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The Finding of the True Cross

What happened to the 'True Cross' after Jesus was crucified?

Image: The Finding of the True Cross, Agnolo Gaddi, Florence, 1380 | Public Domain

Relics were big news in Medieval Europe. To have a bone or a fragment of clothing from a saint or an apostle could bring in pilgrims from far and wide. As a consequence churches across the continent scrambled to get in on the action, often passing off relics they knew to be fake as the real deal. The biggest box office draws were relics associated with Jesus Christ, and they didn’t get much bigger than a fragment from the cross on which he was crucified.

Uncovering the True Cross

It is said that it was Helena Augusta, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who discovered the True Cross at the site of the Holy Sepulchre - the hill on which Jesus was crucified alongside the criminals Gestas and Dismas.

According to the 4th century historian Socrates Scholasticus, Helena had the pagan temple that occupied the site torn down and the hill excavated. Three crosses were supposedly uncovered, alongside the nails used to secure Christ to the cross and the ‘Titulus Crucis’ - the sign bearing the words ‘Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews’ - that was hung on the cross. The crosses were then presented in turn to a terminally ill woman, who was cured upon touching the one which had borne Christ. This, Helena was convinced, was the True Cross.

Real or fake?

Most of the cross was sent to Constantinople, and after the sacking of that city during the Fourth Crusade of 1204, it was broken up and distributed across Europe. Eventually, there were so many churches claiming to have a piece of the True Cross that it prompted the theologian John Calvin to say that if they were all added together, it would be possible to build a boat.

Calvin’s scepticism was explained away by the fact that the blood of Christ turned the cross into an indestructible object, meaning it could be divided up an infinite number of times and yet remain undiminished. Eager to keep the lucrative trade in relics alive and the pilgrims flowing through their doors, abbeys and churches across Europe happily embraced this explanation.

Veneration of the True Cross

Many pieces of the True Cross were encased in precious metal boxes adorned with jewels. These were placed in specially-built ‘reliquaries’ that also held other supposed relics such as the bones of saints, parts of the nails used in the Crucifixion and even the baby teeth of Christ. These became focal points for worshippers, and several religious veneration ceremonies were established, such as the Feast of the Finding of the Cross, which was celebrated by Roman Catholics until Pope John XXIII removed it from the calendar in 1960.

The True Cross today

While most of the supposed pieces of the True Cross have been lost over centuries of religious and secular upheaval, there are still some fragments in existence today. Some of the largest pieces to survive can be found in Europe’s major religious institutions such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. One fragment, meanwhile, is said to be in a very strange place indeed.

1. Santa Croce, Italy

Three small pieces of the True Cross are held in the Cappella delle Reliquie of the Sante Croce in Gerusalemme church in Rome, alongside two thorns from the Crown of Thorns, part of one of the nails used during the Crucifixion and a piece of the Titulus Crucis. The church once held a larger fragment of the cross, but this was moved to St. Peter’s Basilica on the orders of Pope Urban VIII in 1629.

2. Notre-Dame de Paris, France

Originally housed in the church of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, this fragment of the True Cross was acquired by King Louis IX from Baldwin II of Constantinople in the 13th century. During the French Revolution, the preservation of relics was banned except where they were judged to have high artistic merit. The piece of the True Cross held in Sainte-Chapelle was handed over to the Bishop of Paris in 1804. It was housed in the treasury of Notre-Dame Cathedral until it was moved to the Louvre following the cathedral fire in 2019.

3. Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, Italy

The Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Philip de Mezières, gave this school in Venice a piece of the True Cross in 1369. A reliquary was built to house the fragment, and a miracle is supposed to have quickly followed. It is said that during a procession, the piece of the cross was accidentally dropped into a canal. Instead of sinking, the fragment is said to have hovered over the water and then evaded all attempts to retrieve it until the original receiver of the piece, the school’s head, Andrea Vendramin, dived in and saved it.

4. The Moskva, Black Sea

Many other places claim to have a piece of the True Cross, including St. Peter’s Abbey in the Belgian town of Ghent and the Monastery of Koutloumousiou in Greece. One of the most surprising places where a piece of the True Cross apparently can be found is at the bottom of the Black Sea.

The district archpriest of the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol claimed that a piece of the True Cross was placed in the chapel of the Russian cruiser, Moskva. The ship was sunk in 2020 during the Russia-Ukraine War, and it is said that the fragment of the cross went down with her.