Legend of the True Cross
The True Cross is the name that was given to the remnants of what were believed to be the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The name ‘true’ is used to distinguish it from the many other crosses that are, by many church traditions, alleged to be those of the true cross of Jesus Christ……
What is this legend?
The True Cross is the name that was given to the remnants of what were believed to be the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The name ‘true’ is used to distinguish it from the many other crosses that are, by many church traditions, alleged to be those of the true cross of Jesus Christ.
The legend has been widely disputed and the authenticity of the so called facts has been questioned by many historians and religious affiliation. The first elements depicting the legend of the true cross were first heard of at about 300AD. According to writings of Socrates Scolasticus, one of the early writers, concerning the discovery of the true cross, he says that it was Empress Helena (c.250–c.330 AD), the mother of Constantine the Emperor of Rome, who discovered the place where these three crosses were hidden. These three crosses were thought to have been the ones used at the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves – Dismas and Gestas. The identity of the actual cross of Jesus, he adds, was revealed to the empress through a miracle which was performed to ascertain which of the crosses the actual cross of Jesus was. These three crosses she stumbled on on her mission of founding churches just after Christianity was legalized throughout the Empire in about 312 AD (Baert 2004).
Baert, Barbara. A Heritage Of Holy Wood: The Legend Of The True Cross In Text And
Image. (New York: BRILL, 2004)
Socrates Scolasticus’ writing is somehow contradicted by the writings of Eusebius (also writing during the same period) of Caesarea in his book “The Life of Constantine”. Even though Eusebius does not in anyway mention the discovery of the True Cross, the book describes how Emperor Constantine instructed Saint Macarius, the then Bishop of Jerusalem, in about 325–326AD to build a church on the site of the Holy Sepulchre which was originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem. The site had been covered with earth there was also a temple of Venus built on top. The construction of the church could have also been part of Hadrian’s reconstruction of Jerusalem in 135AD following the destruction that resulted during the Jewish Revolt of 70AD.
Paoletti ; Gary Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. (Carolina: Laurence King Publishing, 2005)
By mid 13th century, the legend of the True Cross and its pre-Christian origin was well established in Latin-speaking traditions of Western Europe. It was however recorded in the early second half of the 13th century (in 1260 to be specific) by Jacopo de Voragine, Bishop of Genoa, in the Golden Legend. The legend as relayed in the book states that: Adam being on his death-bed, sent, his son, Seth to Michael, the Archangel, to implore him to bring back the Oil of Mercy. This was an attempt save his (Adam) life however Seth only managed to get a few seeds from the Tree of Knowledge and on return finds that Adam is already dead. Seth then places the seeds under his father’s tongue. The seeds grow from here into a large tree. The tree is cut down by order from Solomon in order to build the temple but realizes he can’t use it for that purpose so he places it over river Siloe as a bridge. When the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon, she is prior to the event warned by a divine omen not to tread on the wood because it was sacred. She kneels down on her knees and worships the trunk. When she tells Solomon that it has been revealed to her that the piece of wood from the bridge would bring about the replacement of God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, by a new order, Solomon who becomes frightened by the prophesy and orders the trunk to be buried fearing that the people of Israel would be destroyed. The wood later emerges from the ground and is used by the Jews to crucify Jesus, bringing the prophesized replacement of the covenant with the Jewish people through salvation (Paoletti 2005).
The cross later reappears to Constantine in a sign of cross about 300 years after the death of Christ. This sign appears to him on the eve of the battle of the Danube against Massensius. Constantine, having been strengthened by the dream faces the barbarians at Milvio Bridge under the banner of the cross and emerges victorious stopping the Barbarians from overrunning the whole of the west.
Constantine then converted to Christianity and then sent his mother, Queen Helen, to Jerusalem to find the Holy Cross. Now Judas was the only person who knew where the Cross was hidden but he refused to divulge the information. So he was thrown into a pit without food for seven day. He broke down on the seventh day and divulged the information. He however did not point out the exact true cross refused to speak. The Queen had him thrown into a well without food and after seven days Judas broke his silence and confessed that the True Cross had been buried under a temple dedicated to the Goddess Venus. But he did not say which of the three cross buried belonged to Christ. The True cross was identified when resurrected a dead man and was taken back to Jerusalem in Palestine (Drijvers 1992).
Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the
Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross. (New York: BRILL, 1992.)
Three centuries later in 615 A.D. Cosroe, king of Persia, conquered those territories and gained possession of the cross. He expected to be worshipped as God the Father with the True Cross (to represent Christ) on one side and a cock (to represent the Holy Spirit) on the other. He was defeated in battle and beheaded by Heraclius, who then restored the cross to Jerusalem. While he was going to enter the city, an angel barred his way, reminding him that Christ had entered the city humbly. So he could only enter after taking off his shoes and royal robes.
The standard version of how the True cross was discovered is however recorded by Theodoret (died c. 457) who in his book, Ecclesiastical History (Voelkle, 1980), chapter xvii writes:
“…….When the empress beheld the place where the Savior suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord’s sepulcher. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Savior. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole….”
William Voelkle, The Stavelot Triptych: Mosan Art and the Legend of the True Cross.
(London: The Library, 1980.)
Even though the whole legend is shrouded with a lot of unverifiable facts, it has been established as a fact that that the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was completed about 335AD and the alleged relics of the Cross were being venerated in the church by 340s. This is got from records of a Catecheses of Cyril in Jerusalem.
The True cross frescos of Piero della Francesco.
The frescos – a form of several related painting types which are mostly done on plaster on walls or ceilings – depicting the legend of the True Cross were painted in the Basilica of San Francesco, a late Medieval church found in Arezzo, Tuscany, Italy which was dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, for a period spanning roughly 14 years covering the periods from 1452 to 1466. There was a halt however between 1458 and 1459. Originally the decoration was to be done by Bicci di Lorenzo, an Italian painter and sculptor, who was born in Florence in 1373 and died just after taking on the job of decorating the Basilica. Bicci died in Florence in 1452 having only painted four evangelists, the triumphal arch with the Last Judgement and two Doctors of the Church painted at the chancel. The painting of the chancel began after commissioning from the Aretine family in 1447. Piero della Francesca was called in to complete the work after the death of Bicci. And he did so in two stages and finally completing it in 1466 (Lavin 1980).
The frescoes occupy three levels on the side walls and the eastern wall and surround a large window. The frescoes do not follow the chronological order of the standard theory of the legend of the true cross rather they concentrate on creating symmetrical correspondences between the various scenes. The theme of the fresco cycle is however got from the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine (Podro 1974).
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431-1600 (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
Michael, Podro, Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross. (University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 1974)
The fresco circle has 12 episodes (not in order of appearance) which depict the details of the legend. The first episode shows a dying Adam in one corner with four other people looking on, at the center background there is the tall large tree sprung from the grave of Adam which is surrounded by a number of people. There is also a smaller part showing Seth meeting the Archangel Michael. The damage to the image though extensive, has not veiled the major theme of the image.
Then there is the image of recovery and verification of True Cross showing, on one side, a lady (probably representing St. Helen) and other onlookers seeing as the crosses are being excavated. On the background there is a city separated from the excavation site by a large dump of soil and the city walls, probably suggesting the crosses were discovered outside the city. On the other side of the image shows the lady, Helen and others kneeling as they look on as a city official verifies which of the cross is the true cross by lifting it on a kneeling naked person as others look on. This scene is taken inside the city.
The third image depicts the “Torture of the Hebrew”. It shows a person being lowered into a pit. Two people are working at a pulley that is used to lower him into a pit while the third person is pushing the head of the Jew down. This image is largely intact.
The next image is one titled ‘Transport of the Sacred Wood, Elevation of the Wood’ showing three people struggling to elevate the holy wood. The sheer size of the wood, by both its geometrical assertiveness and domination of the image, makes the three insignificant. The wood is lifted outside any visible city. The background shows a large dump of soil. There is also a pit visible, probably indicating their intent on burying the wood.
The next picture is split into two; the first side shows the Queen of Sheba kneeling down in adoration of the holy wood as her attendants stand looking on. The other part shows the queen in King Solomon’s court. The two are greeting while on both sides they are surrounded by the king’s men and the queen’s attendants on the side of the king and the queen respectively.
