"The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity."

- Alberto Giacometti

The “Tau” Cross

Today, followers of Francis, as laity or religious, would wear the tau cross as an exterior sign, a "seal" of their own commitment, a remembrance of the victory of Christ over evil through daily self-sacrificing love. The sign of the Tau has become the sign of hope, a witness of fidelity until the end of our lives.

After his commission at the foot of the San Damiano Cross, Saint Francis chose a more ancient symbol of redemption as his standard: the Tau cross.

In commenting on the scriptures of Israel, the early Christian writers used its Greek translation, the Septuagint, in which the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the tau, was transcribed as a “T” in Greek. Prefigured in the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, then, the stylized Tau cross came to represent the means by which Christ reversed the disobedience of the old Adam and became our Savior as the “New Adam.”

Saint Francis had first encountered this symbol when he was caring for lepers. He and the religious followers of St. Anthony the Hermit, who were working with him, used Christ’s cross—shaped like a Greek “T”—as a protection against the plague and other skin diseases. Saint Francis eventually accepted and adapted the “T” as his own crest and signature. For him, the “T” represented life-long fidelity to the Passion of Christ. It was his pledge to serve the least, the leper and outcast of his day.

The Tau imagery was intensified when Pope Innocent III opened the Fourth Latern Council (1215) using the exhortation of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (9:4): We are called to reform our lives, to stand in the presence of God as righteous people. God will know us by the sign of the “Tau” marked on our foreheads. This symbolic imagery, used by the same Pope who commissioned Francis’ new community a brief five years earlier, was immediately taken to heart as the friars’ call to reform.

Knowing that the best documents and decrees from “above” go unnoticed until they are translated into good deeds in the streets “below,” Saint Francis stretched out his arms and proclaimed to his friars that their religious habit (tunic) was the Tau cross. Not only did the habit reflect the shape of this cross, but it also wrapped each friar in his life-long commitment to become a walking crucifix, the incarnation of a compassionate God.

Additional Historical Comment

We know from ancient texts that Roman crosses consisted of two pieces. The stipes was the upright piece, fixed in the ground, often permanently. In restless areas and times with constant executions there could have been whole groves of them. The horizontal piece was called the patibulum; it weighed about a hundred pounds or so, and the condemned person was usually forced to carry it to the place of execution. Hence his name, the patibulatus.

After the patibulatus carried the crosspiece of his cross out to the field of execution, he’d be attached to it with ropes or with nails—hence the term crucifixio, from crux, cross, and figo, to affix. Then he’d be hauled up so that the patibulum could be fastened to the stipes. We tend to think of the two pieces being mortised into each other to form the familiar Latin-cross shape ( † ). More probably the Roman army carpenters, with hundreds and thousands of crosses to make, didn’t bother with that kind of fancy joinery. They probably just fixed a peg in the top of the stipes and bored a hole in the patibulum; that would make it easier to assemble the cross in a single motion, and it would make the weight of the crossbeam and the crucified man hold the cross together; it would result in a shape like the Greek letter tau ( T ).[1]

So, in his reverence for the tau cross, Saint Francis may have “understood” more about Christian history than most people suspect.

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