In the early years of thirteenth-century Italy, Francis Bernardone, then still a young penitent, was walking alone in the valley below his former hilltop home of Assisi when he happened upon the ruins of an old country church. As this future Saint Francis of Assisi stood in front of the collapsed building, an internal voice told him to go inside and pray. Obediently, he entered what was left of the building and cleared away enough rubble so he could approach the sanctuary’s ancient altar. Above this broken-down altar hung the intact crucifix that is now known and revered throughout all of Christendom as the San Damiano Cross.
As young Francis knelt down and began his prayers, he happened to gaze up upon the face of the Lord painted upon the cross, and as he did, he saw the suffering Jesus’s lips begin to move. The Lord then spoke the words that would guide the saint’s every ounce of being for the remainder of his earthly life: “Francis, go repair My House, which as you see is falling into ruin.” The obedient Saint Francis would, of course, not only go on to repair the actual physical building in which he had found himself but would also go on to institute an order of brothers and sisters, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares. A copy of the San Damiano Cross hangs above the altar in the present-day Church of Saint Damiano, the very same church that Francis and his early followers rebuilt stone by stone with their own hands. The original crucifix can be seen in the Church of Santa Chiarra (Saint Clare) just up the hill in the town of Assisi.
The San Damiano Cross is classified by scholars who study such things as an icon cross. By this they mean that the images and messages that the crucifix’s artist intended to convey to his viewers are illustrated on the flat surface of the cross as if it was a painter’s canvas. The San Damiano Cross has a little bit of everything with regards to its iconography. First, of course, it has the image of the crucified Christ, triumphant, his eyes open, and with no crown of thorns upon his head. Legend says that originally, Jesus’s eyes were closed, but upon hearing Saint Francis’s voice, he opened his eyes in order to behold this sweet and devoted man. The icon also has images of the five major witnesses to the crucifixion (Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Saint John, the apostle whom Jesus loved; Mary, mother of James; and the Roman centurion), several minor witnesses, a welcoming committee consisting of a chorus of heavenly angels, the six patron saints of Umbria, and at the very top, a representation of the right hand of God the Father. As well, the iconography of the cross contains two animal representations. Near Jesus’s left thigh, there is painted a small rooster; on the lower right side of the shaft there is a small and very difficult to see (at least for my eyes) cat.
In most world mythology the rooster always acts as a harbinger of danger, that is, he warns us that something dreadfully wrong is about to happen. This was probably the intention of the artist of the San Damiano Cross in placing the little bird on the crucifix right next to Jesus. Just like he did on that dark night in Jerusalem after the terrified Saint Peter denied the Lord three times, this rooster is placed there to remind us of our own potential weaknesses and to help keep us ever vigilant.
The cat’s presence on the crucifix baffles the scholars and most interpretations of the icon don’t even mention the critter. The best possible answer they can come up with is that the cat, just like the devil, is forever lurking in the background, always ready to pounce upon the unaware soul. With my apologies to these great men and women of letters, I think this is academic lunacy at its most slothful. My personal feeling is a little more realistic, and people who know and love cats will likely agree with me on my theory: I believe that just as the sweet breath of the cows in the stable in Bethlehem helped to warm the infant Jesus on that freezing cold Christmas evening of His birth, so did the rhythmic purring of this loving and faithful cat cuddled near His feet soothe and bring one final temporal comfort to our suffering Lord on the day of His Passion.