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According to post-Nicene historians such as Socrates Scholasticus, the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, travelled to the Holy Land in 326–28, founding churches and establishing relief agencies for the poor. Historians Gelasius of Caesarea and Rufinus claimed that she discovered the hiding place of three crosses that were believed to be used at the crucifixion of Jesus and of two thieves, St. Dismas and Gestas, executed with him, and that a miracle revealed which of the three was the True Cross.
Many churches possess fragmentary remains that are by tradition alleged to be those of the True Cross. Their authenticity is not accepted universally by those of the Christian faith and the accuracy of the reports surrounding the discovery of the True Cross is questioned by some Christians. The acceptance and belief of that part of the tradition that pertains to the Early Christian Church is generally restricted to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The medieval legends that developed concerning its provenance differ between Catholic and Orthodox tradition. These churches honour Helena as a saint, as does also the Anglican Communion.
In the Latin-speaking traditions of Western Europe, the story of the pre-Christian origins of the True Cross was well established by the 13th century when, in 1260, it was recorded, by Jacopo de Voragine, Bishop of Genoa, in the Golden Legend.
The Golden Legend contains several versions of the origin of the True Cross. In The Life of Adam, Voragine writes that the true cross came from three trees which grew from three seeds from the "Tree of Mercy" which Seth collected and planted in the mouth of Adam's corpse. In another account contained in Of the invention of the Holy Cross, and first of this word invention, Voragine writes that the True Cross came from a tree that grew from part of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or "the tree that Adam ate of", that Seth planted on Adam's grave where it "endured there unto the time of Solomon".
After many centuries the tree was cut down and the wood used to build a bridge over which the Queen of Sheba passed, on her journey to meet King Solomon. So struck was she by the portent contained in the timber of the bridge that she fell on her knees and reverenced it. On her visit to Solomon she told him that a piece of wood from the bridge would bring about the replacement of God's Covenant with the Jewish people, by a new order. Solomon, fearing the eventual destruction of his people, had the timber buried. But after fourteen generations, the wood taken from the bridge was fashioned into the Cross used to crucify Christ. Voragine then goes on to describe its finding by Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.
In the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, there was a wide general acceptance of the origin of the True Cross and its history preceding the Crucifixion, as recorded by Voragine. This general acceptance is confirmed by the numerous artworks that depict this subject, culminating in one of the most famous fresco cycles of the Renaissance, the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca, painted on the walls of the chancel of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo between 1452 and 1466, in which he reproduces faithfully the traditional episodes of the story as recorded in The Golden Legend.
The Golden Legend and many of its sources developed after the East-West Schism of 1054, and thus is unknown in the Greek- or Syriac-speaking worlds. The above pre-Crucifixion history, therefore, is not to be found in Eastern Christianity.
According to the Sacred Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church the True Cross was made from three different types of wood: cedar, pine and cypress. This is an allusion to Isaiah 60:13: "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box [cypress] together to beautify the place of my sanctuary, and I will make the place of my feet glorious." The link between this verse and the Crucifixion lies in the words, "the place of my feet", which is interpreted as referring to the suppendaneum (foot rest) on which Jesus' feet were nailed (see Orthodox cross).
There is a tradition that the three trees from which the True Cross was constructed grew together in one spot. A traditional Orthodox icon depicts Lot, the nephew of Abraham, watering the trees. According to tradition, these trees were used to construct the Temple in Jerusalem ("to beautify the place of my sanctuary"). Later, during Herod's reconstruction of the Temple, the wood from these trees was removed from the Temple and discarded, eventually being used to construct the cross on which Jesus was crucified ("and I will make the place of my feet glorious").
Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Life of Constantine, describes how the site of the Holy Sepulchre, originally a site of veneration for the Christian community in Jerusalem, had been covered with earth and a temple of Venus had been built on top. Although Eusebius does not say as much, this would probably have been done as part of Hadrian's reconstruction of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina in 135, following the destruction during the Jewish Revolt of 70 and Bar Kokhba's revolt of 132–135. Following his conversion to Christianity, Emperor Constantine ordered in about 325–326 that the site be uncovered and instructed Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, to build a church on the site. In his Life of Constantine, Eusebius does not mention the finding of the True Cross.
Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380), in his Ecclesiastical History, gives a full description of the discovery that was repeated later by Sozomen and by Theodoret. In it he describes how Saint Helena, Constantine's aged mother, had the temple destroyed and the Sepulchre uncovered, whereupon three crosses and the titulus from Jesus's crucifixion were uncovered as well. In Socrates's version of the story, Macarius had the three crosses placed in turn on a deathly ill woman. This woman recovered at the touch of the third cross, which was taken as a sign that this was the cross of Christ, the new Christian symbol. Socrates also reports that, having also found the nails with which Christ had been fastened to the cross, Helena sent these to Constantinople, where they were incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse.
