WHATEVER HAPPENED... No 1.
...to the Cross upon which Jesus died?
[This is the first in a
series of articles that will appear in Annals until our Jan/Feb
issue 2001, tracing the history of sacred relics associated with
our Lord's life and death]
By Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD
DATING from the time of the emperor
Constantine's mother, St Helena, who was born in Bithynia in the
North west of Anatolia in modern-day Turkey around 246 AD and died
in 328 AD, is a still-extant pectoral cross in the shape of the now
familiar monogram of Christ [see inset].
It contains a fragment of the True Cross. On its
front the cross carries in a mixture of latin and greek the
inscription EMANOVHL NOBISCUM DEVS [Emmanuel, God with us] and on
the back, in latin, 'Crux est vita mihi; mors, inimice,
tibi' [The cross is life for me; but for you, 0 enemy,
death].1 The enemy was, of course, the devil.
This pectoral cross is a precious witness to the
faith of the newly emancipated Catholic people within the Roman
empire, and to the extraordinary story of the discovery of the
cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
When Constantine defeated Maxentius the
debauched son of the emperor Maximian at the Milvian Bridge over
the Tiber in Rome on September 24, 312 AD, he brought to an end the
persecution of Christians within the Roman empire. These
persecutions had raged virtually from the time of Christ's death,
but officially on and off for 248 years, beginning with Nero's
infamous burning of Rome in 64 AD.
Early the next year [313 AD] the emperors
Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and agreed to recognise the
legal existence of Christianity.
TWO of the most fascinating details in
Emerson's book are the fact that Twain made $250,000 in 1881, but
only $8,500 in 1894. How could anyone earn that much in the 1800s?
It bears comparison only with the profits from Star Wars in our
time. And how in the world did Twain then manage to lose it?
- cf. Everett Emerson, The Authentic Mark Twain, Us Feb 1, 1985
Following on this historic decision [known as
the Edict of Milan] Eusebius, the first Church historian [260-340
AD] notes that the newly victorious emperor Constantine was
determined to honour the holy places in Palestine associated with
our Lord's life and death, and especially to build a Christian
shrine in Jerusalem over the place where Jesus died and was
Helena, Constantine's mother, then in her early
seventies, was sent by the emperor to the Holy Land in 326
AD,3 the year after the Council of Nicaea to recover
what she could of the memorials of Jesus and his apostles.
Hiding the truth
Her task was a difficult one. As St Jerome
[342-420 AD] tells us every attempt was made in the time of the
emperor Hadrian to destroy all trace of the site where Jesus had
been crucified and buried 'as if by profaning the holy places by
idols they might destroy our faith in the resurrection, and in the
cross'.4 The ground had been levelled off around
Golgotha, and temples and statues to Jupiter and Venus had been
erected on the site.
It was two years after the death in 324 of the
avaricious and cruel emperor Licinius, the brother-in-law of
Constantine, whom the latter blamed for the continuance of this
anti-Christian situation, that Helena was entrusted with the
mission to Palestine.
The Emperor's mother arrived at Jerusalem and as
St Paulinus of Nola [353-431 AD] tells us, began an exhaustive
investigation, asking the aid of Christians and Jews.5
With the aid of a local Jew who acted as guide [later on he was
baptised and took the name of Quiriacus]6 the site of
the tomb was discovered,7 and the Roman soldiers who
accompanied her began to demolish the pagan temples built over the
burial spot of Jesus.
They removed the earth that had been used to
cover it, and the three crosses and other objects, including the
title that Pilate had put on the cross of Jesus, the nails and the
spear that had been used to pierce Jesus' heart, were found nearby
in a grotto. The celebrated German Catholic scholar James Gretzer
[1562-1624] notes that it was customary for the Jews to bury the
instruments of death with the corpses of
Certainly, considering the speed with which the
bodies of Jesus and his two companions were removed from their
crosses before the approaching Feast there seems no reason to
doubt, as Cardinal Newman says,9 that after Joseph of
Arimathaea begged Pilate to let him have the body and place it in a
neighbouring tomb, the cross of Jesus and the two thieves, as well
as the corpses of the two thieves, had hastily been thrown into the
ground at the place where they were crucified.
