In Holy Week, our eyes are upon the Cross of Jesus and this is an opportune time to reflect on the origins and spirituality of the best-known painted cross. The 13th-century chronicler Jacques de Vitry called the followers of Brother Francis “the order of the true poor men of the Crucified”  and their story begins with a Syrian painted crucifix.
Pope Francis recently made his pastoral trip to the Middle East, a region of tragic human displacement due to conflict. In Fratelli Tutti he notices how immigrants are often seen as “usurpers who have nothing to offer” but Christians should welcome them with love. Many centuries ago, fleeing persecution, Syrian immigrants evangelised Umbria and shared their love of the Cross, and they laid the groundwork for the way of life of the most popular Catholic saint, whose spirituality is now adopted by our Holy Father.
Saint Francis once journeyed in the Middle East seeking dialogue, but centuries earlier a religious mission from east to west laid some foundations for his own spirituality. From the 5th century, hundreds of Syrian hermits fled their homeland due to persecutions over Christological controversies. Using Mediterranean silk-trading routes, many settled in caves on Monte Luco facing the city of Spoleto, a day’s walk south of Assisi, and it became a holy settlement similar to Mount Athos.
The Syrians had a long-term influence on spirituality in Umbria. One hermit, Saint Isaac of Spoleto (d. AD 550) is spoken of admiringly in Saint Gregory the Great’s Dialogues: the Syrian hermit became Spoleto’s bishop and was known for his holiness.
For centuries, the hermits practiced in Umbria their distinctive Syrian desert spirituality centred on devotion to the Cross. “With great reverence and deep lowliness the ancient Fathers stood up and made many prostrations, kissing the cross five or ten times; some of them lay prostrated before the cross for many hours.”
Young Francis was well aware of the local hermit traditions. He was awakened to the spirituality of the Cross as he knelt before a painted crucifix in the small church of San Damiano below the city walls of Assisi. It was certainly painted in Spoleto and recent research suggests it dates from the first half of the 11th century.
The Giotto fresco in the Basilica San Francesco, depicting Saint Francis adoring the San Damiano cross, shows us a spiritual awakening on several levels. On the biographical level, we see Francis awakened to the Crucified, who tells him, “Francis, my house is falling into ruin. Go and rebuild it for me.” Then, on the level of a Catholic spiritual renewal beginning from this moment, we see an awakening of western art (of which this Giotto fresco is itself an early example) and the cross will now play a more central role in both liturgy and individual piety. Finally, this fresco can be understood as symbolising the Syrian tradition being handed from east to west: a spiritual awakening through devotion to the Cross.
The spirituality and the art of the refugees proclaim a Christology we recognise: that Christ is both human and divine. The San Damiano icon of the Cross expresses his dual nature: the vulnerable crucified human figure is at the same time triumphant as God. He seems to be holding up the Cross rather than suspended from it. It is a visual refutation of the monophysite doctrine that the Syrian exiles rejected, that Christ has only a divine nature.
When Jacques de Vitry called the followers of Francis “the true poor men of the Crucified,” he failed to notice that the real champion of Franciscan poverty was actually Saint Clare, to whom we turn next.
In the same church of San Damiano where Francis heard Christ’s call to rebuild the Church, the Poor Ladies began their enclosed contemplative life. Their dormitory was above the chapel with the painted cross. In the photograph, we see San Damiano before its redecoration in the last century, but only a smaller copy of the icon of the cross hangs there. The original is now in the Basilica Santa Chiara, up the hill within the city walls of Assisi.
In her writings, Saint Clare shows how she contemplates this cross, just as Francis had done, and then she shares something remarkable with us. She tells us to gaze into it as into a ‘mirror’. This is the metaphor she uses for the image of the Crucified. She explains the workings of the transforming relationship of the soul with him:
Look into this mirror every day,
O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ,
And continually examine your face in it,
So that in this way you may adorn yourself completely,
Inwardly and outwardly,
Clothed and covered in multicoloured apparel,
Adorned in the same manner with flowers and garments
Made of all the virtues as is proper,
Dearest daughter and spouse of the most high King.
Moreover, in this mirror shine blessed poverty,
holy humility, and charity beyond words,
as you will be able, with God’s grace,
to contemplate throughout the entire mirror.
In Clare’s letters to Agnes of Prague, she makes an implicit reference to Saint Paul’s mirror imagery in Corinthians, where he writes: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18) When Clare refers to the Crucified as ‘the Mirror’ we must remember that her gaze is upon the image of the San Damiano cross every day. The cross is the focus of the spiritual life of her community. The ‘Poor Ladies’ of Assisi who had renounced the world now have only one mirror, and it is that same painting of the Crucified that had earlier spoken to Francis.
