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True Cross
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True Cross

According to Christian tradition, the True Cross is the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. According to medieval legend, the True Cross was built from the Tree of Jesse (father of King David), which became identified with the Tree of Knowledge that had grown in the Garden of Eden. Whether the True Cross still exists is uncertain.

The story of the discovery of the True Cross — which critical historians now believe to be apocryphal — relates that in 325 AD, a search for the site of the crucifixion was launched by Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem and Saint Helena, the aged mother of Constantine I, who had arrived with her entourage in Jerusalem with that very aim. Helena's first tactic was to gather prominent local Jews to disclose the location of the Cross. Even under the customary torture that was used to elicit testimony, they couldn't identify the hiding place of the True Cross. For their obstinacy, Helena had them burned alive. Next a Jew was selected (and given the generic and evocative name "Judas" in the account) and sentenced to be starved to death, unless he would discover the True Cross; the assumption was that any Jew would know where the Jews had hidden the cross three centuries before. Sure enough, after only six days' of starvation, "Judas" identified the site— a temple of Venus that was part of Hadrian's reconfiguarion of Jerusalem after the Jewish Revolt of 70 AD. The temple was demolished, and miraculous occurrences drove the archaeologists to dig below the surface.

The traditional Christian version of the above story is that Empress Helena inquired among local Christians as to the location of the Cross, which information they provided willingly without the use of any torture.

St John Chrysostom wrote of the three crosses which were discovered beneath Golgotha by the Empress Helena.

Which of the three was the True Cross? Ambrose in Milan heard that the titulus inscribed "INRI was still attached. The more widely-reported test for authenticity is described by Constantine's biographer, Michael Grant:

"Here Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem came to Helena's help, by undertaking, with a prayer for God's help, to place a sick woman on each of the three crosses in turn, so that it could then be seen what happened to her on each of the three occasions. When she was placed on the first two crosses, nothing happened. Next, however, she was made to lie on the third cross, whereupon she was healed. That, it was concluded, must have been the True Cross on which Jesus met his death."

It is remarkable that Eusebius of Caesarea in his life of Constantine, describing the work of excavating and building on the site of the Holy Sepulchre, does not mention the True Cross. The earliest reference to it is in the Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem written in the year 348.

Upon Helena's return to Constantinople, the True Cross was kept in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In the 380s a nun named Egeria who was travelling on pilgrimage described the veneration of the True Cross at Jerusalem in a long letter, the Itinerario Egeriae that she sent back to her community of women:

"Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring..."

In 614 the Sassanian Khosrau II of Persia removed it as a trophy, when he captured Jerusalem. Thirteen years later, in 628, the Emperor of the East Heraclius defeated Khosrau ("Chosroes") and retook the relic, which he at first placed in Constantinople and later, took back to Jerusalem. Around 1009, Christians in Jerusalem hid the cross and it remained hidden until it was rediscovered, in 1099, at a moment when it was sorely needed, during the First Crusade.

In Constantinople the three Holy Nails from the Cross were incorporated in the Emperor's statue and in the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse. Other fragments were further broken up, and the pieces were widely distributed; in 348, in his Catacheses, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the "whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ." A generation later, perhaps ca 380, the travelling nun Egeria, in her Itinerarium of the Holy Land testifies how highly these relics of the crucifixion were prized. St. John Chrysostom relates that fragments of the True Cross were kept in golden reliquaries, "which men reverently wear upon their persons." About 455 Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, sent to Pope Leo I a fragment of the "precious wood", according to the Letters of Saint Leo. A portion of the cross was taken to Rome in the seventh century by Pope Sergius I, who was of Byzantine origin.

During this period the remainder of the True Cross remained in Jerusalem from where it was seized by Arnulf Malecorne, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, after the First Crusade. The True Cross then became the most sacred relic of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. A piece of the True Cross was the most important relic carried by the later Crusaders. It remained housed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under the protection of the Latin Patriarch, who marched with it ahead of the army before every battle. It was captured by Saladin during the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and subsequently disappeared.

By the end of the Middle Ages so many churches claimed to possess a piece of the True Cross, that Erasmus famously said to have remarked that there was enough wood in them to build a ship. Santo Toribio de Liébana in Spain holds the biggest of these pieces and is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites. It is likely that many of the extant pieces of the True Cross are fakes, created by travelling merchants in the Middle Ages, during which period a thriving trade in manufactured relics existed.

In 1870, Rohault de Fleury in his "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion" (Paris, 1870) made a study of the relics in reference to Erasmus's criticism. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four metres in height, with transverse branch of two metres, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilograms, we find the volume of the cross was 178,000,000 cubic millimetres. The total known volume of the True Cross, according to his catalogue amounts to approximately 4,000,000 cubic millimetres, allowing the missing part to be as big as we will, the lost parts or the parts the existence of which has been overlooked, we still find ourselves far short of 178,000,000 cubic millimetres, which should make up the True Cross. It is unclear if any modern scientific study of the extant relics has been conducted to determine if they are from a single species of tree.

A feast day commemorating St. Helena's "Invention of the True Cross" is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on May 3. (See also Roodmas) The same event is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox Church as the "Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross" on September 15, and is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year.

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See also: Battle of Hattin, Relic, Christian cross, Ile de la Cité, Jesus Christ