Discovery of the Cross
This is how Eusebius describes the sight that
greeted the onlookers as the tomb of Christ came to light after the
demolition of the stone work, the temple of Venus, and the
earthworks that had been piled up on top of the site:
'And when another level appeared, that is the ground
that lay below the former level, then the majestic and all-holy
memorial of our Saviour's resurrection appeared beyond all doubt.
The cave, a holy of holies, imaged the Saviour's resurrection:
after having been sunk in darkness, it came to light again and for
those who saw it, presented a history of the wonders that had been
done there, witnessing by facts more eloquently than by any voices,
the Resurrection of the Saviour'.10
St John Chrysostom [347-407AD] in his
Homilies on St John (written in 394) agrees that the true
cross was identified by the title that Pilate had fixed to it. St
Ambrose [339-397 AD] writing in 395 says that the inscription by
Pilate was found attached to the cross of Christ.11
Daniel Papebroch, the editor of the entry in the
account of the Acta Sanctorum that contains much of the
relevant material on this subject, considers that Ambrose's
statement 'the inscription: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the
Jews was attached to the upright beam of the cross' was based
on 'conjecture' rather than on 'an ancient text'.12
Inscription lay separate
Certainly, the more common tradition for which
there is documentary evidence, [see St Paulinus of Nola, 353-431
AD, St Sulpicius Severus, 363-420 AD, Theodoret, 391-458 AD,
Rufinus Tyrannius 345-410 AD, Socrates 380-450 AD, and Sozomon who
wrote in 440 AD] is that the wooden board with the title Jesus of
Nazareth, king of the Jews in latin, greek and hebrew was lying
separate from the crosses. As the empress had no way of knowing
which one of the three crosses lying higgledy-piggledy in the
grotto ['tria patibula confusa reperin'] had been the cross upon
which Jesus was crucified, Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem [died 334
AD] decided to take the three to a well-known lady in Jerusalem
lying at the point of death. She was touched by two of the crosses
to no effect, but when the third cross touched her, she stood up,
perfectly healed, thus resolving the dilemma.13
Eusebius, in a well-known passage in his
Commentary on the Psalms, refers to 'the miracles that have
been performed in our times at the Sepulchre and the
Marjorie of our Saviour [another name for the Shrine built
by Constantine over Golgotha also known as Ad Crucem - At
the Cross].14 Cardinal Newman, in his Two Essays
quoted above considers that Eusebius was referring, among other
things, to the miracles associated with the recognition of the
Cyril of Jerusalem
St Cyril [315-386 AD] was about eleven years old
at the time of Helena's visit to Jerusalem. Ordained priest in
Jerusalem, he gave his famous Catechetical Lectures in 347 AD in
the very Church of the Resurrection which had been built by
Constantine following on his mother's discovery of the tomb of
Jesus and the site of Golgotha. In his lectures given in Lent to
the Catechumens to be baptised on Holy Saturday, he mentions the
discovery of the cross though not the circumstances. To anyone who
presumes to deny our Lord's crucifixion he says 'this very place
which all can see refutes you, this blessed Golgotha on which,
because of Him who was crucified on it, we are now gathered'. He
declares that the very wood of the cross is a witness to Jesus:
"The holy wood of the cross which is to be seen amongst us to this
day is His witness. By means of those whose faith has led them to
do so, portions of it have been taken from this place [Golgotha]
and have been taken to the four corners of the
An inscription found at Tixter, near Setif in
Algeria and dated nine years after St Cyril gave his Lenten
lectures  mentions a relic 'de ligno crucis' - 'of the
wood of the Cross'.16 There were tiny fragments of the
True Cross in Cappadocia in the late 370s during the life time of
St Macrina;17 at Antioch in 386/718 and in
Italy and Gaul in 403.19
Was Helena there?
It would be remiss of me not to mention the
reservations that the modern editors of Abbot Butler's Lives of
the Saints have about the role of Helena in the discovery of
the True Cross.20 Without denying the indisputable fact
of the Cross's discovery, they argue that since the first reference
to Helena's involvement is by St Ambrose in 395, 'Helena's share in
the transaction amounted to no more than what we should gather from
Aetheria's statement [in 385] when she speaks of 'the building
which Constantine under his mother's auspices [sub praesentia
matris suae] embellished with gold and mosaics and precious
The difficulty I have with that argument is that
'sub praesentia matris suae' cannot by any stretch of the
imagination mean 'under his mother's auspices'. It means 'in the
presence of his mother'. And if Helena had not been involved it
would have been a simple matter for eyewitnesses to say so. None of
the ancient texts denies Helena' role in the discovery, and in fact
almost all the accounts testify to it.
