“Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the World.”
Relics of Our Lord’s Passion have always been dear to his followers. The True Cross, the actual wood on which Jesus was crucified, has attracted special veneration since the reign of the Emperor Constantine. After he legalized Christianity in 313, his devout mother St. Helena travelled to the Holy Land visiting Biblical sites and building churches. In 326, she found what was thought to be the original Cross in Jerusalem, the source of all world’s wooden relics. It was deeply buried under a temple of Venus/Aphrodite that the pagan Emperor Hadrian had built over Golgotha two centuries earlier after the second Jewish Revolt. To honor the location, in 333 Constantine finished the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a structure that encompassed both the Rock of Calvary and the Tomb from which Jesus rose.
There is no surviving eyewitness record of St. Helena’s excavation. Church historian Eusebius says only that Constantine directed the bishop of Jerusalem to search for the Cross and that St. Helena visited there in 326. The earliest references to the Empress’ role come from the last decade of the fourth century: the Historia Ecclesiastica of Gelasius of Caesarea and St. Ambrose’s funeral oration for the Emperor Theodosius I in 395.
But St. Helena brought some of her discoveries back to her palace in Rome. Part of this imperial complex became the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, one of the seven ancient stational churches of the city. It still holds a wooden placard claimed be the titulus once nailed over the crucified Savior’s head.
Within a few years of St. Helena’s return, there are mentions of True Cross relics spreading throughout the Empire. The Catecheses written by Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem before 350 declared “already the whole world is filled with fragments of the wood of the Cross.” A woman named Egeria who made a pilgrimage to made a pilgrimage from Spain to the Near East (382-84) describes solemn rituals in Jerusalem honoring the Sacred Wood on Good Friday and on the anniversary of its finding, May 3rd.
As they spread across Christendom True Cross relics inspired creativity. When the Byzantine emperor sent St. Radegund one for her convent in Poitiers in 569, her chaplain St. Venantius Fortunatus wrote two great hymns, “Vexilla regis prodeunt” and “Pange, lingua, gloriosi Lauream certaminis” that are still sung at Good Friday liturgies today. (The former was also the marching song of medieval crusaders.) Such gifts delighted pious rulers. King Alfred the Great received a True Cross relic from Pope Marinus in 884. This may have prompted an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet to write “The Dream of the Rood,” a marvelous re-imagining of Christ’s Passion in the heroic language of the North.
True Cross relics then needed reliquaries worthy of their uniqueness. One glorious example is the Stavelot Triptych, made in the Meuse Valley around 1150 and now a treasured possession of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. It displays a cross-shaped piece of the Holy Wood within golden panels decorated with gems, silver, and exquisite enameled medallions narrating the conversion of Constantine and St. Helena’s discovery. Constantine—considered a saint in Byzantium—and St. Helen also stand beneath the relic itself like the usual figures of Mary and St. John in Crucifixion scenes. The Cross was and remains St. Helen’s emblem in religious art, both East and West.
Legends rich in symbolism grew up around St. Helen’s find. There is an overstuffed and muddled version from The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (1260), the most popular book about saints’ lives and major feast in the Middle Ages. Its principal source is a fifth century apocryphal text called The Acts of Judas Cyriacus. (Some illustrations of the episodes can be found in The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a mid-fifteenth century manuscript held by the Pierpont Morgan Library.)
As Adam lay dying, his virtuous son Seth journeyed back to the gate of Paradise to beg Michael the Archangel for some remedy for his father. Michael gave him a branch from the Tree of Mercy. (Other sources say it was the Tree of Knowledge through which Adam and Eve had sinned.) The angel promised that Adam would be healed on the day that a tree grown this cutting would bear fruit.
But Adam was already dead by the time Seth returned home, so he planted the marvelous branch on his father’s grave. It grew into a splendid tree that was still flourishing thousands of years later in the reign of King Solomon. (Implied here but explicit elsewhere, Adam was buried under the spot where the Cross of Christ would be raised so that the Redeemer’s blood would soak his bones. This is why traditional iconography places Adam’s skull under the foot of the Cross on Calvary/Golgotha which means “the Place of the Skull.”)
Solomon wanted to use the tree’s wood in building his Temple. But its lumber never proved suitable because the boards shrank or stretched before they could be fitted into place. The frustrated king had the wood thrown across a pond to serve as a bridge. When the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem, she had a vision of the wood’s salvific future and refused to step on it. After she explained that someday a man hanged on this lumber would terminate the kingdom of the Jews, Solomon had the wood buried deep in the earth.
