As a suitably fortean example of Christian folklore, I offer this footnote to “Searching for the Place of the Skull”, Ted Harrison’s excellent article [ Ft352:46-51]. You reproduce one of the frescos from Piero della Francesca “History of the True Cross” series in Arezzo, illustrating the excavation and “proving” of Christ’s Cross under the auspices of the Empress Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor of Rome, but Piero’s work presents a fuller history, drawing on a sequence of legends about the wood of the Cross best known in the Western Church from The Golden
Legend, Jacobus daVaragine’s immensely popular and influential compilation of the lives of the saints and the rich non-biblical traditions of popular Christianity.
Here the story begins with the death of Adam, whose son Seth is instructed to bury three seeds from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or alternatively from three trees that had grown from seeds of the Tree of Mercy) from Eden beside his father’s grave (or in his mouth). From these grew the tree whose wood would eventually become the Cross, but first it was cut down and used to build a bridge. Visiting King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba (obviously coming into the story as a pre-echo of Helena) recognised its sanctity, knelt down and prayed and told Solomon that eventually this wood would change the relationship between God and humanity. Fearful for the elimination of the Jewish covenant, Solomon promptly had it buried, but after 14 generations it was dug up and used to build the Cross of Christ, then buried again following the Crucifixion only to be rediscovered by Helena.
Piero’s frescos, however, remind us that even before his mother’s archæological coup, the imagery of the Cross was already bound into the story of Constantine’s identity as triumphant Christian emperor. Before the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, the pagan Constantine received a dream vision in which he saw a “sign” of Christ with the message “in this sign [you shall] conquer” (see Ft275:49). In Piero’s depiction (an innovative night/ dawn scene) an alarmingly foreshortened angel swoops towards the sleeping Emperor, holding out a tiny cross of light (virtually invisible before recent restoration) as the sign, and in the subsequent scene Constantine brandishes a similarly small cross in his victory over his rival Maxentius. (Traditionally, he had it shown on the shields of his troops.) Early accounts are rather vaguer about the nature of the dream sign, which may have been the Chi Ro, Christ’s initials, which is shown on the Emperor’s helmet on a contemporary medallion and coin. Another version places Constantine’s vision during the day, when he looks up to see a cross rising from the light of the Sun (arguably, this might describe a real “sun dog” sighting).
The solar imagery fits the period rather better than the cross does – Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun) was, along with Mithras, a popular deity among the Roman military and the triumphal Arch of Constantine built (well, remodelled from an older monument) to commemorate the victory over Maxentius shows no Christian imagery but seems to have been positioned in alignment to the (now lost) Colossus, a 30-metre (100ft) bronze statue of Sol (altered from its earlier identity as a portrait of Nero – why waste a good bit of public art just because the dynasty has changed?) Sol also appears on some of Constantine’s coins and can be identified on the shields of soldiers carved on the Arch of Constantine – rather than the symbolic cross that Christian legend might lead us to expect.
Of course, these complications do not appear in the legend of the True Cross, which picks up the story with Helena, Constantine’s mother, travelling to the Holy Land to locate the real object which has become the symbol of her son’s triumphant Christian identity. Piero shows the decidedly unpleasant incident where the only local individual who knows where the crosses are buried, a Jew named Judas, is imprisoned in a well until he reveals the secret (and converts to Christianity). Following the “Finding and Proving of the Cross” (where Piero depicts its presence restoring a semi-naked young man to life, rather than the variant version where it heals a well-born lady) there is shown a later battle scene in which the wood of the Cross, having been stolen by the Persian king Chosroes, is won back for Christendom by Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire in 615.
Needless to say, in such a web of motifs there are plenty of variations. In the Orthodox tradition, the Cross was made from the wood of three trees (cedar, cypress and pine), thus fulfilling a passage from the book of Isaiah, and had first been used in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem before being discarded during Herod’s rebuilding. A jolly motif often appearing in early depictions of the Crucifixion shows the skull of Adam at the base of the mound of Golgotha, making a rather neat connection to the idea that the wood of the Cross grew out of seeds planted in his dead mouth.
Oh, and of course there’s the tradition that Jesus, being a carpenter, himself fashioned the sacred wood into the Cross of his own crucifixion. This is not to mention the legends and miracle tales that attach to the fragments of the Cross dispersed across Christendom as holy relics. We do know that the portion respectfully encased in silver and left in Jerusalem by Helena was a famous object of veneration by the 380s, when Egeria, a lady (possibly a nun from France or Portugal) describes seeing it during her pilgrimage. According to her account, it was removed from its casket and placed on a table, where the faithful could process to kiss it and touch it with their foreheads and eyes. During this ceremony it was firmly held by the Bishop of Jerusalem and closely guarded by deacons, as on an earlier occasion someone had taken the opportunity to bite off a piece.
Oh, and Mark Twain’s trenchant observation that European churches contained sufficient relics of the holy wood to make 50 new crosses was by no
means original. In his Traité des
Reliques of 1543 the Protestant reformer Jean Calvin had already written that: “There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen. 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 shipload. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.” Gail Nina Anderson Jesmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Ted Harrison’s article on the search for Golgotha [ Ft352:46-51] was of his usual high standard; but there is one point he missed. He quotes Rodger Dusatko as saying that “three of the four Gospels testify that the Temple curtain ripped... The Gospels also testify that the centurion and those with him on Golgotha saw the curtain
rip” (my italics). The first part of this statement is true. However, only one Gospel – Matthew’s – refers to what the watchers on Golgotha saw, and it is ambiguous. It refers to an earthquake, the ripping of the curtain and the opening up of tombs, resulting in the rising up of dead saints (though only after Jesus’s resurrection). It then says: “Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place they were terrified” (Matthew 27:54 NRSV).
This raises more than one question. How do you see an earthquake? Does “what took place” specifically include the ripping of the curtain? (And there is a doubt whether the curtain was at the entrance to the temple, as Rodger Dusatko claims, or within the temple, at the entrance to the Holy of Holies.) Why was everyone watching the Temple rather than the main event, the Crucifixion?
However, the crucial issue is that all three Gospels agree that there was darkness over the land at this point. How could the observers have seen the curtain rip, even from 330m, in total darkness?
The point is, perhaps, that even “Bible-believing Christians” tend to read the Bible as stating what they think it ought to say rather than what it actually says, because, like all too many researchers, they are fitting the evidence to the conclusion rather than (as it ought to be) the other way round. Martin Jenkins London