Sunday, January 6, 2013

The True Cross

Relic of True Cross at Cortona, near Florence
Yesterday's post told of Empress (later Saint) Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, and her finding of the True Cross. According to the historian Socrates Scholasticus (c.380-??), when she came to the place on which Christ had been crucified, she objected to the presence of a Temple of Venus on the spot and ordered it destroyed, and even the earth on which it stood removed. The following excavation revealed three crosses and a loose titulus (the slab on which had been written Christ's titles, in Greek, Latin and Hebrew).

She gave the Cross to the heads of Jerusalem to preserve. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386) records, in his lectures on the Crucifixion, that a relic of the True Cross can be found in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (completed in 335 CE) as early as the 340s. We learn more about how the Cross is treated from the account of a nun named Egeria; her Itinerario Egeriæ (Itinerary of Egeria) tells how the silver reliquary is brought out and the piece of the Cross is held firmly in the two hands of the bishop; people com forward and bow to kiss he wood while deacons stand guard. The numerous deacon-guards were necessary because someone once bit off a piece of the wood to take away.

Fragments of the Cross were distributed among the worthy. Cyril of Jerusalem as able to say "The whole earth is full of the relics of the cross of Christ." Small fragments in gold reliquaries could be worn as protection. A piece was sent to Pope Leo I (c.391-461), one supposedly to King Alfred the Great of England in 883 (recorded in  the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Fragments were captured in battle and held for ransom, or remained in pagan hands until re-captured.

So many fragments existed, spread across Europe and the Middle East, that John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote:
In some places there are large fragments, as at the Holy Chapel in Paris, at Poitiers, and at Rome, where a good-sized crucifix is said to have been made of it. In brief, if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.
St. Helena also found nails with the Cross. She sent two to her son so that one could be inserted into his helmet and protect him in battle, and one likewise could be inserted into the bridle of his horse for more protection. One (of these?) nails made its way to Theodelinda and thence to the Iron Crown of Lombardy.

Sliver of True Cross, brought to USA in 1634
Debates over the number of nails used at the Crucifixion* (3 or 4?) have gone on for centuries, but are perhaps moot, since besides the Iron Crown o Lombardy, nails from the True Cross can be found in the treasuries of both the Cathedral of Trier and Colle di Val d'Elsa near Siena, built into bridles at both the Cathedral of Carpentras and Milan, in the Holy Lance of German royal regalia in Vienna, and in Santa Croce in Rome. But then, you would need a lot of nails to hold together all that wood mentioned by Calvin.


*There is even a special term, triclavianism, for the belief that only three nails were used.

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