of death, saw the everything of the Father’s glory, seeing his welcoming eyes, just as the Father saw the glory of the Son by seeing those eyes of surrender.
The astonished eyes of the crucifix of San Severino tell precisely this, showing the beholder that special and unique moment when Jesus saw the glory of love, which not only had not been interrupted by the cross, but there had reached its fulfilment, becoming forever and for all an event of communion and therefore of salvation.
The cross of San Damiano
The other image that Francis had before his eyes according to tradition was the cross of San Damiano (fig. 31). The large wooden panel, datable to the beginning of the 12th century, presents all the pictorial and iconographic elements that we have already noticed in the glorious crosses of that time. It is not a question now of reiterating the aspects already highlighted, but of developing a possible relationship of this image with the previous carved cross.
The Assisi panel could in fact be read as the next step after the San Severino crucifix: if the latter recounted the astonishment of the two Trinitarian gazes meeting where all communion seemed to be denied, the Assisi panel highlights what happened immediately afterwards, when those now serene eyes, resting in Trinitarian love, are seen and contemplated by the onlookers, by those who have turned their gaze to the one they have pierced (Jn 19:37). If, therefore, in the wooden cross of San Severino it would seem that the moment in which the eyes of the crucified one see the glory of the Father, his faithful love, is fixed, in the Assisi panel, on the other hand, is the moment in which those eyes are seen by others, allowing them to contemplate the glory of Christ and to enter into that communion of love that is the judgement of salvation.
Before we look at the figures placed beside the cross, however, let us dwell for a moment on the eyes of Christ depicted in the panel, to emphasise the feelings of peace and rest we have already mentioned (fig. 32). When compared to those of the wooden crucifix in San Severino, they seem to have now overcome the astonishment of the encounter. Although they are still facing upwards, towards the One to whom they now belong forever, they have lost their wonder and have acquired peace because they rest in the Father. There is no longer wonder but belonging, no longer the incredibility of an encounter but a secure bond, no longer surprise but the tranquillity of being in communion with one another.
In front of these eyes open to the Father, the cross of San Damiano places seven figures, of which five major ones, two on his right and three on his left, and two minor ones placed below beside the previous figures. For the five larger images, the painter takes care to write their names at their feet: to the right of the crucified Mary and John, to the left Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas and Centurion. The smaller figure at the bottom at the feet of Mary and John is also given the name: Longinus, while nothing is said about the other smaller one, opposite the latter.
In the choice of these figures, the painter seems to combine two Gospel sources: the text of John and that of Mark. The fourth gospel is the only one that takes care to list the names of those who, before his death, were “by the cross of Jesus”: “the mother of Jesus, the sister of his mother, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene, and finally the disciple whom he loved” (John 19: 25-26). In Mark’s account, on the other hand, the women are mentioned only after Jesus’ death, mentioning that among those who watched from afar were “Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joshua and Salome” (Mk 15:40). Matthew’s text perhaps takes up the same characters as the Marcian source, and recalls these names: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:56). Also from the Gospel of Mark, to which the other two synoptics are also linked, is the figure of the centurion who, seeing him die in this way, exclaimed: “Truly this man was the son of God” (Mk 15:39). In short, with the exception of Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned in all the Gospels, the painter combines several figures from both the Marcan and Johannine tradition, placing them all in contemplation of the glory of that face, ‘glory as of the only-begotten of the Father’.
The five major figures (fig. 33) are thematically divided into two blocks: the two pairs of the four characters, Jesus’ disciples, and next to them the centurion. However, before dwelling on them to explain this distinction, let us return for a moment to the Sarzana panel by the master Guglielmo (fig. 34), where, as we have already seen, there too there are a series of four characters, characterised by an attitude quite different from that of our panel: in fact, they are all turned towards the crucifix with an attitude of great pain and sadness. A particular feature would seem to highlight this aspect: the cloth that the two figures closest to the body are touching to their eyes to wipe their tears.
In contrast, the interpretation given by the master of the San Damiano panel to the five main figures communicates different feelings to the beholder. Let us start with the two couples at the side of Christ’s body. First of all, they do not look at the crucifix, but are depicted in an atmosphere of serene dialogue, as if Mary and John on the one hand, and Mary Magdalene with Mary of James on the other, were mutually rejoicing in what they saw in those open eyes and confirming to each other with amazement the truth of what they contemplated. Between the two couples there is thus no sorrow and sadness, as in the other panel, but a serene dialogue animated by the glad news seen on that glorious face.
Undoubtedly the most interesting character is the centurion who flanks the two couples. Apart from his rarity among the bystanders on the scene from the glorious crosses, two very particular elements with which his figure is interpreted are striking. He is the only one who is looking intently at the face of Christ, showing his wonder at seeing those eyes. In my opinion, this process was expressed by the position of the fingers of his right hand, where the ring and little fingers, bent inwards, were ready to join the thumb, while the index and middle fingers remained stretched and well joined together. The two finger positions indicated the double divine mystery that the centurion was reaching: the trinity of God and the unity of the two natures in Christ. Moreover, it is very likely that the small figure behind his back, whose face is only visible, also turned attentively towards Christ, could indicate his servant healed by Jesus according to the accounts of Matthew and Luke (Mt 8:13; Lk 7:9). If this were so, then the presence of the two figures would have a very special value: only in front of those open eyes could the two come to full and definitive faith, bringing to completion what had begun in them at the moment of the miracle. After all, by placing their presence before the glorious face of Christ, the painter is proclaiming a truth of absolute importance: the encounter and recognition of those open eyes are worth more than a miracle, because only at that final moment was the centurion, together with his servant, seeing the true and definitive glory of God and thus able to come to the full faith that had already begun at the moment of the prodigious event.
In this way, the inclusion of the two figures alongside the other four would seem to mark two first levels of faith experienced before the glorious face of Christ. If, in fact, Mary and John, together with Mary of Magdala and the other Mary, are communicating among themselves the joy of what they have seen, through a faith that is already mature and shared, the centurion, together with his servant, is still looking at that face in order to reach full awareness.
However, in front of those glorious eyes of Christ, the painter places two small figures at the bottom, who in my opinion represent a third level of faith before that face. Of the character on the right we know the identity with certainty because it was indicated by the painter himself: Longinus, that is, the soldier who struck Christ’s side with a lance; his presence, not uncommon in the panels, would seem to represent the pagan people. Of the other, however, it is not easy to determine who he is. According to tradition, he could be Stephaton, the Jew who, according to the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, handed the sponge full of vinegar to Jesus; the beard with which he is depicted and his symmetrical correlation to the pagan soldier would confirm his representation of the people of Israel. In any case, it is interesting to note that their depiction does not express any hostility, as was particularly the case with Stephaton’s depiction; on the contrary, although placed low and further away from the other five large figures next to Jesus, they are turned with reverence and respect towards that face, as if attracted by his vision full of a glory that is still unexplainable to them.
Through the three groups of figures in front of the cross, the painter thus seems to want to stage three different and progressive levels of encounters with the glorious face of Christ. The first is that of the two couples who have already contemplated his glory and are sharing the truth of it; the second is represented by the centurion and his servant who are experiencing the moment of amazement of faith, and finally the two at the bottom who are more distant in their encounter with that beauty, but who are also attracted and turned towards Christ.
From what we have observed of the two sacred objects of San Severino and San Damiano, we can conclude that they tell a story of faces whose meeting express what is being experienced at that point in their life: “after seeing those eyes…” life is no longer the same. There are three levels that follow one another in this intersection of gazes and eyes.
The first is that narrated by the crucifix of San Severino concerning the eyes Jesus saw on the cross, when He met the face of the Father. To see those eyes meant for Him to see the glory of the Father and thus to be filled with awe (as seen in the cross of San Severino) and then to rest in Him (as the face of San Damiano). The eyes of the two artistic works then tell not of an atonement but of a relationship, a communion, a love between God and that man. The gaze full of wonder of one in the other shows and realises forever the bond of paternity and sonship that was before the world and that was placed at the centre of it at that moment, making him belong (binding him-saving him) to that glory of communion. All this is narrated and shown by the eyes reproduced in the crosses of St Severinus and St Damian.
The other level or moment is narrated by the characters on the panel of San Damiano with their story of faith born from their relationship with that face. His eyes fill and attract their eyes giving them the news that they all desire as the word of salvation: God is faithful the Father and in the Son has bound us to Himself forever in an event of communion that saves the world from loneliness and death.
The third level of the contemplation of those eyes is experienced by Francis, who, every time he contemplated them, they transformed his existence, because he was conquered by the event of communion narrated and shown by them. It is of this third level of encounter with those eyes that we would like to speak, turning our attention to the possible history of faith lived by Francis “after having seen those eyes”.