But from this spot, a spring emerged that fed the pool of Bethesda where miraculous healings sometimes occurred whenever an angel stirred the water. Here Jesus healed a paralyzed man and forgave his sins. (Jn 5: 2-18) Shortly afterwards the long-buried wood floated up to the surface of the pool. After being used to fashion the Cross for Jesus’ Crucifixion, it was lost for three centuries.
When Constantine sent St. Helena to Jerusalem to search for the Cross, no one knew where it was except a Jew named Judas. This man claimed to be the grandson of Zacchaeus and the nephew of St. Stephen. But he refused to enlighten the Empress until he had been imprisoned in a dry well without food for seven days.
When Judas finally agreed to point out the site of Golgotha, a sweet fragrance filled the air around it. After St. Helena had Hadrian’s obscuring temple cleared away, Judas himself dug twenty feet down and found three buried crosses. The True Cross was distinguished from the other two because its touch raised a young man from the dead or else after Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem used it to heal a sick noblewoman. Awed by events, Judas hailed Christ as Savior of the world. In baptism, he took the name Cyriacus and succeeded Macarius after the latter died.
At St. Helena’s request, he returned to Golgotha in search of the Nails of the Crucifixion. His prayer drew them up “like gold out of the earth.” She put two of the four Holy Nails into a bridle for Constantine’s war horse, imbedded another in a statue of the Emperor at Rome, and threw the last into the Adriatic Sea to calm its waters. Other legends claim the Nails went into Constantine’s horse bit and helmet. The fourth was supposedly incorporated into the Iron Crown of Lombardy once used to make Holy Roman Emperors kings of Italy but the alleged iron band is actually silver.
Bishop Cyriacus—the “anti-Judas”—was later martyred under Constantin’s successor Julian the Apostate who vainly tied to reverse the triumph of Christianity.
How do pious fantasies about the True Cross fit into history?
Crucifixion was the ghastliest Roman punishment for criminals until Constantine banned the practice. Contrary to traditional imagery, the condemned man carried only the crossbeam (patibulum), not the entire structure because the upright post already stood at the place of execution. He usually carried a placard (titulus) hung around his neck that stated his crime and would be fastened atop his cross. The naked victim was nailed through the wrists, not the hands. The feet were nailed individually, not overlapped. A supporting peg (sedile) ran between the legs. If needed, ropes around the body added further security.
The earliest surviving picture relating to Christ is an ugly graffito of a crucified man with the head of a jackass drawn on the wall of a military barracks in Rome almost a century before St. Helena’s excavation. An ivory plaque in the British Museum carved around 420 is the oldest known Christian image of the Crucifixion. It shows Jesus clad in a loincloth, nailed through his hands, and standing on a platform (suppedaneum). But this devotional object cannot be taken as an accurate representation of the event.
Although Our Lord’s body was to be laid in a new tomb, he did not die upon a freshly made Cross. Others had suffered on that wood before him and after him. Executions could not be carried out within the city so they ceased on Calvary after Jewish King Herod Agrippa I extended Jerusalem’s walls beyond it in the years 41-42. A homily written by St. John Chrysostom in 398 suggests that local Christians saw what happened to the discarded crosses and later hid them. The Quest for the True Cross by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona (2000) argues that Christians preserved the memory of where the Holy Wood had been buried despite persecutions and the two Jewish Revolts. Therefore, what St. Helena found in 326 could have been the actual Wood of Christ’s Cross. Regardless of this theory’s merits, Christians then and since believed that the relics were authentic.
History, however, does record the fate of the crossbeam portion that was revered in Jerusalem. In 614, it was carried away during a Persian invasion of the Holy Land. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius won it back after defeating the Persian king Chosroes II in 627. After keeping it in Constantinople for two years, he returned the precious Wood to Jerusalem, carrying it himself in penitential garb. This event is still commemorated by the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September.
But between the looting and restoration of the Cross to Jerusalem, Muhammed made his Hegira, thus opening the Muslim era in 622. Exhausting warfare between Byzantium and Persia left the Near East vulnerable to Muslim conquest a generation later.
Jerusalem’s crossbeam relic was hidden when El Hakim, the mad caliph of Egypt, destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in 1009. It was recovered after the First Crusade reconquered the Holy City in 1099. Afterwards, Crusaders bore this piece of the Cross into battle as a talisman of victory until they lost it forever when Saladin annihilated a Christian army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.
Yet despite all the perils of time, splinters honored as fragments of the True Cross continue to “fill the whole world”. A huge statue of St. Helena holding the Cross stands in a niche at the northwest pier marking St. Peter’s sanctuary in Rome. A relic of the Holy Wood she found seventeen centuries ago is reserved high above her.
Dulce lignum, dulces clavos,
Dulce pondus sustinet.
“Sweet the nails and sweet the wood,
Laden with so sweet a load.”
— Good Friday hymn
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