Sozomen (died c. 450), in his Ecclesiastical History, gives essentially the same version as Socrates. He also adds that it was said (by whom he does not say) that the location of the Sepulchre was "disclosed by a Hebrew who dwelt in the East, and who derived his information from some documents which had come to him by paternal inheritance" (although Sozomen himself disputes this account) and that a dead person was also revived by the touch of the Cross. Later popular versions of this story state that the Jew who assisted Helena was named Jude or Judas, but later converted to Christianity and took the name Kyriakos.
Theodoret (died c. 457) in his Ecclesiastical History Chapter xvii gives what had become the standard version of the finding of the True Cross:
With the Cross were also found the Holy Nails, which Helena took with her back to Constantinople. According to Theodoret, "She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace. The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity."
Another popular ancient version from the Syriac tradition replaced Helena with a fictitious first-century empress named Protonike.
Historians[who?] consider these versions to be apocryphal in varying degrees. It is certain, however, that the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was completed by 335 and that alleged relics of the Cross were being venerated there by the 340s, as they are mentioned in the Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem (see below).
The silver reliquary that was left at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in care of the bishop of Jerusalem was exhibited periodically to the faithful. In the 380s a nun named Egeria who was travelling on pilgrimage described the veneration of the True Cross at Jerusalem in a long letter, the Itinerario Egeriae that she sent back to her community of women:
Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and [the wood] is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring...
In 614 the Sassanid Emperor Khosrau II ("Chosroes") removed the part of the cross as a trophy, when he captured Jerusalem. Thirteen years later, in 628, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius defeated Khosrau and regained the relic from Shahrbaraz. He placed the cross in Constantinople at first, and took it back to Jerusalem on 21 March 630. Other fragments of the Cross were further broken up, and the pieces were widely distributed; in 348, in one of his Catecheses, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the "whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ," and in another, "The holy wood of the Cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it." Egeria's account testifies to how highly these relics of the crucifixion were prized. Saint John Chrysostom relates that fragments of the True Cross were kept in golden reliquaries, "which men reverently wear upon their persons." Even two Latin inscriptions around 350 from today's Algeria testify to the keeping and admiration of small particles of the cross. Around the year 455, Juvenal Patriarch of Jerusalem sent to Pope Leo I a fragment of the "precious wood", according to the Letters of Pope Leo. A portion of the cross was taken to Rome in the seventh century by Pope Sergius I, who was of Byzantine origin. "In the small part is power of the whole cross", so an inscription in the Felix Basilica of Nola, built by bishop Paulinus at the beginning of 5th century. The cross particle was inserted in the altar.
The Old English poem Dream of the Rood mentions the finding of the cross and the beginning of the tradition of the veneration of its relics. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also talks of King Alfred receiving a fragment of the cross from Pope Marinus (see: Annal Alfred the Great, year 883). However, although it is possible, the poem need not be referring to this specific relic or have this incident as the reason for its composition.
Around 1009, Christians in Jerusalem hid part of the cross and it remained hidden until the city was taken by the European knights of the First Crusade. Arnulf Malecorne, the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, had the Greek Orthodox priests who were in possession of the Cross tortured in order to reveal its position. The relic that Arnulf discovered was a small fragment of wood embedded in a golden cross, and it became the most sacred relic of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with none of the controversy that had followed their discovery of the Holy Lance in Antioch. It was housed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under the protection of the Latin Patriarch, who marched with it ahead of the army before every battle.
It was captured by Saladin during the Battle of Hattin in 1187, and while some Christian rulers, like Richard the Lionheart, Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos and Tamar, Queen of Georgia, sought to ransom it from Saladin, the cross was not returned and subsequently disappeared from historical records. The True Cross was last seen being paraded through the streets of Damascus upside down by the victorious Muslims after the Battle of Hattin. 
An inscription of 359, found at Tixter, in the neighbourhood of Sétif in Mauretania, was said to mention, in an enumeration of relics, a fragment of the True Cross, according to an entry in Roman Miscellanies, X, 441.
But most of the very small relics of the True Cross in Europe came from Constantinople. The city was captured and sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204: "After the conquest of the city Constantinople inestimable wealth was found, incomparably precious jewels and also a part of the cross of the Lord, which Helena transferred from Jerusalem and was decorated with gold and precious jewels. There it attained highest admiration. It was carved up by the present bishops and was divided with other very precious relics among the knights; later, after their return to the homeland, it was donated to churches and monasteries." A knight Robert de Clari wrote: "Within this chapel were found many precious relics; for therein were found two pieces of the True Cross, as thick as a man's leg and a fathom in length."