We come to the heart of our investigation by addressing the question with which I opened these pages: whether, how much and how the experience of the glorious crosses influenced Francis’ vision of Christ and, consequently, of God and man.
Let us start from a datum acquired by Franciscan studies: from the Saint’s texts on the mystery of the cross there emerges a clear discontinuity with the theology and preaching of the Friars Minor of later years. At the centre of their proposal in fact is placed the suffering of Christ as an expiatory and therefore redemptive act in which man was to participate not only through feelings of pain and compassion but also with choices to share such suffering. The hagiographies make Francis the realised example of this vision: he was the perfect lover of the cross, animated by a compassion that was imprinted in his soul immediately after the words heard at San Damiano and was definitively fulfilled when at La Verna he received the signs of Christ’s suffering on his body. As we have already mentioned, it is in this process that preference is given by the Minorite Order to the new iconographic style of the sorrowful cross.
“This attitude belongs, however, more to Franciscanism than to Francis”. This is attested in general by his texts, but in particular by the Office of the Passion. Everyone agrees that reading this psalmody composition of the Saint “introduces us to the prayer and contemplation of the crucified Christ lived by Francis not as a painful participation in the reality of the cross, but with a most profound union in the obedient love of the Son with the Father”. Therefore, the entire composition is animated by a theological sensibility in which the passion of the Lord is not the result of an act of expiation to appease the wrath of God, but of communion with the love of the Father; and then the contemplation of that event should not arouse first of all compassion towards those pains, wishing to share in that suffering, but awe and wonder full of praise for what the “holy Father” has accomplished and admired in the glorious face of Christ.
It is well known that Francis made no mention of the two “mystical” experiences (recounted with precision by the hagiographies), one of which took place before the cross of San Damiano at the beginning of his Christian life, the other at La Verna two years before his death. However, the Saint has given us two texts that are very dear to him, which, although they do not directly recount the events, can undoubtedly be considered the direct fruit of that double encounter with the glorious face of Christ, whose eyes showed him the cross not as a place of God’s wrath, satisfied by Christ through an act of “expiation”, but as a manifestation of the love with which the Son placed himself in perfect communion with the Father, becoming for all of us the grace of forgiveness. The first text is the one transcribed by Francis in his Testament when he recalls the words of Adoration and blessing made before the crosses, a prayer which, as we have already recalled and to which we will return, is to be linked to the period of San Damiano; the second was composed instead at the end of his existence, when with the Praises of the Most High God he wished to thank the Most High for the experience he had lived at La Verna.
I was very surprised to note that the two texts are practically never used and commented on by the authors encountered so far: if they devoted fleeting passages to the first, they paid no attention to the second. On the contrary, I would like to place them at the centre of the analysis, certain of their absolute preciousness for our theme. The hypothesis with which I wish to approach their evaluation is simple: if they, as we will say again, were born “after having seen his eyes” of glory, then they must be judged as decisive for understanding both the glorious vision of Francis’ theology of the cross, and consequently the difference in his sensibility with what the hagiographies narrate about him, proposing him as the saint of sharing in the suffering and pain of Christ.
The birth of wonder: We adore you and we bless you
According to the hagiographic tradition, subsequent to the first legends, the young Francis, moved by the Spirit, entered the church of San Damiano and, in his desire to know God’s will, pronounced three times an oratiuncola [brief prayer]:
Most High, glorious God, illumine the darkness of my heart.
Give me, Lord, certain faith, sure hope and perfect charity,
wisdom and knowledge, that I may carry out your holy and true commandment. Amen (FF 276).
Historical-critical analysis has confirmed its attribution to Francis, also confirming the hypothesis that it was pronounced before the cross of San Damiano. The content of the invocation, however, fixes the moment prior to the experience of the Cross, the moment in which the young man “asks” to have his heart and mind enlightened in order to know what to do; it tells us nothing about what the “answer” received was, that is, what was the subsequent experience lived by Francis before that image. It is in this context that, in my opinion, the prayer he recalls in the Testament that he used and repeated in the churches is to be situated. The text Adoramus te can most likely be considered the response he received to his request for enlightenment.
The speciality and uniqueness of this text, as the culmination of an “illumination” received “after having seen those eyes”, are also confirmed by some simple but interesting textual data. The first we have from the hagiographic texts. While they ignore the prayer of request, they instead accurately report the short adoring text before the “holy cross”, giving us two pieces of information: Adoramus te was delivered together with the Pater noster by Francis to the friars as daily prayers at a time when “they did not know the liturgical office”; the other piece of information informs us that it was customary for the friars to recite that prayer “when they encountered a church that was being officiated at or abandoned, or a cross along the road”. The second textual datum is even more important and is in direct confirmation of what is narrated in the hagiographies: that prayer text is the only one that Francis feels the need to remember and transcribe in its entirety in the Testament, as if he wanted to reaffirm not only the preciousness it had for his life but also the value it continued to have for the brothers. The importance of the text can therefore only be explained by placing it in close continuity with what the young man experienced at San Damiano before the “holy cross”, where he had an experience that enlightened “his heart” and “his mind”, revealing to him the merciful love that God had given in Christ to the whole world. Let us reread the prayer of adoration and blessing:
We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ,
here and in all your churches throughout the whole world
and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
The literary origin of the text adoring the ‘holy cross’ is in continuity with what Francis often did, combining together pre-existing material and personal additions. Even in the case of the prayer of adoration he re-proposes the same operation, taking a well-known antiphon, used on Good Friday, and then inserting a passage of his own concerning “all the churches throughout the whole world”. He therefore personalises a previous text, taken for the consonance it had with his own theological sensibility and with the concrete situation he was living: in that text Francis found the right words to express the experience of the moment and thus fix his Christological experience.
Let us then attempt a theological and existential reading of it by placing it in direct relation with the glorious cross of San Damiano.
1. The central verb of that antiphon is certainly ” to redeem”, an event due to which he “worships and blesses the holy cross”. How to understand this term? Or rather: how does Francis understand it? Is it possible, that is, to believe that for the Saint there was no “expiation” but “communion”? The answer matches the general hypothesis that moves my pages: it is possible to open the content of that verb by imagining that Francis is looking at the eyes open and full of glory in the cross of San Severino, and of peace and communion in the cross of San Damiano, and from them it takes on the meaning of the act of redemption carried out by Christ with his holy cross.
If the considerations we have made regarding the two sacred objects present in the church of Assisi and that of Settempedana are true, that is, if it is legitimate to believe that Francis contemplated them, thus listening every time to the “word of the cross” (1Cor 1:18), then it is possible to believe that the term “redemption” included in the Good Friday antiphon was not felt by the Saint as an act of expiation to be paid to God but as an event of communion experienced by Christ with the Father. In those open eyes Francis did not see or listen to the justice of God, which asked for an act of reparation for the offense suffered by man’s sin, but he saw and listened to the news of a faithfulness of love which becomes humility and mercy given to every man and given every day. It was therefore not a question of adoring and blessing God because he had made his Son pay the penalty by sparing the criminal, but because he had shown himself to be a faithful Father to his Son, inserting us into this space of communion. The cross therefore becomes the last act of a relationship brought about by love and for love, in which He, the Father, wanted to give us “miserable people” his “heart” (that is, his Son), making with us ” miseri-cordia”, that is, “he redeemed us with his holy cross”.
2. This general hypothesis of the theology of the cross expressed by the prayer of adoration, as a synthesis of the double encounter with the crosses of San Damiano and San Severino, I would like to confirm and expand by returning to Francis’ experience of mercy towards lepers. It seems to me possible to imagine that what Francis experienced in the leprosarium conditioned and guided the theological content he later contemplated in front of the two glorious crosses, just as, on the other hand, those eyes opened in wonder allowed the Saint to confirm and reaffirm what he had intuited among the lepers. The two events (the experience among the lepers and the one in front of the glorious cross) were foundational to both Francis’ theology and his anthropology, both characterised by the same word: the “mercy” that the young man received from Christ and then gave to others.
As we have already mentioned at the beginning of this study, the Saint, after interpreting the time spent among the lepers as the starting point of a renewed life, summarises the way he was among them with an absolutely important expression: “and I showed mercy to them” (Test 2). Among those wretched people, the young man did not experience ‘atonement’ for his sins, that is, an act by which he wanted to serve his sins by means of an afflictive punishment. It was not a matter of pleasing God in order to obtain forgiveness from him, ‘merited’ through that heroic act, and then his grace as an act of election and predilection. This expiation mechanism would have been guided by a self-centred and ultimately selfish double act: the first performed by God himself who reclaimed his rights broken by sin, the second by Francis who would have wanted to obtain a ‘redemption’ through a ‘merited grace’ for what he had done among the lepers.
