Dead­wood re­vis­ited

Fortean Times - - Letters -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.