A Franciscan CrossBy Ken Norian, TSSF
The first recorded reference to the TAU is from Ezekiel 9:4, “Go through the city of Jerusalem and put a TAU on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” The TAU is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and looks very much like the letter “T”.
At the Fourth Lateran Council, on November 11, 1215, Pope Innocent made reference to the TAU and quoted the above verse in reference to the profaning of the Holy Places by the Saracens. It is widely accepted that St. Francis was present at the Fourth Lateran Council and that he heard the words of Pope Innocent III when he said, “The TAU has exactly the same form as the Cross on which our Lord was crucified on Calvary, and only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy who have mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucified Savior. From then on, the TAU became Francis’ own coat of arms.
St. Bonaventure said, “This TAU symbol had all the veneration and all the devotion of the saint: he spoke of it often in order to recommend it, and he traced it on himself before beginning each of his actions.”
Celano, another Franciscan historian writes, “Francis preferred the Tau above all other symbols: he utilized it as his only signature for his letters, and he painted the image of it on the walls of all the places in which he stayed.”
In the famous blessing of Brother Leo, Francis wrote on parchment, “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show His face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace! God bless you Brother Leo!” Francis sketched a head (of Brother Leo) and then drew the TAU over this portrait.
Due, no doubt, in large part to Francis’ own affection for and devotion to the TAU, it has been a well recognized and accepted Franciscan symbol among Franciscans of various denominations and of all orders within those denominations for centuries. It remains so today. The TAU carries with it all of the symbolism of the Cross of Christ as well as Francis’ ideal of life and dream for himself and his followers.
Sources: Englebert, Omer. St. Francis of Assisi. (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1965) Miller, Tamela, SFO. “The Tau: A Franciscan Symbol” Vorreux, Damien. Un Symbole Franciscain: Le Tau. (Paris: Editions Franciscaines, 1977)
La scelta del segno e del suo colore è precisa e meditata. Sul cammino di Santiago è la conchiglia che lo marca, sul cammino di San Francesco il contrassegno non poteva che essere la sua firma; il Tau. Il colore giallo, da Santiago in poi, è riconosciuto dai pellegrini di tutto il mondo come “il colore dei cammini”.
il TAU Le due lingue originali della Bibbia, l'ebraico ed il greco, hanno in comune una lettera dell'alfabeto il Tau. Nell’interpretazione ebraica è l’ultima lettera dell’alfabeto e significa il compimento della Parola rivelata. E’ il segno dei salvati (Ezechiele (9-4) ed è anche l’iniziale della parola Torah, la Legge. La forma del Tau ricorda però la croce di Cristo e qui i simboli si intrecciano. Prima dell’avvento dei numeri arabi si utilizzavano le lettere e il Tau nell’alfabeto greco corrisponde al numero 300, nella Bibbia il numero si ritrova nella storia di Noé (l’arca era lunga 300 cubiti) ma tantissimi altri riferimenti biblici riportano a questo numero. Nel Vangelo 300 erano i denari per cui si poteva vendere il profumo della Maddalena…
Diverse interpretazioni dell’Apocalisse di San Giovanni (7-2,3) lo identificano come il sesto sigillo impresso sulla fronte dei Servi di Dio e nell’interpretazione di Ubertino da Casale e anche di San Bernardino da Siena, l’angelo del sesto sigillo sarebbe lo stesso Francesco… Al tempo di Francesco il Tau era considerato un segno che proteggeva dalla peste e lo si portava addosso come un amuleto. Ma per Francesco, che lo adottò come firma, era la Croce.
Tommaso da Celano nel trattato dei miracoli (II – 828) riferisce: "Familiare gli era la lettera Tau, fra le altre lettere, con la quale soltanto firmava i biglietti e decorava le pareti delle celle. Infatti anche l’uomo di Dio, Pacifico, contemplatore di celesti visioni, scorse con gli occhi della carne sulla fronte del beato padre, una grande lettera Tau, che risplendeva di aureo fulgore." 1727. (Angela Seracchioli)
The TAU CrossThe TAU (19th letter of the Greek Alphabet) has become perhaps the most recognizable symbol in the Franciscan Family but it is worn by many who are not formally linked to Franciscans. Today the TAU cross is very often seen worn around the neck on a thin brown cord with three knots. Visitors to Assisi buy the TAU cross and cord as a memento. The devotion to Francis, the man of peace, has been strengthened by the meetings in Assisi which John Paul II held with religious leaders of every faith.
The early biographies of Francis tell us that he used the TAU very often as an expression of his devotion to the Cross of Jesus.
It was his custom, established by a holy decree also for his first sons, that wherever they saw the likeness of the cross they would give it honor and due reverence. He favoured the sign of the TAU above all others. With it alone he signed letters he sent, and painted it on the walls of cells everywhere. The man of God, Pacifico, seer of heavenly visions, saw with his bodily eyes a great sign of the TAU on the forehead of the blessed father. It was many coloured and flashed with the brightness of gold. (1)The source of Francis’ devotion can be traced to Ezekiel 9:4.
Go through the whole city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the forehead of everyone who is distressed and troubled because of all the disgusting things being done in the city. (2)In early translations of this passage the phrase “put a mark on the forehead” is translated “mark a cross on the foreheads of all”. (3)
Francis adopted the sign of the TAU because the very shape of the letter is the same as that of the Cross, and a reminder to him of his crucified Lord. He honoured and embraced it as representing God’s love for us.
Another connection of Francis with the sign of the TAU is his service to the lepers and the Brothers of St Anthony the Hermit who administered the lazarettos. On their habits was sewn the emblem of the TAU, and this reminded Francis of that special moment in his conversion when he embraced the leper. He chose the shape of the TAU for the habit which is still worn by the Friars.
When Pope Innocent III opened the 4th Lateran Council on November 11, 1215, he made a dramatic call for a crusade of Penance and Conversion. Francis was present at this Council, and obedient to the Pope’s call, he signed himself with the TAU of penance.
Throughout his life the TAU remained Francis’ favourite symbol and it is found carved in caves and chapels where he prayed. Painted in red, it is still visible in the Maddelena Chapel at Fonte Colombo in the Rieti Valley. His devotion to it was a reminder to him and his Friars of their vocation to preach penance and conversion to everyone they encountered on their travels.
- Thomas of Celano, The Treatise on the Miracles of Saint Francis (1250-1252), Francis of Assisi – Early Documents, Volume II, Edited by Regis J Armstrong OFM et al, 1999, New City Press, New York
- Good News Bible – Today’s English Version, The Bible Society in Australia, Canberra, 1971
- The Jerusalem Bible, Standard Version, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1966