His account, however, contains none of this. First of all, the text is dominated by a climate and content of amazement at what happened among them. With tenderness God “led him there” and there, towards those wretches, Francis set his heart in motion by the absolute gratuitousness of being there for them without any interest of return. So he did not close his eyes and nose to be able to resist that “necessary expiation” in order to obtain forgiveness and become special in the eyes of God, but he lived a gratuity with the eyes of his heart open to the marginalisation of those wretches, rendering them special. Among the lepers he lived and learned the logic of mercy, that is, of the gift of love guided not by reparative and expiatory justice but by the gratuitousness of communion that lowers itself to become similar to the other and thus create paternal, filial and fraternal relationships.
And the conclusion made by Francis in his account is interesting: among them he obtained, with great amazement, what he did not think could happen there; in that place and time of marginalisation the eyes of his heart were opened, making him encounter and taste a sweetness of soul and body he had never felt before: ‘what was bitter was transformed into sweetness’ (Test 3). Somehow, as he placed his heart before them, he experienced something incredible: he saw and tasted the taste of life. Something similar happened in him in what was contained and narrated in the amazement in the open eyes of the crucifix of St Severinus: his eyes were opened in seeing the incredible, the beauty of life as the final and unhoped-for fruit of the gift of self. Moreover, it is possible to imagine that along with his own eyes, the eyes of those who, on seeing the face of Francis, were astonished at so much mercy were also opened; that is, I can imagine that the eyes of the lepers, seeing and experiencing the eyes of gratuitousness and humility of the young man, rejoiced in seeing a presence that did not ask or seek anything for itself but gave everything with humility and mercy. In the place of rejection and marginalisation, Francis and the lepers opened their eyes to each other with the amazement that comes from gratuity that becomes communion.
3. This experience then enabled the young man to meet and contemplate the open eyes of the two glorious crosses. That time and space of mercy among the lepers gave Francis the existential and theological tools to recognise in the glorious crosses of San Damiano and San Severino the glory of the merciful love lived between the Father and the Son, and given as a redemptive event to all. The young man, seeing those eyes raised upon the world, adored and blessed God who on the cross ‘showed mercy’ to us all. Helped by the lepers to discover a new logic of life, freed from merit and retributive justice, but animated by the gift that creates bonds of mercy, he was able to see those eyes opened on the cross and to listen to the word of salvation that flowed from the face filled with the glory of the Father. Francis heard, saw and therefore adored and blessed “the word of the cross” manifested by those open eyes, recognising it as a glorious word because it was filled with love and communion. In it he adored and blessed God who had become the Father of Jesus and had placed us, redeemed, within that space of communion and love.
In short, the prayer experienced before the cross of San Damiano, and repeated before that of San Severino and every other image of the Crucified, expresses precisely that adoring and blessing awe of that redemption effected on the cross as an event of communion and not expiation. We then understand why it is so important in hagiographic tradition. That is, we understand why that text accompanied Francis throughout his life as if it were a Christological and existential mantra to the point of recalling it again at the end of his life in the Testament, and we also understand why it was suggested to his brothers as a daily prayer together with the Pater noster: the prayer of adoration of the ‘holy cross’ allowed the Saint and his friars to praise God and bless him for those eyes of glory that from the cross were opened unto the whole world, because they proclaimed the good news of the gospel, reminding them that all are in communion with God the Father because they are loved by Him in Christ and for Christ. Educated by the lepers and confirmed by the glorious crosses of San Damiano and San Severino, Francis saw and heard “the word of the cross” as a dialogue of Trinitarian love, in which resounded not the word of expiation but the word of communion. After seeing the eyes of the lepers and contemplating the open ones of the crucified Christ, the Saint had new eyes filled with glory, showing closeness and mercy towards all, and of praise and thanksgiving towards God.
A renewed encounter: Praises of the Most High God
1. Confirmation of this theology of the cross is given by another text composed by Francis towards the end of his life, in thanksgiving for the renewed encounter he had with the glorious eyes of the crucified Christ. It is the Praises of the Most High God written at the conclusion of his experience at La Verna. We know the facts from the rubric added by Leo to the parchment that the Saint, after having written in it the Praises and then the benediction for his friend, gave it to him to carry with him until the end of his life. On the side opposite the Praises prayer, Leo, taking advantage of the empty space above the blessing, noted the following:
Blessed Francis two years before his death made in the ”place” of La Verna a Lent in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God and the Blessed Michael the Archangel, from the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary until the Feast of St Michael in September; and the hand of the Lord descended upon him (Ezk 3:22-23): after the vision and words of the Seraphim and the impression of the stigmata of Christ on his body (Gal 6:17), he made these praises written on the other side of the parchment and wrote them in his own hand, giving thanks to God for the kindness bestowed on him (FF 262).
Francis had arrived at La Verna in a period of great tribulations, linked both to his own illnesses, which were to lead him to death after two years, and to the difficult relations with the friars, which he himself described through the autobiographical parable of Perfect joy. In that last period of his life, the saint was in danger of dying internally, in a disappointment that, we could imagine, perhaps drove him to extinguish his faith and no longer believe in the dream of the Gospel that he had enthusiastically embraced at the beginning. The eyes of his soul resembled those of the body: plunged almost into darkness.
At La Verna, however, the miracle took place that allowed him to reopen his eyes to hope and trust, because there he again met the eyes of the glorious Crucified One and heard again the ‘word of the cross’. On that rugged and lonely mountain Francis again saw the glory of God shining in the face of the Son and heard important words from His mouth, an experience that allowed him to belong once more to that Trinitarian history of love, to the point of bearing within himself the signs of that communion.
2. Let us first listen again to the text composed by Francis after that experience at La Verna. I transcribe the Praises, adding the structure that seems to me to mark the thirty-one invocations addressed to the “you” of God.
1) The otherness of the ‘you’ of God (vs. 1-6)
You are the holy Lord God Who does wonderful things.
You are strong. You are great. You are the most high,
You are the almighty King. You holy Father, King of heaven
and earth. You are three and one, the Lord God of gods,
You are the good, all good, the highest good,
Lord God living and true.
2) The closeness of the ‘you’ of God (6-17)
You are love and charity;
You are wisdom, You are humility, You are patience,
You are beauty, You are security, You are stillness.
You are gladness and happiness, You are our hope, You are justice
and moderation, You are all our riches to sufficiency.
You are beauty, You are meekness.
You are the protector, You are our custodian and defender,
You are strength, You are refuge.
You are our hope, You are our faith,
You are our charity. You are all sweetness,
You are our eternal life, great and wonderful Lord,
Almighty God, Merciful Saviour.
The first general consideration to be made concerns the content and tone of the text, two elements whose consonance allows us to hypothesise an answer to the questions posed just above, concerning the shape of the crucified face and the content of his words heard by Francis at La Verna. As already noted, Leo, at the end of his column, had added the motivation that moved the Saint to compose that text: “after the vision and the words of the Seraphim and the impression of the stigmata of Christ on his body (Gal 6:17), he made these praises written in his own hand on the other side of the parchment, giving thanks to God for the kindness bestowed on him”. The content of the Praises, with its celebratory tone, thus expresses what has been seen and heard. And if this is so, then it must be considered that it was undoubtedly a glorious encounter; this is shown by the tone of praise in the text. In front of his eyes Francis did not have a “suffering Christ”, to whom he could express his compassion and sharing in those sufferings; the tone and content of the praises reveal instead that he had contemplated and heard in the vision of the seraphim a “glorious Christ” whose experience led him to the wonder of praise and thanksgiving.
3. Having anticipated the interpretative hypothesis with which to read the Praises as a whole, it is now necessary to bring attention to the “sources” from which the Saint drew the words of praise raised to the glorious mystery of God’s love. I believe there are two possible origins that gave rise to that text.
First of all, one can imagine that the Praises of the Most High God were ideally the words Francis heard coming from the mouth of the Seraphim, that is, the crucified Christ, who, “raised his eyes to heaven”, thus addressed the Father. More specifically, the attributes or qualifications used to define God (you are…) could be read as the multiple articulation of Jesus’ last two words on the cross; the first is addressed to the divine otherness, shouting its remoteness: “My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34); the second proclaims his paternal closeness: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The other source from which this series of qualifications and invocations flowed is Francis himself: if on the one hand he had heard, keeping it in his heart, the praise of the Son to the Father, on the other hand he was personally participating not only in the suffering but also in the filial exultation, bringing into play his own way of perceiving and living the mystery of God.
Having hypothesised the double origin of the prayer (from Jesus and Francis) let us try to listen to the content of the mystery contemplated. In the text, there seem to be two complementary features of the “You” of God encountered by the Saint at La Verna, an experience that confirmed and brought to fulfilment the theological vision possessed by the Saint about the One who, although He was the “Most High”, had allowed Himself to be seen and touched as “good” in the crucified form of the Son.
