A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image

A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image

A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image

A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image

Synopsis

In the fourth century the idea arose that the Cross on which Christ was crucified had been found by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Thus began a legend that would grow and flourish throughout the Middle Ages and cause the diffusion of countless splinters of holy wood. And where there is wood, there was once a tree. Could it be that the Cross was made from that most noble species, the Tree of Life? So, gathering characters along the way, the legend evolved into a tale that stretches from the Creation to the End of Time. A Heritage of Holy Wood is the first reconstruction of the iconographic and literary tradition of the Legend of the True Cross. Its broad scope encompasses relic cults, pilgrimages, travellers tales and the Tree of Life and involves Church Fathers, crusader kings, Teutonic Knights and mendicant orders, all of which influenced the legend's depiction from its earliest representation in manuscripts, reliquaries and altarpieces, to the great monumental cycles of the high Middle Ages. If the holy wood was the medium of medieval memory, A Heritage of Holy Wood reveals the growth rings of fifteen centuries of imagery.

Excerpt

The Legend of the Cross is one of the best-known stories of Christian mythology. Its most famous and elaborate version is related by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea, composed in the twelve-sixties. The kernel of the story, the so-called Inventio crucis, tells how Helena, the mother of Constantine—first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire—travelled to Jerusalem at the end of her life to search for the Cross of Christ, and how, with the help of the Jew Judas Cyriacus, she eventually found the Cross. On the site of the discovery a church—now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—was built.

The origin of the legend of Helena's finding of the Cross most probably goes back to fourth-century Jerusalem. It is known that relics of the Cross were already kept and venerated in the 340s in the basilica built by Constantine on the presumed site of Christ's crucifixion and burial. However, the earliest attributions of the finding of the Cross to Helena date only from the end of the fourth century, and it is very likely that Helena's Inventio crucis is historical fiction; the origin of the story must be seen in the context of Jerusalem's political endeavours in the fourth century to gain a prominent position in the world of Christendom vis-à-vis Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and in particular Caesarea, the metropolitan see of the church province of Palestine, to which Jerusalem was subordinate.

Virtually from the moment of its origin the story about Helena's discovery of the Cross became tremendously popular in Late Antiquity; various versions of the legend came into being in the main languages of the antique world. In the Byzantine and western Middle Ages the popularity of the legend increased, and prose and poetic renderings in vernacular languages came into being. At the same time the legend expanded: new elements and legendary traditions were included, in particular those of the Lignum crucis, the Wood of the Crossthe Cross represented as the Tree of Life—and the legend of the Exaltatio crucis. The latter recounts the return and exaltation of the Cross in Jerusalem by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 628, after it had been captured by the Persians in 614.

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