Silence proves nothing
Some Protestant critics, too, have made much of
the silence concerning Helena's discovery in some contemporary
writings - especially from the fact that Eusebius does not mention
Helena's discovery of the cross when he is writing of the discovery
of the sepulchre and of Golgotha.
Silence in itself proves nothing. Eusebius
[260-340 AD] does not mention St Anthony of Egypt [251- 356 AD], or
Methodius of Tyre [died around 311 AD] who were his contemporaries,
or the first century Roman martyr St Felicity, or St Perpetua [who
died on March 7, 202 AD] yet even the most bigoted commentator
would not dare deny that they existed. Eusebius is silent about
Helena's visit to Jerusalem. Is it at all likely that she would
visit Bethlehem and Mt Olivet and not Jerusalem?
Edward Gibbon21 and countless critics
after him have cynically dismissed the evidence, citing the silence
of the famous Pilgrim of Bourdeaux who visited Jerusalem in 333 AD.
Yet the Pilgrim also is silent about the Church built by St Helena
on Mt Olivet, which, as Cardinal Newman remarks,22 no
right-minded scholar doubts.
What happened to the relics?
One part of the cross placed in a silver
reliquary was entrusted to Bishop Macarius to be carefully
preserved in Jerusalem. Another portion was forwarded to
Constantine. Socrates the Byzantine historian [380-450 AD] states
that the portion sent to the emperor was enclosed in a statue of
himself which was placed on a porphyry column in the Forum of
Constantine in Constantinople, so that the city might be protected
by the presence of so powerful a relic of the Lord
The empress Helena had a sizeable portion of the
true cross brought back to Rome and installed in the Church which
she had built to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius
in 312 AD. Dedicated as Sanctae Crucis in Jerusalem [the
Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem] it was on the site of her
private residence that had previously formed part of an imperial
villa. Commenced by Septimius Severus [died in 211 AD and completed
by Heliogabulus [killed in 222 AD aged 18], this villa contained
also a little amphitheatre and a circus.
Helena's faith and courage
The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is
still to be seen in Rome. Despite modifications made over the
centuries, the majesty of this fourth century shrine built
originally as a memorial to the victory of the Cross over the pagan
forces of Maxentius, and then as a resting place for the relics of
the true cross, stands as a witness to the faith and courage of St
Helena. This extraordinary woman was working as a maid in an inn
[stabularia] in Bithynia when she met and married the future
emperor Constantine Chlorus in 273 AD. At the age of around 65 in
312 AD she was baptised, and owing to her devotion the sites of
Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus were uncovered, and the Cross and
other precious relics re-discovered.
Constructed, as the inscription in the pavement
states, at least partially on a foundation of soil brought back
from Jerusalem by the empress, the Basilica's prized possession are
three pieces of the true cross each measuring about six inches
which over the almost 1700 years since they were brought from
Jerusalem by St Helena, have lain in various reliquaries, the most
recent being a cross shaped one of silver designed and made by
Giuseppe Valadier [1762- 1839].
OF all the causes
which conspire to
blind Man's erring
And misguide the mind;
What the weak head
with strongest bias rules,
the never-failing vice of fools.
-Alexander Pope [1688-1744] Catholic poet,
satirist and polemicist
Captured by the Persians
When the Persian king Chosroes II captured
Jerusalem in 614 AD the relic of the cross in its jewelled case was
taken as a trophy and remained in Persian hands at Ctesiphon [near
the site of present-day Baghdad]. The defeat of Persian forces in
621 AD by the imperial Byzantine army led eventually to the
deposition of Chosroes who was murdered in 628 AD. His successor
restored the wood of the Cross to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.
On the 3rd of May 629 AD Heraclius handed the relic over to the
patriarch Zacharias in the rebuilt Holy Sepulchre. The relic was
still in its case, and the seals were intact. The emperor had
attempted to carry the reliquary on his shoulders, while garbed in
his royal robes. At the foot of Calvary he found himself unable to
continue, and on the urging of Zacharias laid aside his royal
garments and proceeded.