The glory of God seen in the open eyes of Christ at La Verna and fixed in the text of the Praises, shows two aspects or moments relating to the double nature of the invocation addressed by the dying Jesus to the Other who was in front of him, whose glorious face had in itself both the absolute remoteness of a hidden presence (God, why have you forsaken me?) and the proximity of the love that embraces (Father, into your hands I commend myself). Let us dwell on the two aspects.
The first form of the glory seen, worshipped and blessed by Jesus on the cross and by Francis at La Verna is that proclaimed in the first lines of the hymn (1-6a) where it is recognised that God is the unavailable, the totally other, He who is unfathomable mystery because: “He is Holy, because God, admirable and strong, that is, most high and omnipotent, holy Father and therefore King of heaven and earth, and therefore triune and unique God and also Lord God of the gods, He who is thrice good”.
This articulate proclamation of the absoluteness of God constitutes the first truth recognised and praised by Francis not only when he looked at the face of Christ, but also from his own experience of fragility: the wounds he had brought with him to La Verna placed him first of all before the infinite distance that existed between his own questions of meaning and the otherness of God. One could imagine that the Saint, looking at Jesus and participating with his own suffering in that event of death, listened again to the cry that the crucified man addressed to God asking him why he had abandoned him (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34), leaving him alone and without his voice and comfort, within a space of injustice and pain. In his manner of dying, Jesus reminded Francis of the absolute distance between his own personal history and God’s silence, a distance in which, however, there was no resignation but an acknowledgement: ‘God is God and I am just a man; I accept the contradictions of human existence with its disappointments and failures, with its injustices and violence for which I cannot find a remedy; I accept not understanding and having to die without an answer; I accept God’s silence because he is God and I am just a man’.
And in this moment, turning his eyes to God through the eyes of the crucified one and praising him for his being “totally other”, Francis commits an act of absolute importance for his own life: he proclaims an “amen” to the fragmentary and insecure nature of his own life, placing it without pretension and reserve before the most high and all-powerful God, as Jesus did when dying on the cross. The “you are the unavailable and unattainable otherness” does not, therefore, become for the man from Assisi a rebellion against a definitive bewilderment, nor fearful submission to a threatening presence to be satisfied, but is transformed into an unreserved surrender to an abyss that does not cause one to sink in terror, but embraces one in trust. The height and omnipotence proclaimed at the opening of the Praises constitute the horizon before which Francis places himself: that infinity does not frighten or dominate him but amazes him and envelops him at the very moment in which he fully understands, also because of his personal wounds, what his own littleness and fragmentary nature is before the one who is God.
It is at this point that the eyes of Jesus and the saint open again in the amazement of seeing before them the nearness of God, the one who is Father and to whose hands and fidelity of love they had consigned their lives. Francis too, there, in that solitude of unreserved surrender, encounters the glory that had become absolute proximity: at the moment when he closed his eyes forever, accepting that he was a ‘son of man’, that is, a ‘man for death’ (a mortal), he realised with amazement and exultation that he had the eyes of love before him that were looking at him and welcoming him. This is what the second part of Praises (vv. 6-17) would seem to proclaim and sing, where the Most High and Almighty from before, with his blinding glory, becomes “good” because he is close to human existence, assuming and realising all its good-beautiful sentiments and needs.
Without wishing to make a precise commentary on the second part of the Praises, I would like to propose a single point on an element that, in my opinion, can be considered the synthesis of all the appellations with which Francis sings in vs. 6-17 of the radical closeness of the glory of God. He, in fact, as “love-charity-wisdom” and for this reason “humble, gentle, meek”, can be proclaimed and praised with a qualification that, repeated twice, constitutes the ultimate cause of the amazement contemplated in the eyes of the glorious crucified: “you are beauty”. We know that Francis was strongly sensitive to this element. We also find it three times in the Canticle of Creatures, where the adjective is used to qualify everything that is bright: the sun, the stars and fire. In the Praises, God’s light, that is, his beauty, is shown instead by his humble, patient and meek love. It was seen by Jesus when he reopened his eyes to the holy and paternal face, becoming a witness to it with his glorious and filial countenance: on the cross God had shown that he “is light” (1 Jn 1:5) because “he is love” (1 Jn 4:8) that is Father, and Jesus had seen him, because he had met him, in that place of humility, patience and meekness. For his part, Francis at La Verna recognised that the humility of Christ, his patience and meekness shining on his crucified face were the beauty of God, because in the Son he had shown the light of his own face as Father, made of communion and fidelity.
4. We could say, then, that all that Francis thought he had lost was restored to him at La Verna by the contemplation of the crucified face, because through it and in it he rediscovered the beauty of God, that is, his humble and faithful love. With it he also rediscovered the serenity of heart that came from the certainty of belonging to this mystery. Francis knew it and experienced it again on that impervious and solitary mountain: the beauty of God constitutes the place where man finds home and communion, the place of security and tranquillity, and therefore also the place of joy and gladness.
The synthesis of these feelings, experienced by the proximity of God’s humble and gratuitous love, is condensed into a qualification that we would never expect to find in the texts of the Poverello of Assisi: “You are all our riches to sufficiency”. That man, who at the time felt truly poor, stripped of everything, because he was not only ill but also rejected by his own friars, returns to being rich in everything without needing anything, because he is free and unburdened of all pretensions. His poverty once again becomes his wealth because through it he regains the beauty of God shown in Jesus: the humility of love that saves the world not through expiation but through communion. At La Verna, Francis, having once again seen the eyes of the Crucified One, which made him contemplate for the umpteenth time not atonement to appease God’s wrath, but the communion of humility that gives love, succeeds in reopening his eyes to God and the world, thus returning to be a son of praise and a brother of mercy.
The short Letter to an anonymous minister is certainly one of the most valuable of Francis’ writings for appreciating the evangelical logic that guided the Saint, especially at times when life became painful because of division and enmity. In fact, the minister had turned to Francis for help in facing the very difficult moment he was experiencing within his fraternity. The response given by the saint to this man, to whom some of the brothers had ‘taken away his honour’, to the point of persecuting him, preventing him from loving God, was surprising, to say the least. In fact, it was not a question of helping the minister to restore justice by means of choices with which to strike sinners, imposing on them the expiation of guilt and thus obtaining satisfaction, but of showing him the path of mercy as the only way to create true communion and thus life. The crux of the method offered to the minister is formulated by Francis as follows:
And if you have done this, I wish to know in this way if you love the Lord and me, His servant and yours: that there is not any brother in the world who has sinned – however much he could have sinned – who, after he has looked into your eyes, would ever depart without your mercy, if he is looking for mercy. And if he were not looking for mercy, you would ask him if he wants mercy (Lmin 9-10): FF 235).
The possibility, therefore, of implementing a logic of mercy, the one that uniquely heals and renews, was linked by the Saint to a prerequisite that the minister had to offer those difficult brothers: ‘his own eyes’. In fact, those brothers, “after seeing those eyes”, had to experience the confidence to enter into a process of dialogue (“if they ask, you answer; if they don’t ask, you ask if they want …”), animated by mercy as the way to truth and freedom, that is, to true communion.
The importance of the eyes is again confirmed by Francis at the end of the text, when he reminds the minister what was the true and only task he was called to perform within the fraternity:
And if he would sin a thousand times before your eyes, love him more than me so that you may draw him to the Lord; and always be merciful with brothers such as these (Lmin 11: FF 235).
The minister’s eyes were to be like those of the glorious Crucified One: a sacrament of communion to be offered to all the lost of heart to draw them to the Father. In other words, the minister had to give his brothers what he himself had received from the encounter with the eyes of the glorious cross; he too, in fact, after having been “attracted-seduced” by those eyes, had been converted to a new logic, seen in the Father and centred not on justice that demands expiation but on mercy that creates communion. Such was the good news that had touched his heart and which, together with Francis, had attracted him to the following of Christ. And it was the news to be given to others with his own eyes. He was to do as Jesus, who, having seen the eyes of the Father, had become the sacrament of salvation by attracting all to himself; likewise the minister, who, showing with his eyes what he had contemplated in those of the crucified Lord, was to attract his brothers to a communion of life that saved from division and death.
In short, Francis, “having seen the eyes” of the glorious cross of San Damiano and that of San Severino, was drawn towards a logic of gratuitousness and love with which to give fraternal form to life with the brothers and proclaim the Gospel of peace to the people. The same eyes opened again at La Verna, the final place of a wonder contemplated and heard in the last encounter with the glorious crucifix. That open-eyed face thus accompanied the Saint’s entire existence, giving him eyes full of praise towards God and mercy towards mankind.
