Because of its history as a symbol to St. Francis, Franciscan faithful cherish the San Damiano cross as the symbol of their mission from God. It represents God's personal invitation to all Franciscans to commit their lives and resources in renewing and rebuilding His church.
The significance of the cross comes from an event that became a turning point in St. Francis' life. During a contemplative walk Francis was passing by the crumbling San Damiano church near Assisi, Italy when he felt compelled to enter and pray. St. Francis entered the church and knelt before a painted wooden cross hanging above the altar. As St. Francis prayed, he was startled to hear a voice telling him to "go and rebuild My house." At first he was frightened but then realized that this was God's personal invitation to him to change his life by living an existence of poverty and service.
The cross is called an icon cross because it contains images of people who have a part in the meaning of the cross. The purpose of an icon cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people. The San Damiano Cross was one of a number of crosses painted with similar figures during the 12th century in Umbria. The name of the painter is unknown. On the cross, John's Gospel story of Christ's death is painted on walnut wood using a variety of characters and symbols.
Some years later St. Clare and the Poor Clare Sisters, followers of St. Francis, used San Damiano as their monastery. St. Clare meditated before this same cross for 41 years. When the Sisters moved to the city of Assisi they took the cross with them. The original San Damiano cross now hangs in the Basilica of St. Clare.