“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.
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