- On placing the origin of that prayer as located at San Damiano cf. P. Maranesi, L’eredità di frate Francesco. Lettura storico-critica del Testamento (Studi e ricerche, 1), Ed. Porziuncola, Assisi 2009, 143-157. ↑
- The events connected with the cross of San Damiano, as the culmination of a conversion process, are first recounted in the Legend of the Three Companions (3Comp 13.16), written c. 1244, and then taken up again both by Thomas in the Memoriale (2Cel 10) of 1247 and finally in 1263 by Bonaventure in the Major and Minor Legend (LegM 2.1; Legm I 4-5). On all this I have written abundantly Facere misericordiam. La conversione di Francesco: Confronto critico tra il Testamento e le biografie (Viator, 1). Ed. Porziuncola, Assisi 2007, where I devoted the second part of the volume (113-287) to an analysis of the processes of the editorial history of the early hagiographies. M. Bollati, although familiar with this work (it is present in the bibliography), did not confront herself with those exegetical analyses, where, regarding the conversion of the young man, I attempted to carry out a critical evaluation of the narrative relationships between the sources, highlighting, it seems to me, a complexity and a problematic nature broader than the scholar lets us see in her reconstruction of the events (cf. Francesco e la croce di S. Damiano [Fonti e ricerche 25], Ed. Biblioteca Francescana, Milan 2016, 11-21). ↑
- We are faced with one of the two sides of the relationship between the historical account of Francis and the use of iconography. The first, the broader and more studied, concerns the use by the Friars Minor of the pictorial images of the Saint, not only to foster the devotion of the people, but also to ensure the validity and importance of their Order within the Church (an instrument of propaganda and apologia). Many studies have been conducted on this subject. To these will soon be added the monographic study I am carrying out on the Bardi table, one of the first and most interesting iconographic products of the ‘propaganda’ operation carried out by the Friars Minor. The other area, less frequented by historical research because it is more difficult and limited, is the one that we will attempt in these pages, posing the question of the possible role played by concrete and precise sacred images in brother Francis’ construction of his evangelical identity. R. Rusconi, Francesco d’Assisi, i frati minori e le immagini, in Le immagini del francescanesimo, SISF XXXVI, Spoleto 2009, 5-29. ↑
- In some ways I take up and expand on the hypothesis proposed by G. Schneider: “L’icona della croce [di San Damiano] non parla di Francesco, ma si rivolge a lui, in modo che la sua immagine di Cristo, per come emerge nei suoi scritti, viene plasmata da questa immagine miracolosa e dall’esperienza ad essa legata”. (“Virgo ecclesia facta”. La presenza di Maria nel crocifisso di San Damiano e nell’u৽cio passionis di San Francesco di Assisi [Biblioteca mariano-francescana, 1] Porziuncola 2003, 65). ↑
- Cf. M. Panconi, Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce: una lettura teologica, in Studi Francescani 114 (2017) 194-196. The literature on this theme is abundant. Just a few titles: M.C. Sepiére, L’image d’un Dieu souffrant. Aux origines du crucifix (IX-X siècle), Les èditions du Cerf, Paris 1943; La croce. Iconography and Interpretation (1st – early 16th centuries). Proceedings of the international study conference, 1999. 3 vols., ed. De Rosa, Naples 2007; La pittura su tavola del secolo XII. Riconsiderazioni e nuove acquisizioni a seguito del restauro della Croce di Rosano, Edifir, Firenze 2012. ↑
- On the reasons for the absence of the cross before the 4th century and the gradual beginning of its cult and representation see D.P. Thoby, Le crucifix. Des origines au concile de Trente, etude iconographique, Nantes, Bellanger 1959, 18-22. For a concise but documented historical path within the evolutionary process of the representation of the cross and the crucifix see M. Sensi, Crocifissi e ritratti del Cristo, in Croci dipinte nelle Marche. Capolavori di arte e di spiritualità dal XIII al XVII secolo, edited by M. Giannatiempo López- G. Venturi, Ancona 2014, 25-31. ↑
- La Regola di Abelardo, 14: L’oratorio, 4-5, in Regole monastiche femminili (I millenni), Einaudi Torino 2003, 325. Cf. on this F. Faranda, Variazione iconografica dell’icona della croce dipinta nel corso del XIII secolo, in Commentari d’arte, Anno XIII (36/37) 2007 9-10. ↑
- Cf. M. Sensi, Crocifissi e ritratti del Cristo, 29. ↑
- A general description of the artistic elements of the Carolingian crosses is offered by D.P. Thoby, Le crucifix, 74-75. Also by C. Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ’s Passion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2001. ↑
- There were four types of colours used for the loincloth: blue to indicate Christ’s divinity, red for passion, white, referring to the service apron, and finally gold for royalty. For more detailed information on the loincloth see M. Sensi, Crocifissi e ritratti di Cristo, 35-37. ↑
- On the development of this representation see C. Frugoni, La voce delle immagini. Pillole iconografiche dal Medioevo (Saggi 910), Ed. Einaudi, Turin 2010, 212-217; in particular C. Mercuri, Les reflets sur l’iconographie de la translation de la couronne d’épines en France, in Pecia. Ressources en médiévistique, 8/11 (2005) 117-125. ↑
- A list of the main crucifix tablets from the 12th and 13th centuries is offered by M. Panconi, Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, 112-114. ↑
- The position of crucifixes inside churches and their liturgical function is discussed by M. Panconi. Interesting is his reference to Giotto’s images in the Assisi cycle where in three cases the painter depicts crosses positioned inside churches: Francis in front of the crucifix in San Damiano, the Greccio nativity scene and the Verification of the Stigmata; in all cases they are placed high up: either above the altar, or on the iconostasis in front of the main nave (Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, 121-122). ↑
- A study on the work is offered by A.C. Quintavalle, Rosano e i crocifissi della Riforma, dal Volto Santo di Lucca a Batllò, in OPD Restauro 20 (2008) 139-170. I agree with the perplexity expressed by M. Bollati on the political interpretation given by the author to the triumphant Christ, according to whom the figure is “a manifesto of Roman orthodoxy at the time of the struggle for investiture” (144). ↑
- Cfr. M. Sensi, Crocifissi e raffigurazione di Cristo, 37-41, who also gives an of the destiny and diffusion of these acheiropoieta. ↑
- On the variety of the diverse painted sections of the crucifixes on the panel cf. M. Panconi, Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, 115-119. ↑
- Cfr. F. Faranda, Variazione iconografica dell’icona della croce dipinta nel corso del XIII secolo, 10. ↑
- Permit me to indicate my commentary on this text in La verità di Nicodemo. Racconto evangelico di un cammino di fede (Orizzonti biblici), Ed. Cittadella, Assisi 2019, 41-50. ↑
- Such a position is called the “byzantine curve” (Df. F. Franda, Variazione iconografica dell’icona della croce dipinta nel corso del XIII secolo, 11). ↑
- Cf. E. Lunghi, Il Crocifisso di Giunta Pisano e l’Icona del “Maestro di San Francesco” alla Porziuncola, Assisi – S. Maria degli Angeli 1995, 49; e anche F. Faranda, La perduta croce di Assisi dipinta da Giunta Pisano, in Commentari d’Arte 50 (2011) 7-27. ↑
- For the Friars Minor see D. Russo, Saint François, les franciscains et les représentations du Christ sur la croix en Ombrie au XIII siècle. Recherches sur la formation d’une image et d’une sensibilité esthétique au Moyen Age, in Mélanges de l’École française de Rome 96 (1984) 647-717. In particular, see the important and rich article by M. Panconi, Le croci dipinte francescane: un catalogo ragionato, Studi Francescani 117 (2020) 99- 136, where 55 crosses painted between 1239 and the middle of the 14th century are listed; In the article, in addition to an abundant bibliography, precious and interesting information is offered regarding the dimensions (which vary according to use), the commission (in this context the Author considers “that too much emphasis has been placed on the novitas introduced by the mendicant orders” ); the areas of diffusion (central Italy) and finally the presence of Francis, who is depicted 24 times. In particular, the catalogue contradicts what H. Thode in his important work at the end of the 19th century, according to which “it is for Franciscan churches that almost all 13th century crucifixes were made” (Francesco d’Assisi e le origini del rinascimento in Italia, edited by L. Bellosi, Rome 1993, 374). ↑
- M. Panconi, describing these transformations, speaks of a “process of emptying” (Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, 189-191). The same author, reasoning on the elimination of the lateral scenes, expresses the impression that “attention gradually but increasingly shifts to the moment of the crucifixion, almost decontextualised and isolated from the mystery in which it participates” (Le croci dipinte francescane: un catalogo ragionato, in Studi Francescani 117 (2020) 128. ↑
- Cf. ibid, 193-194. ↑
- The combination of the two figures returns four more times, cf. M. Panconi, Le croci pinte francescane: un catalogo ragionato, 129. ↑
- Cf. the bibliographical references offered by M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 96. Reference is made to these pages for an in-depth study of the cross of the Blessed Abbess. ↑
- Cf. M. Panconi’s remark on the liturgical context of the crosses as a theological essay addressed to the faithful in Le croci dipinte francescane: un catalogo ragionato, 133-134. ↑