Saint Clare was unique in her time for applying the metaphor of the mirror directly to the figure of Christ. She was a considerable intellectual force and had been educated in a noble family, beyond the learning of her spiritual father Francis, who was from the merchant class and made clear his aversion to books: even discouraging one brother from possessing a breviary! In contrast, Clare was familiar with contemporary thought and we know she was very attentive to homilies given by visiting friars who had studied at the new universities at Paris, Oxford, and Cologne. Her mirror metaphor is certainly an indication of thought informed by philosophical ideas and she was well-versed in Latin, in which she wrote her correspondence.
The formal knowledge that Clare gained was only useful if it might confirm what she had learned from prayer. In other words, hers was a monastic rather than a scholastic theology, and Saint Gregory’s assertion that “Love itself is knowledge” would be familiar to her. There was also, at least in the early days, some Benedictine pastoral oversight of the sisters’ life at San Damiano, before Clare established her own spiritual path, which was focused on the poverty of the cross.
As with Francis, we can trace a direct line—through the painted cross—to the influence of those Syrian hermits and the spirituality they brought with them from the desert tradition. Clare’s extraordinary visual emphasis on the cross can be seen in her language when she urges her correspondent, Agnes of Prague, to place herself in front of the Crucified (the ‘Mirror’). Textual analysis reveals a range of verbs concerned with looking: gaze, reflect, contemplate, ‘turn your mind’, consider, contemplate, look, see, etc. What Clare is doing here is not new, for it has been taught in these Umbrian hills for centuries and it had its origin in the east. Syrian desert spirituality taught that when we gaze upon the cross, the recollection of our Lord’s entire economy of salvation is brought together and is placed in front of our interior spiritual eyes.
Most Catholics are familiar with the story of the Crucified who spoke to Francis, and there is occasionally a passing reference to the San Damiano cross having been “painted by Syrians who were known to be in the region,” but few scholars have explored the important role that the Syrian hermits played in this area for hundreds of years.
In 1209 Francis and his first brothers from Assisi met with Pope Innocent III in the Lateran in Rome, who approved their first Rule. Then they walked back to Assisi, and on the way they discussed their way of life. What kind of religious life should they follow? The route they took is now a way-marked pilgrimage trail that you can walk from Rome to Assisi, and if you do this while reading the first biographer of Saint Francis you will discover something very interesting in the landscape. “As they entered the Spoleto Valley,” wrote Thomas of Celano, “the question arose, whether they should live among people or go off to solitary places.” In other words, it seemed they were discussing the question, “Should we be preachers or hermits?”
What prompted them to ask this question at this particular place, as they came into the Spoleto Valley? If you stand there with Celano’s book in your hand and look up, you will see it was a natural question to ask at that time. When they looked up, walking north on the Via Flaminia from Rome, in the Spoleto Valley, they saw Monte Luco above them. In those days it was still filled with hermits of the Syrian tradition and the painting workshops of Spoleto, just another half an hour’s walk from where they stood, produced icons of the Cross like the one in San Damiano.
The header photo of this article is the view looking down from one of the Syrian hermit caves of Monte Luco. In the valley is the straight Roman road of the Via Flaminia, where Francis and his companions considered their question, and Spoleto is seen on the right. Did any Syrian hermits spy the motley crew passing by on the road in the valley? Little could they know that the successors of those ragged barefooted men would carry the image of the San Damiano cross to the far corners of the world. Today the Syrian hermits have all gone but the mountain is still regarded as a holy place, with a Franciscan hermitage that is a house of formation for friars.
I began these Holy Week reflections on the San Damiano cross with the Holy Father’s comments in Fratelli Tutti about immigrants; and far from “usurpers who have nothing to offer,” we have seen how the Syrians who settled in Umbria contributed a rich seam of spirituality. Even our present Pope owes something to these refugees, who provided a key foundation for Franciscan spirituality.
In our time, the civil war in Syria has now dragged on for exactly ten years and displaced twelve million people, of whom more than half are children. We should pray for the people of all faiths in that country, but particularly for the dwindling persecuted minority of Christians who remain there. Saint Francis, who was inspired by a Syrian cross in the little church of San Damiano, taught us this prayer to use while contemplating the Crucified:
Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me right faith, sure hope, and perfect charity. Fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfil your command. Amen.
Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Gareth Thomas, where this article originally appeared.
 Jacques de Vitry, Historia Occidentalis II, ed. Franciscus Moschus (Douai: ex Officina Typografica B. Belleri, 1597) 32.
 Conrad Leyser, Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great. (Oxford University Press, 2000.)
 Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Chapter 14: concerning Saint Isaac of Spoleto. (Not to be confused with ‘Isaac the Syrian.’) http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gregory_03_dialogues_book3.htm#C14
 Edith Van den Goorbergh and Theodore Zweerman, Light Shining Through a Veil: On Saint Clare’s Letters to Saint Agnes of Prague, (Leuven: Peeters, 2000)
 Franciscan (OFM) sanctuary Monte Luco https://www.assisiofm.it/san-francesco-monteluco-65-1.html