VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - A "miraculous crucifix," which survived a fire in 1519 and halted the great plague of Rome in 1522, has suffered potentially irreparable damage after being exposed to pouring rain for over two hours during Pope Francis' special Urbi et Orbi blessing in St. Peter's Square on Friday.
The wood on the sculpture tumefied and "exploded" as the rainwater penetrated the priceless work of art. The stuccos in various places used to plaster-coat the body of Jesus were severely eroded and much of the ancient light paint was wiped off the wood.
The tempera pigments used by the artist to paint the blood flowing from the side of Jesus was also undone. Ripples have formed on the wooden surface on the hair and details on the arms are ruined.
The artifact, from the 14th century Sienese School, is housed at the Church of San Marcello al Corso, where it escaped destruction when a fire destroyed the church on May 22, 1519. This miracle gave birth to a prayer group called "Company of the Holy Crucifix."
The crucifix is also credited with protecting the city during the Great Plague when it was taken in procession through the streets of Rome for 16 days from Aug. 4 to 20, 1522, bringing an end to the epidemic.
The authorities, fearing contagion, tried to prevent the religious procession, but the people ignored the prohibition. Since then, the Maundy Thursday procession with the "miraculous crucifix" from San Marcello's Church to St. Peter's Basilica continued for centuries.
According to Italian newspaper Il Messagero, it could take a miracle to save the cross, which has been rushed to the Vatican's laboratories to evaluate the damage so experts can begin the task of restoration and reconstruction.
The work of art is owned by the Italian government, and the Church of San Marcello al Corso is under the jurisdiction of the Religious Buildings Fund (Fondo edifici di culto) which oversees around 840 churches of historical and artistic interest throughout Italy as well as archeological sites and museums.
Questions are being asked as to why the crucifix was not placed elsewhere, or sheltered from the rain under the large papal canopy, as was the Marian icon of Salus Populi Romani (Mary Protection of the Roman People), which was protected inside an ultra-high-tech plexiglass watertight case with thermo-hygrometric sensors to maintain a stable internal microclimate.
Fingers are being pointed at the Msgr. Guido Marini, Master of the Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, who decided to abandon the cross to the inclement weather in order to leave the dramatic choreography intact.
The Soprintendenza for Cultural Heritage is also being held responsible, as it is supposed to have provided the authorizations for the transport of the crucifix.
Referring to the preservation of sacred art, including the crucifix of the baroque Church of the Holy Crucifix in Milazzo, Sicily, researchers Mauro Cannistraro and Roberta Restivo write:
The correct storage and protection of works of sacred art requires the guarantee of the optimal conditions of some parameters affecting the indoor microclimate of the place in which they are located. The temperature and humidity are two of the most important parameters of the indoor microclimate. To avoid critical issues of the preservation process, these parameters must be kept constant during the day at each point of the place.
They note the danger of "organic materials capable of absorbing water — such as wood, ivory, leather, [and] paper increasing when relative humidity increases and shrinking when it decreases, with consequent variations in weight, deformations, fiber breaks, cracks and fissures."
"Rain has a devastating effect on wood, especially if it is old. It quickly penetrates the wood through its porosity and damages it," observes art commentator Emiliano Salvatore, adding: "In fact, the rain dilates the lignin, graying the wood. The water that infiltrates and penetrates the wood, turning into steam due to the effect of the wood, causes the paint to peel. Humidity creates the ideal habitat for the bacteriological attack by xylophagous insects, mold and fungi."
In 1600, the miraculous cross was taken to St. Peter's Basilica for the jubilee called for by Pope Innocent X. During the Lent of the Great Jubilee of 2000, the crucifix was put on exposition on the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter's Basilica. Pope St. John Paul II celebrated the "Day of Pardon" before the cross.
On March 15, Pope Francis walked to the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray before the icon of Salus Populi Romani for the cessation of the Wuhan virus epidemic. From the basilica, the pope walked about half a mile to the Church of San Marcello al Corso to pray before the miraculous crucifix.
The Byzantine icon of Salus Populi Romani was also processed through Rome by Pope Gregory I in 593 for an end to the plague known as the Black Death.