- Cf. M. Panconi, Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, 200-203. ↑
- On this second crucifix by Cimabue, M. Panconi has offered an extensive and accurate study: Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa Croce, in particular the pages in which he describes the dependencies on Pisano and the innovations made by Cimabue to the Byzantine tradition (197-205). With the Florentine painter, Pisano’s art reaches its perfection: “This is a true character of originality that allows us to recognise in Cimabue “the painter of the encounter” between the world of the rich Byzantine symbolism and that of the instances coming from the re-emerging reality of classicism that go beyond a simple search for proportionality of the parts, in the direction, instead, of a clear ideal of perfection that, however, must come to terms with the reality of death and the need to represent it in its dramatic character” (201). ↑
- The term “atonement” (ιλαστήριον, atonement ιλασμός), in Hebrew “kapporet”, represents, “according to Ex 25:17-22, the most important object of worship of the holy of holies, the tabernacle or temple, namely a golden slab placed on the ark of the covenant, on which stand on either side, the Cherubim covering with their wings the place of Yahweh’s invisible presence. As such, it was also the place where, by order of Yahweh, on the great day of reconciliation atonement is made for the whole community of Israel’ (J. Roloff, ιλαστήριον, in Exegetical Dizionario esegetico del Nuovo Testamento, Paideia 1992, 1733). ↑
- Among the multitude of publications on this argument cf. R. Nardin, Il Cur Deus homo di Anselmo d’Aosta. Indagine storico-ermeneutica e orizzonte tri-prospettico di una cristologia, Lateran University Press, Roma 2002. ↑
- Bonaventura, Breviloquio, IV 9, in Opera omnia, V/2: Opuscoli teologici, Ed. Città Nuova, Roma 1996, 191-193. ↑
- For a more articulate reading of the redemptive function of the cross in Bonaventure cf. P. Maranesi, Il “Verbum crucifixum”: un termine risolutivo della “theologia cru- cis” di s. Bonaventura?, in Doctor seraphicus 52 (2005) 79-114, in particular 97-105. ↑
- I do not quite grasp the historical arguments that see in the Eucharist the fundamental reason for the iconographic shift from the glorious cross to the suffering cross; thus for example F. Faranda, Variazione iconografica dell’icona della croce dipinta nel corso del XIII secolo, 12-17, something similar is proposed by M. Bollati, Francesco e il crocifisso di San Damiano, 120-122, where it is argued that “The image of the Dead Christ would respond to this renewed Eucharistic devotion” (122). ↑
- For the text see Opera omnia, XIII: Opuscoli spirituali, Ed. Città Nuova, Roma 1992, 206-263. ↑
- Courage in danger, patience in outrage, perseverance in the midst of torture and victory in agony. ↑
- Lignum vitae, n. 32. ↑
- This is what M. Panconi notes, for whom in Bonaventure’s ascetic and mystical works, the description of Christ’s sufferings constitutes the main path given to the faithful to arrive at devout compassion as a form of sharing in that pain (cf. Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa croce, 159-166). Sacred images had to play an important role in this process: “The vision of the image of the crucifix, whether it is described verbally or painted on a panel, cannot do without prior knowledge that directs contemplation towards its ultimate end, which is the compassion of the observer-lover” (165). ↑
- M. Bollati offers a careful and interesting analysis of both Francis’ texts and the hagiographies to determine how much the object of the cross was present in his history (Francesco e la croce di San Damiano 110-116). Interesting is the point made by the scholar regarding the difference between the attention and care the Saint had for the liturgical objects used in the Eucharist (vases, tablecloths, chalices and corporals) and the absence instead of any reference to the cross as a presence to be honoured, preserved and used in prayer (112). ↑
- On this episode, placed within the “ecological” question in the life of Francis, I recently dedicated an essay: Le viscere di misericordia ecologica di Francesco. Il caso della pecorella e degli agnellini nella Marca di Ancora nel racconto delle fonti agiografiche e della tavola Bardi , in Italia francescana XCVI (2021-2) 189- 225. For a more historical investigation on the presence of Francis in San Severino cf. G. Pagnani, Con S. Francesco a San Severino lungo un’antica strada, in Il convento dei cappuccini a Colpersito di San Severino. Miscellanea settempedana IV (1985) 11-36. ↑
- Today it is held by Capuchin friars who arrived in 1576 to revive a place abandoned by the Poor Clares a century earlier. For a bit of history see C. Urbanelli, Storia dei cappuccini delle Marche, I, vol II: Vicende del primo cinquantennio, Ancona 1978, 229-230, with more details C. Urbanelli, I cappuccini a Colpersito di San Severino, in Il convento dei cappuccini a Colpersito di San Severino. Miscellanea settempedana IV (1985) 65-100. ↑
- A very beautiful text on the theology of the cross as a space for fatherhood and filiation is that of F.X. Durrwell, La morte del Figlio. Il mistero di Gesù e dell’uomo, EDI, Naples 2007. ↑
- R.E. Brown points out the Johannine repetition of the verb τετέλεσται in two very close contexts: in v. 28 and v. 30. In the first case, the evangelist interprets Jesus’ request to drink quoting scripture: “to fulfil (τετέλεσται) the scripture” (19:28); immediately afterwards the condemned man dies with the same verb on his lips (19:30). The relationship between the two moments is proposed by Brown as follows: “In Joh 18:11 Jesus had said that he wanted to drink the cup his father had given him; when Jesus drinks the offered wine, he has finished this commitment he made at the beginning of his passion” (ibid., 1214). The interpretative consequence, deduced by the author, is precise: ‘His “is finished” refers both to the work the Father has given him to do and to the fulfilment of Scripture. As the “lamb of God” he took away the sin of the world, thus fulfilling and completing the role of the paschal lamb in OT theology’ (La morte del messia. Dal Getsemani al sepolcro. Un commento al racconto della passione dei quattro vangeli, Biblioteca di Teologia Contemporanea, 108, Queriniana Brescia 1999, 1215-1216). ↑
- “To die facing the Father, to die begotten, is the supreme grace granted to Jesus, granted in favour of the world” (F.X. Durrwell, La morte del Figlio, 48). ↑
- “In what way does the father beget, introduce Jesus into death, to the fullness of being Son? To be born is to come forth from the womb that begets; Jesus says of himself that he “comes forth from the Father”. Coming forth from the womb, ‘he is sent into the world’, ‘he comes into the world’. Between the Father and the Son who comes forth from him, a distance is opened, which in the death of the Son is now unlimited. But it does not distance, it does not separate, because Jesus is Son, “he is one” inseparably with the Father. Father and Son cannot distance themselves from each other. The distance is that of a contrast that, in death, becomes absolute and ends up uniting them totally. The Father IS for himself, the Son IS in receptivity. The Father generates him by sending him as far away as possible, outside the One Who IS for Himself. Jesus, who also “is of divine condition”, finds himself “emptied”, emptied in the death on the cross (emphasis added). Therefore he is exalted sovereignly’. In the extreme distance he is reunited with the Father; in the absolute emptiness of death he is “filled” with the “fullness of divinity”. In death, Jesus is the fullness in the void, the infinite receptivity in person: he is the Son’ (Ibid., 48-49). ↑
- The literature on this work is more than abundant. Just a few reference titles: O. van Asseldonk, Il crocifisso di S. Damiano visto e vissuto da S. Francesco, in Laurentianum 22 (1981) 455-460; K. Kleiner, Das Kreuzbild von San Damiano. Deutung und Betrachtung. Altötting, Kapuzinerkloster, 2009, and recently M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 66-75. ↑
- Mark’s Joshua could be Matthew’s Joseph, just as Salome could correspond to the name of the mother of the sons of Zebedee not revealed by Matthew. Luke, on the other hand, does not report any specific name but only reports this information about those who were present at that ‘spectacle’ (Lk 23:48): ‘All his acquaintances, and the women who had followed him all the way from Galilee, stood at a distance watching all this’ (Lk 23:49). ↑
- Bollati, devotes some prominence to the relationship between Mary and John, interpreting their closeness as a translation of the words spoken to them by Jesus at the moment of his death (Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 73). And he adds something that does not seem to me to be apparent from the panel: ‘The gaze of Christ at San Damiano seems to be directed to the mother and the beloved disciple and in them to every disciple’ (73). As already mentioned, it seems to me that the gaze has a different direction and a different subject. In any case, the Author does not seem to have grasped the symmetry between the one and the other couple where the four characters are animated by the same feelings of serenity and joy. ↑
- The representation of the two positions of the fingers of the right hand is found both in the hand at the top of the cross itself and in the figure of Christ Pantocrator (fig. 35). ↑
- Cf. also M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 71. ↑
- Cf. M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 68-69. ↑