The next image is dominated by images of the ‘Battle of Heraclius and Cosroe’. It depicts the clash of the two Heraclius and Persian in a bloody battle. Banners and spears are flying in the air. On a small portion of the whole image is a pictured the king Cosroe kneeling ready to be decapitated by a soldier who is standing in front of a crowd with a dagger in hand.
Then there is an illustration of the annunciation portraying the Angel Gabriel telling Mary the good news. Looking on from high (heaven?) is God with his hands open in a sign of showering his blessings.
There is also another picture representing Emperor Constantine sleeping in his tent. Looking on are two guards standing post over the king and a servant sitting while leaning on his master’s bed. There is also an angel descending on the king.
The next picture represents the victory of Constantine over Maxentius, who were struggling for power over the Roman Empire. The picture shows battle of Milvio Bridge and shows Maxentius forces being chase over the bridge.
Finally there is the image of exaltation of the Cross as it is being returned to Jerusalem. The officials of the city are kneeling down in veneration of the cross just outside the city walls. Leading the procession carrying the cross to the city, the return of the Cross to city is the cross bearer followed by a person in royal purple robe, probably the emperor Heraclius. The final image in the episodes of fresco is those of Prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah (Baert 2004).
Effectiveness of Piero della Francesca portrayal of the legend.
The order of the images of the fresco not withstanding, the overall portrayal of the legend of the True cross by Piero della Francesca is by far true representative of the legend as put down by Jacopo da Varagine in his texts of a book “Legenda Aurea” , dating back to the 13th century after Christ (Stemp 2006).
While the damages to some of the images may deny us the privilege of fully analyzing the themes apparent in some of the badly damaged images, what remains is significant and sufficient to infer that if we don’t consider the order of their mounting and execution, the fresco provide a relatively uniform picture of the legend as well as underscoring some major inferences regarding the perceived enemies of the cross (Voelkle 1980).
Dividing the fresco into pre-Christ and post-Christ periods, there are four images representing the pre-Christ period and seven representing the post-Christ advent of the legend. In both the periods, Piero shows how the cross, then the holy wood, survived numerous attempts at the hands of the enemies, like being buried so that what it envisaged does not happen. The graphical details and symbolism in the frescoes also clearly illuminate other facts about Pieros belief regarding the true cross.
Baert, Barbara. A Heritage Of Holy Wood: The Legend Of The True Cross In Text And Image. (New York: BRILL, 2004)
Stemp, Richard. The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art. (New York: Duncan Baird, 2006).
William Voelkle, The Stavelot Triptych: Mosan Art and the Legend of the True Cross.(London: The Library, 1980.)
The frescos, if taken at face value just represent the chronicle of the cross while if viewed from another perspective it may represent the triumph of Christianity over its perceived enemies at the time. These enemies, Jews and Muslims, are represented in the paintings by Solomon and Judas, and King Cosroe and the Persians (Voelkle 1980)
On the basilica, Piero pairs the Annunciation with the angel visiting Constantine, underscoring a divine providence guiding the times. Pier paints also two black faces and a scorpion, on the banners of the defeated Persian King Cosroes to represent anti-Semites. He also adds another black face on the banner of defeated Maxentius to represent the moors (Muslims by extension). The episode of the tortured Jew, Judas, is also in reference to the Jews who wanted to keep the ‘Cross’ for themselves (Smith 2003).
Smith, Kathryn Ann. Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth-century England: Three
Women and Their Books of Hours. (London: British Library, 2003).
Baert, Barbara. A Heritage Of Holy Wood: The Legend Of The True Cross In Text And
Image. New York: BRILL, 2004.
Paoletti, John & Radke Gary. Art in Renaissance Italy. Carolina: Laurence King
Drijvers, Jan Willem. Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the
Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross. New York: BRILL, 1992.
Podro, Michael. Piero Della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross. University of
Newcastle upon Tyne, 1974.
Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches,
431-1600. University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Smith, Kathryn Ann. Art, Identity and Devotion in Fourteenth-century England: Three
Women and Their Books of Hours. London: British Library, 2003.
Voelkle, William. The Stavelot Triptych: Mosan Art and the Legend of the True Cross.
London: The Library, 1980.
Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.
Stemp, Richard. The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden
Symbolism of Italian Art. New York: Duncan Baird, 2006.