The True Cross is said to be the very cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Splinters of it have turned up down the centuries.
It was said to have been discovered, along with the crosses of the two thieves executed alongside Jesus, by the Roman empress Helena. She was the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor – Constantine.
The source of the wood for the cross on which Jesus was crucified has given rise to some curious legends. These include the contention that the wood came from the tree in the Garden of Eden from which the apple was offered to Eve.
The unaccepted Gospel of Nicodemus
According to the Gospel of Nicodemus – a gospel that did not make it into the bible – and a document called the Golden Legend, the wood for the True Cross came from a tree planted on the grave of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Or more accurately it was a branch from the Tree of Life given to Adam’s son Seth by Saint Michael.
The branch grew to become a mighty tree that was seen by the biblical Queen of Sheba who realised that from its wood, the saviour of the world would be killed and as a result, the Jewish religion would disappear. King Solomon, hearing of this, had the tree burnt.
But of course, it re-emerged magically and its wood did indeed become the upright, vertical part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. A different version of this story has Saint Michael giving Seth three seeds from the Tree of Life that are planted under the tongue of Adam. Once they grew, Adam would live again.
Not only did its wood become the cross of Jesus but also the rod of Moses and a bridge over which the Queen of Sheba walked. There’s also a tradition that the cross was actually made of several types of wood. This notion crops up in writings by the Venerable Bede and John Cantacuzenus.
Cedar, pine, cypress, oak and mistletoe (yes, really!) have all cropped up as candidates for the wood used in the cross.
Saint Helena and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
So, Saint Helena discovers the cross during a state visit to Jerusalem. Interestingly, a man called Eusebius who was the biographer of Helen’s son the emperor Constantine makes no mention of Helena discovering the True Cross. But the story does emerge in the same century from other sources.
Over the site of the crucifixion, Helena then initiated the building of the Holy Sepulchre church – which you can see today. This necessitated the removal of a temple to the goddess Venus. Of course, once the True Cross had been found, the church managed to turn up the crown of thorns, nails, robe worn by Jesus before being executed, the lance that pierced his side, the veil used by Veronica to wipe the face of Jesus, etc.
My visit to the Holy Sepulchre
When I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem earlier this year, I walked down into the basement of the building and found a dark, underground chapel with huge amounts of character and charm.
Whereas the rest of the church has undergone very obvious later renovation, this chapel – dedicated to Saint Helena – was like walking back into the 12th century.
It was built in the crusader period though excavations in the 1970s revealed not only parts of the original 4th century basilica constructed by the Emperor Constantine – son of Saint Helena – but the foundations of the Roman temple structure erected by Hadrian after the crushing of the Jewish revolt in the 2nd century.
Saint Helena went to Jerusalem after her son converted to Christianity and reputedly found many relics of Jesus including the True Cross. A chair she sat in during this quest is included in the chapel.
The True Cross was the most sacred relic of the Templars.