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Italy Roundtable: Sliding Doors, What-ifs, and the Cross of San Damiano

This is the third installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some Cracker Jacks, and join in on the conversation.

My Favorite Work of Art in Italy

If I were to name my favorite work of art in Umbria purely on merit of aesthetic beauty, technical skill, or creative mastery, I would be hard-pressed. From Etruscan stonework dating two hundred years before Christ to the twentieth century avant-garde artist Alberto Burri—this region has been producing breathtaking art for millenia.

Now, if I were to name my favorite piece of art in Umbria purely in its ability to inspire my imagination, give flight to my fancy, move and amuse me, and make me want to sit my butt down in front of the computer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July when everyone else is out swimming in the creek to share it with you, there is one piece of artwork that immediately comes to mind.

Surprise! Betcha didn't see this coming.

I like to imagine that there are tens, hundreds, thousands of parallel universes out there, populated with the anti-versions of myself. Every time I find myself at a crossroads in life where I have had to make a choice about which path to take, I like to think that a separate reality splinters off and continues on a different trajectory, spinning out a version of what my life would have been like had I taken that other, rejected road. Each time I’ve been courageous or cowardly, kind or cruel, thoughtful or hasty, a new world has spun away, carrying on it a slightly altered cast of characters and plot line. I step off the walkway, tread on a butterfly, and set off unpredictable chain reactions.

These alternate realities present a fun-house mirror of my world and myself, just distorted enough to be new but just similar enough to be recognizable. And when I’m in line at the post office, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or up in the wee hours of the morning wandering the dark rooms of my house, I like to wonder about these anti-Rebeccas in these parallel universes, and conjecture about their lives there.

In the beginning of the 13th century, young Francesco Bernardone–son of a wealthy merchant in Assisi—decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. He took to praying in the semi-abandoned country churches around his hometown, and in 1206 knelt before an unremarkeable Romanesque rood cross in the small, humble chapel of San Damiano outside Assisi’s city walls. This icon crucifix, with its 12th century cartoonish Byzantine-style decoration based on the Gospel of Saint John (probably painted by an anonymous Syrian monk), would surely have faded into obscurity had not an extraordinary event taken place. Or, I should say, two extraordinary events:

  1. The cross spoke to Francis.
  2. Francis listened.

A copy now hangs in the church of San Damiano; the original is in the Basilica of Saint Claire

Tradition holds that Francis heard the cross say to him, “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin,” three times. Francis did just that…first interpreting the message as a call to restore the neglected San Damiano and Porziuncola chapels and later taking it to mean a tweaking of the Roman Catholic Church itself. In this vein, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and—many hold—became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, respect for animals and the environment. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco.

But it could have gone differently.

Francis could have never heard the voice, or never listened. He could have heeded the message, but become demoralized and given up.  He could have stuck to restoring churches (perhaps becoming the patron saint of general contractors) and never founded an Order. He could have continued ministering to the poor and sick and died in obscurity, as so many devout did over the centuries, or simply joined one of the many rich and corrupt orders already thriving in medieval Italy. Catholicism would be fundamentally different (as would many other religions, as Francis–with his spirit of humility and fraternity–is a figure almost universally admired), Italy would be fundamentally different, Assisi would be fundamentally different, and my life (and most likely yours, my friend) would probably be fundamentally different. All this the legacy of one young man and the choices made in one moment of his life.

This is why I—a proud Secular Humanist and largely Non-Lover of Byzantine Art—have always been drawn to San Damiano’s cross which, were it to have a less compelling backstory, wouldn’t draw a second glance. Because when I look at it (it now hangs in the the Cappella del Crocifisso in the Basilica di Santa Chiara here in Assisi), more than making me pause to reflect on beauty, or skill, or genius, I find myself pausing to reflect on choices and consequences, on caution and risk, on sliding doors and what-ifs.

And when I do, I say a little secular prayer to Il Poverello:

Francis, may I have the courage to listen to voices speaking, to walk through doors opening, to take paths beckoning. May I have the wisdom to choose the right voices, the right doors, and the right paths. May I have the serenity to one day stand on this spinning Earth, look at all those countless other planets hurtling past with all those countless anti-Rebeccas standing on them and know that of them all, I would choose to be on this crazy planet living the life of this–at times, crazy–Rebecca.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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