- Bollati points out that in the depiction of the panel ‘the figure of Stephaton has lost the negative traits that liturgical drama and late antique and medieval exegesis had attributed to him’ (ibid., 68). ↑
- For an analysis of the positions on the theology of the cross in some French authors, see M. Panconi, Il crocifisso di Cimabue in Santa croce, which examines Antony of Padua (146-154), Alexander of Hales (154-159), Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (159- 166), Ubertino of Casale (166-172), and John Duns Scotus (172-176). ↑
- Emblematic is the link between that first encounter in which Francis is immersed for the first time in the compassion of Christ’s suffering and the event at La Verna as a full sharing in the mystery of pain. Thus, for example, we read in the Legend of the Three Companions about the experience he had before the cross of San Damiano: “From that moment his heart was wounded and he yearned for the memory of the Lord’s passion. As long as he lived, he always bore in his heart the stigmata of the Lord Jesus, as was clearly manifested later when those stigmata were reproduced in his body, admirably imprinted and made known in all clarity. As a result, he imposed many mortifications on himself in the flesh: whether healthy or sick, he was very hard on his body and hardly ever treated it with any consideration. So much so that, on the eve of the day of his death, he confessed that he had sinned much against his body” (3Comp 14). The same relationship of close continuity between that beginning and the end of Francis’ life, interpreted as a process of full sharing in the sufferings of Christ, is proposed in a broad and systematic way especially by Bonaventure; it is enough to reread in this as proposed in LegM XIII 10 where the hagiographer summarises all of Francis’ holiness as a seven-year development of encounters with the cross until the perfect assimilation to Christ through the stigmata. ↑
- P. Magro reflects on the role of the Franciscan movement in favouring the transition from one style to the other, observing that 13th-century Franciscanism would abandon “the hieratic and doxological aspect of the Sandaminanite representation” to instead always favour in art the suffering humanity of the crucified Christ (L’iconografia staurologica francesccana tra devozione e pieta sociale, in La croce nell’arte dagli inizi al XVI secolo, atti del Convegno internazionale dell’università di Napoli Federico II, dicembre 1999, a cura di G. Curzi – B. Daprà, Electa, Naples 2000, 18-30). Cf. also the analysis of M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 100-105, where he comes to this conclusion: “The cross of San Damiano ends up becoming the furthest thing from Francis’ spirituality and sensibility – or rather – the preaching and Franciscan hagiography are recognised as the drivers of a change in the sphere of devotion and piety with the prevalence of an image of the suffering Christ” (105). See also the abundant and timely bibliography offered by the scholar.The question of the influence of Francis of Assisi and/or the Franciscans in the change of iconographic parameter has been the subject of many studies. A great influence on this judgement was H. Thode for whom “there is no other subject [the crucifixion], in all Christian history, that has been so profoundly influenced by St. Francis” (Francesco d’Assisi e le origini del rinascimento in Italia, 373), also determining the shift from the glorious cross to the suffering cross. On the contrary, historiography today accentuates a discontinuity between the experience of Brother Francis and the affirmation of the suffering cross, the latter favoured by the mendicant orders and in particular by the Minorite order. We refer only to H. Belting, Il culto delle immagini. Storia dell’icona dall’età imperiale al tardo Medioevo, Carocci, Roma 2001. ↑
- M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 79. ↑
- Cf. O. van Asseldonk, Il crucifisso di S. Damiano visto e vissuto da s. Francesco, 446-471, who takes up the extensive analysis of D. Gagnan, Office de la Passion, prière quotidianne de Saint Francoius d’Assisi, in Antonianum 55 (1980) 3-86. Of the same opinion is C. Frugoni according to whom: “Francis is not at all the mystical exegete of the Passion, retraced with shared sorrow that his biographers, Bonaventure above all, have credited; the exacerbated meditation on the torture of the cross belongs to Franciscanism and not to him. The proof is offered by the Officium passioni Domini‘ (Francesco e l’invenzione delle stimmate. Una storia per parole e immagini fino a Bonaventura e Giotto, Saggi 918, Ed. Einaudi, Torino 2010, 115). See in particular the analyses of M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 75-85. ↑
- M. Bollati, Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 78. For the author, proof of this “glorious” formulation of the text is also confirmed by a significant historical fact: the change in spirituality with regard to the cross led the order to “quickly forget” Francis’ text, as also happened with the “triumphant Christ of San Damiano”, “an image no longer capable of expressing the emotions of the new sensibility that finds itself only in the suffering Christ, in his agony and death, the object of its own devout and moved participation” (79).Cf. also O. Schmucki, Das Leiden Christi im Leben des Hl Franziskus, in Coll. Franc. 30 (1960) where, analysing the Saint’s “opuscula” (5-30) and in particular the Office of the Passion (129-145), he concludes that “The saint by no means only knew about the “Passio dolorosa”, but just as clearly about the “beata Passio” (145). A development in a pietist direction is proposed instead by the hagiographies of Francis, which present him as animated by the desire to share in the suffering of Christ on the cross (cf. 241-263. 353-379). The conclusion reached by the author is precise: “The reader of the Franciscan sources will probably notice most of all that the idea of the Passion appears less strongly and less frequently in the Opuscula than in the biographical sources: Moreover, different emphases are placed on Francis’ relationship with the Saviour in the two sources. According to the testimony of the writings, Jesus’ total devotion to the Father and his love for the redeemed shines through in the Passion account; in the biographical writers, on the other hand, the emotional compassion for the suffering God-human is much more in the foreground” (385). ↑
- An important fact confirming the basic approach given by Francis to the fifteen psalm compositions: except for two psalms in which the readers are exhorted to praise and thank God (VII and XV), the other thirteen have a personal character in which a subject in the first person addresses God; the frequent addition made by Francis six times of the term “Father” along these psalms (“most holy Father of mine”: Uffpas IV 9: FF 285; V 9: FF 286; VI 11: FF 287 or “Holy Father”: Uffpas I 5: FF 280; V 9: FF 286, VI 12: FF 287), constitutes a clear indication of who is the subject praying those texts full of trust and confidence: Christ Himself addressing God in a dialogue of surrender to His fatherhood. ↑
- C. Paolazzi, Lettura degli scritti di Francesco di Assisi, ed. Biblioteca Fran- cescana, Milano 2004, 66-69. ↑
- It is only by abandoning the narrative proposed by the Legend of the Three Companions (composed almost twenty years after the Saint’s death) which relates words coming from the cross to give Francis a mission for the benefit of the entire Church, and by recomposing that experience instead as an event of revelation of the mystery of the cross itself, that one can grasp the “historical” value of that prayer narrated by him. If read as a result of that encounter, it would allow us to re-comprehend what happened at San Damiano: Francis did not hear “words from the cross”, but something much more involving and upsetting, that is, the “word of the cross” that radically transformed his existence, leading him to praise and thanksgiving. In this sense, it is surprising that studies still uncritically repropose the hagiographic narrative, losing instead the “narration” made by Francis himself in the Testament, where he recalls with wonder and joy the birth of that prayer. ↑
- 1Cel 45: FF 399; altrettanto LegM IV 3: FF 1067. ↑
- Anper 19: FF 1509; the same is repeated in 3Comp 37: FF 1441. ↑
- This hypothesis, that is, of placing the experience of the Cross of San Damiano in continuity with the prayer of adoration, has never been precisely put forward by those who have dealt with it. M. Bollati, while proposing an analysis of a series of litany prayers to the cross from the ninth century, in which he points out the absence “of the sentiment of compassion, but of praise and adoration” (Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 81), does not introduce in this context the antiphon of adoration recalled by Francis. Besides with it the author would have had an important reference to attempt an answer to the question she posed concerning “how much the experience before the cross of San Damiano or the image of the triumphant Christ contributed to the definition of his spirituality” (106). O. van Asseldonk, Il crocifisso di S. Damiano visto e vissuto da s. Francesco, in attempting to show how Francis’ text refers back to the glorious cross, also ignores the analysis of this antiphon. ↑
- One thinks of the Exhortation to Praise God (FF 265a), but also of Psalms VII and XV of the Office of the Passion (FF 288-289, 303). The same applies to the Blessing of Brother Leo (FF 262), on which text cf. P. Maranesi, Caro Leone ti scrivo. Gli autografi di Francesco: memoria di una grande amicizia, preface A. Bartoli Langeli, (Memoria e profezia), Ed. Messaggero, Padova 2020, 172-182. ↑