It is sometimes charged, cynically, that the
relics of the True Cross throughout the world if put together would
make many crosses. John Calvin was quoted recently in an
appallingly badly written article in the Sydney Daily
Telegraph, as saying that 'if you gathered together all the
remnants of the true cross they would fill a large
ship'.24 In fact, like most things in this article the
quote is inexact and the attribution incorrect. It was Erasmus
[1466-1536] who complained that 'the portions of the true cross
(are) enough if they were collected to freight a large
ship'.25 Like the oft-repeated slander that most wars
have been fought in the name of religion, this lie is easily
rebutted. The relics claiming to be of the True Cross are well
known, and identifiable. According to Donald Attwater (writing more
that 60 years ago) if all the known relics were put together they
would fall well short of even one cross, twelve feet long by eight
Feast of the Finding of the Cross
The feast of the Cross celebrated on September
14 to commemorates the finding of the True Cross by St Helena, and
the consecration of the shrines built on the site of Golgotha and
over the tomb of Jesus by Constantine, appears originally to have
been a feast proper to the Basilica of the Holy Cross in
Jerusalem. It gradually was introduced to many of the other
Churches in Rome, and by the seventh century the feast had spread
to the universal Catholic Church,27 probably prompted by
the universal joy felt at the restoration of the relics to the Holy
Sepulchre after their having been stolen by the Persians.
The pilgrim Theodosius who visited Jerusalem in
530 calls the feast on September 14, Inventio Crucis - The
Finding of the Cross - a title that continues to this day
- See article by M. St Laurent in Adolphe Didron's Annales
- Vita Constantini, iii. 26ff.
- Not all the sources agree about the exact date of her visit.
Socrates Historia Ecclesiastica. i 17ff, puts it in the year
after the Nicene Council [325 AD] while the Alexandrine Chronicle
[also known as the Chronicon Paschale] described by K.A. Kellner in
his Haeortology as 'in such matters... very reliable' gives
the day and the year for the discovery as September 14, 320. My
difficulty with this earlier date is that it occurs before the
death of Licinius, and it seems that the journey was not undertaken
until after he had been killed in 324 AD. As the day on which the
two Constantinian Basilicas - Ad Crucem [at the Cross] on
Golgotha, and Anastasis [Resurrection] over the tomb were
consecrated was September 14, I favour dating the discovery on
September 14, 326.
- Epistle lviii, Patrologia Latina. Migne xx, 321:
'aestimantibus persecutionis auctoribus quod tollerent nobis fidem
resurrectionis et crucis si loca sancta per idola
- Epistola ad Severum, xxxi.
- ee St Gregory of Tours, Liber Miraculorum. 1.5ff.
- Calvin derides the empress's motives, and says that she was
driven by a 'stulta curiositas' [stupid curiosity] and 'ineptus
religionis zelus' [false religious zeal]. See his De
Reliquibus, p.276 quoted John Henry Cardinal Newman, op. cit.
- De Cruce Christie, tome 1, 1, 37.
- John Henry Cardinal Newman. Two Essays on Biblical and
Ecclesiastical Miracles. [written 1842-1843] Longmans, 1918.
- Vita Constantini, iii. 28.
- Oratio de Obitu Theodsii.
- See 1866 ed. May, tomus prirnus. p.368.
- For the account of the discovery of the cross by Helena, see:
Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica, i, 17: Theodoret,
Historia Ecclesiastica, i, 18: Sozomen. Historia
Ecclesiastica, ii, 1: St Ambrose of Milan, Vita
Theodosii, xlvi: Sulpicius Severus, Historia Sacra, ii,
34: Rufinus, Historia, 1,7,8: etc.
- Psalm lxxxvii, 13.
- Catechetical Writings.
- See New Catholic Encylopedia, McGraw Hill NY 1966 ed.
'Cross' vol.4 p.480.
- St Gregory of Nyssa, Migne PG xlvi, 489.
- See St John Chrysostom. Quod Christus sit Deus, Migne PG
- Paulinus of Nola, Epistles xxxi, xxxii.
- Burns and Oates, 1953 ed. vol. ii, p.222.
- Decline and Fall, ed. Ward Lock and Co. London, volume
i, p.594 note 1.
- Op. cit. p.291.
- loc. cit.
- The Daily Telegraph, February 3, 1999, p.32.
- Commentary on St Matthew, xxiii, 27 See James Anthony
Froude, Life and Letters of Erasmus, London 1899,
- The Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary. Cassell, London,
- See Ada Sanctorum, vol 14, May, tomus primus,
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