Conflicting with this is the finding of Charles Rohault de Fleury, who, in his Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion 1870 made a study of the relics in reference to the criticisms of Calvin and Erasmus. He drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the True Cross showing that, in spite of what various authors have claimed, the fragments of the Cross brought together again would not reach one-third that of a cross which has been supposed to have been three or four metres in height, with transverse branch of two metres wide, proportions not at all abnormal. He calculated: supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood (based on his microscopic analysis of the fragments) and giving it a weight of about seventy-five kilogrammes, we find the original volume of the cross to be 0.178 cubic metres (6.286 cubic feet). The total known volume of known relics of the True Cross, according to his catalogue, amounts to approximately 0.004 cubic metres (0.141 cubic feet) (more specifically 3,942,000 cubic millimetres), leaving a volume of 0.174 m3 (6.145 cu ft) lost, destroyed, or otherwise unaccounted for.
Four cross particles – of ten particles with surviving documentary provenances by Byzantine emperors – from European churches, i.e. Santa Croce in Rome, Notre Dame, Paris, Pisa Cathedral and Florence Cathedral, were microscopically examined. "The pieces came all together from olive." It is possible that many alleged pieces of the True Cross are forgeries, created by travelling merchants in the Middle Ages, during which period a thriving trade in manufactured relics existed.
Gerasimos Smyrnakis notes that the largest surviving portion, of 870,760 cubic millimetres, is preserved in the Monastery of Koutloumousiou on Mount Athos, and also mentions the preserved relics in Rome (consisting of 537,587 cubic millimetres), in Brussels (516,090 cubic millimetres), in Venice (445,582 cubic millimetres), in Ghent (436,450 cubic millimetres) and in Paris (237,731 cubic millimetres). (For comparison, the collective volume of the largest of these sets of fragments would be equivalent to a cube of a little less than 4 inches per side, while the smallest of these would have an equivalent cubic dimension of about 2.5 inches per side. The volume figures given by Smyrnakis for these objects -- six significant figures and to the cubic millimeter -- are undoubtedly the result of multiplying slightly approximate numbers and should not be seen as implying scientific accuracy of the highest order in a book written over a century ago.)
Santo Toribio de Liébana in Spain is also said to hold the largest of these pieces and is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites. Another portions of the True Cross is believed to be in the Monasterio de Tarlac at San José, Tarlac City, Philippines and one at National Shrine of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina in San Pedro, Santo Tomas, Batangas, Philippines.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church also claims to have the right wing of the true cross buried in the monastery of Gishen Mariam. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has an annual religious holiday, called Meskel or Demera, commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena. Meskel occurs on 17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27, Gregorian calendar, or September 28 in leap years). "Meskel" (or "Meskal" or "Mesqel", there are various ways to transliterate from Ge'ez to Latin script) is Ge'ez for "cross".
The festival is known as Feast of the exaltation of the holy cross in other Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant churches. The churches that follow the Gregorian calendar celebrate the feast on September 14.
St John Chrysostom wrote homilies on the three crosses:
The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and a number of Protestant denominations, celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, the anniversary of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In later centuries, these celebrations also included commemoration of the rescue of the True Cross from the Persians in 628. In the Galician usage, beginning about the seventh century, the Feast of the Cross was celebrated on May 3. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, when the Galician and Roman practices were combined, the September date, for which the Vatican adopted the official name "Triumph of the Cross" in 1963, was used to commemorate the rescue from the Persians and the May date was kept as the "Invention of the True Cross" to commemorate the finding. The September date is often referred to in the West as Holy Cross Day; the May date was dropped from the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council in 1970. (See also Roodmas.) The Orthodox still commemorate both events on September 14, one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical year, and the Procession of the Venerable Wood of the Cross on 1 August, the day on which the relics of the True Cross would be carried through the streets of Constantinople to bless the city.
In addition to celebrations on fixed days, there are certain days of the variable cycle when the Cross is celebrated. The Roman Catholic Church has a formal 'Adoration of the Cross' (the term is inaccurate, but sanctioned by long use) during the services for Good Friday, while Eastern Orthodox churches everywhere, a replica of the cross is brought out in procession during Matins of Great and Holy Friday for the people to venerate. The Orthodox also celebrate an additional Veneration of the Cross on the third Sunday of Great Lent.
Reliquary of the True Cross at Notre Dame de Paris.
Fragment, treasury of the former Premonstratensian Abbey in Rüti in Switzerland.
True Cross at Visoki Dečani, Serbia.
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