- On the general reading of the text cf. L. Lehmann, Francesco maestro di preghiera (Bibliotheca ascetico-mystica, 5), Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, Roma 193, 61-78. He too, however, does not interpret the prayer of adoration as an experience of the cross lived at San Damiano, while he thinks of it, in line with tradition, as the prayer High and Glorious God (43-48). ↑
- M. Bollati rightly notes the close link between the theology of glory of the Johannine gospel and the Christ of the cross of San Damiano: “The cross is presented by John not as the moment of the Son’s kenosis, but as his exaltation, the way and passage of his return to the Father” (Francesco e la croce di San Damiano, 83); the same thing returns in the panel: “The triumphant Christ of San Damiano is the image of this double elevation, elevation on the cross and elevation to the Father. Jesus has his eyes open, his arms outstretched on the cross in the surrender of himself’ (85). ↑
- Cfr. P. Maranesi, L’eredità di frate Francesco, 154-157. ↑
- This is what I note in my analysis of the hagiographical texts related to Francis’ experience among the lepers. Allow me to quote what I observed in Bonaventure’s basic approach to Francis’ encounter with a leper in the valley of Assisi: “The hagiographer of Bagnoregio is the only one who explicitly uses the language of chivalry to interpret the events related to the leper. In my opinion, Bonaventure’s insertion of the chivalrous category constitutes the definitive reinterpretation in an ascetic sense of the event, where the gestures made are the result of the young man’s desire for perfection and elevation. And it can be affirmed that the “desire to become a knight of Christ”, as the basic criterion in presenting the gestures made with the leper, fundamentally inverts the criterion of facere misericordiam [to show mercy]: while in this dynamic the radical handing over of self is affirmed as the forgetting of all self-interest, in becoming a “knight of Christ” the person of the young man with his desire for perfection/being raised up is placed at the centre” (Facere misericordiam, 278). ↑
- I believe the beautiful and stimulating text by J.B. Metz, Mystik der offenen Augen. Wenn Spiritualitat aufbricht, Herder, Freiburg 2011, where, among other things, it is stated in a preliminary way: “Certainly, Christians are always also Mystics, but not exclusively Hysterics in the sense of a spiritual self-awareness, but in the sense of a spiritual experience of solidarity” (20). ↑
- Often Francis in his texts offers the brothers a “golden rule” formulated as follows: “And let him have and show mercy to each of his brothers as he would want them to do to him were he in a similar position” (Letfed 43: FF 197). This is what was learnt among lepers, making it then a relational criterion. This norm is undoubtedly not moved by the principle of expiation but of communion as an act of gratuitousness and sharing, in a movement of lowering that allows one to become similar. Only then can one have adequate feelings to be ‘in communion’ with the other, with his or her situation, so as to act in solidarity and out of love. The cross narrates this dynamic of bonds that must not “repay out of justice” but “bind out of love”. On the value of Francis’ ‘golden rule’ see P. Maranesi, Facere misericordiam, 84-87. ↑
- The link between the two prayers is no coincidence: one is addressed to the Holy Cross, the other to the Holy Father; through the former one is in fact introduced into the latter and vice versa: seeing the eyes of glory one sees those of God’s paternity, just as believing in the divine paternity one understands that Jesus’ suffering is a manifestation of the Father’s love and communion, and not of God’s wrath and vengeance. ↑
- Here it would be necessary to refer to a double textual work of the Saint of Assisi to highlight the two directions of life connected with mercy to all and in praise to God. The first relates to the relationships of “fraternity-communion” proposed to the brothers through the criterion of reciprocal mercy; it is enough here to recall the famous and beautiful Letter to a Minister, in which Francis entrusts to the minister the inclusive logic of mercy understood as a dialogue of communion as the only possibility to overcome the ruptures and oppositions within the fraternity (cf. the comment I offer on the text in La fragilità in Francesco di Assisi. Quando la sofferenza diventa grazia [Smartbooks], Ed. Messaggero, Padova 2018, 55-74 and in Francesco fratello di tutti. La fraternità nella proposta del Santo di Assisi [Christian Community: emerging lines – Brothers to all], ed. Cittadella, Assisi, 2021, 94-103. An extensive and accurate commentary was effected by S. Ceccobao, Senza ira né turbamento. La ricerca di un’origine minoritica nella “correctio culparum” [Viator 17], Edizioni Porziuncola, Assisi 2019, 204-262). The second concerns the personal prayer texts in which he always re-proposes the same laudatory style; the most famous is certainly The Canticle of Creatures; the other, Praises to the Most High God, is equally valuable, and we will deal with it immediately afterwards. ↑
- On all this I have carried out a full and accurate commentary: cf. Caro Leone ti scrivo, 144-167. ↑
- Cf. P. Maranesi, La fragilità in Francesco di Assisi, 74-91. ↑
- It is interesting to note what the hagiographies note about the figure seen by Francis in that mystical experience. Thomas of Celano in the First Life speaks of a great joy felt by Francis “for the beautiful and sweet look with which the Seraphim looked at him, of an unimaginable beauty; but he was at the same time terrified to see him confined on the cross in the bitter pain of the passion” (1Cel 94: FF 484); the next legend, that of the Three Companions does not focus attention on the gaze but on the entire figure, noting its beauty: “there appeared to him a Seraphim who had six wings, and between the wings emerged the figure of a beautiful man, crucified, who had his hands and feet spread out in the form of a cross and clearly showed the effigy of the Lord Jesus” (3Comp 69: FF 1483). Bonaventure’s Legend is somewhat in line with Thomas’ account: “At that sight he was greatly astonished, while joy mixed with sadness flooded his heart. He felt joy at the gentle attitude with which he saw himself looked upon by Christ under the figure of the Seraphim; but seeing him confined on the cross pierced his soul with the sorrowful sword of compassion” (LegM XIII 3). I think I can say that Francis saw the glorious Christ of the cross of San Damiano, whose face is described precisely by the hagiographers: a beautiful and sweet gaze before which Francis felt himself gazed upon with kindness. ↑
- On all that I am going to say cf. P. Maranesi, Caro Leone ti scrivo, 151-168. ↑
- As much is noted by J. Torrecilla, Las Alabanzas al Dios Altísimos, in San Francisco de Asís: escritos autobiográficos. Hamenaje a José Antonio guerra y Sebastián Lopez OFM, Madrid 2015,164. ↑
- Cf. ibid. ↑
- I am referring to the interpretation I put forward in reading the beginning of the Canticle of the Creatures assuming that the three initial qualifications of God “Most High Almighty and Good Lord” are divided into two parts, where the first two indicate otherness, while the third indicates proximity, and that they are related, the first group with heavenly creatures (vv. 5-11), the second with earthly creatures (vv. 12-22); on this cf. Il Cantico delle creature di Francesco d’Assisi: vie di lode al Signore della vita, in Frate Francesco 83 (2017) 418-424. ↑
- His transcendence is even more evident in a passage from the First Rule: “most high and supreme eternal God, Trinity and Unity, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all things and Saviour of all who believe and hope in him, and love him who is without beginning and without end, unchangeable, invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, uninvestigable, blessed, worthy of praise, glorious, exalted above all, sublime, most high” (RegNB XXIII 11: FF 71). ↑
- For a systematic reading cf. P. Maranesi, Caro Leone ti scrivo, 155-168. ↑
- In my commentary on the Canticle of the Creatures, I noted the following on the use of ‘beautiful’ attributed to luminous creatures: ‘Light is beautiful because it is close to love, manifesting its gratuitousness and generosity. This is supremely beautiful for Francis, because in this is the beauty of God. Light is the praise of God because it proclaims with effectiveness and truth His essential beauty: that He is love given without reserve to the whole world” (P. Maranesi, Il Cantico delle creature di Francesco di Assisi, 420). ↑
- Clare of Assisi also knew this well: for her, looking into the mirror of the cross meant contemplating the “beauty of him who is admired by the sun and the moon” (1LAg 16) and also by “all the blessed hosts of heaven” (4LAg 10). And consequently, the contemplation of beauty becomes in Clare a principle of assimilation: to resemble Christ was to become beautiful. It is because of this different use of the metaphor that she differs from Francis, for in him beauty does not become an ideal to be conformed to, he never exhorts his brothers to “become beautiful”, a category that perhaps in the mouth of a medieval man clashed somewhat. For Clare, on the other hand, this is central in the proposal made to Agnes: “the Saint of Assisi, in speaking to the noble Agnes, easily assumes the ideal images dreamt of by every medieval woman of high lineage: a good marriage and the care of one’s own beauty. The choice to belong integrally to Christ did not deny the feminine, indeed it realised it in full” (P. Maranesi, Il mercante e la sposa. Il linguaggio delle metfore in Francesco e Chiara d’Assisi, Sguardi, EDB, Bologna 2014, 66). ↑