Essential symbol of sacrifice and salvation, the crucifixion unites Christians of all traditions and denominations. In its many forms and representations, the cross itself has become an object of veneration and the 'True Cross' among the most sought after of holy relics.
The cross of Christ is both a symbol and reality. The claimed pieces of the true cross are similarly historical artefacts and a deeply significant connection with Jesus, his life, death and message across the centuries.
“…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” - John Calvin
The search for the true cross of Christ
Many churches claim to possess fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Venerated by thousands, few scholars and historians attribute any authenticity to these remains. Even the claimed discovery of ‘the true cross’ by Helena, mother of the fist Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is a hotly debated issue.
In 326 AD Helena travelled to Jerusalem where she ‘identified’ the place of the crucifixion – now the site of the Church of The Holy Sepulchre. Tradition says that here she found three wooden crosses but could not determine which was Christ’s and which, presumably, were used to crucify the two thieves of the gospel accounts.
Different versions exist of what happened next. The most widely known story is that each cross in turn was placed over the body of a recently deceased youth. The cross that miraculously brought about his instant return to life was clearly the true cross.
The fall of Jerusalem and Constantinople
Now venerated as the genuine cross of Christ, the pieces were disassembled with one part taken to Constantinople and the other kept in Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s piece was last reported as being dragged away by horse following the city’s fall in 1187. Constantinople itself was sacked in 1204 – by Crusaders of all people, and that part of Helena’s True Cross was taken as spoils of war to be divided among many churches.
By the Middle Ages alleged pieces of the true cross became so numerous - as everything from bejewelled sacred relics in abbeys and cathedrals through pilgrims’ keepsakes to soldiers’ souvenirs, that John Calvin famously commented: “…if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.”
In contradiction of calvin, Charles Rohault de Fleury, in his 1870 Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion drew up a catalogue of all known relics of the true cross. He estimated that all the fragments brought together would make less than one third of a cross assumed to be typical of a Roman crucifixion.
Fragments of the cross around the world
Today there are 10 pieces of the true cross that can be traced back with some certainty to the Byzantine Emperors who ruled from Constantinople. Four pieces are in the European churches of Santa Croce in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Pisa Cathedral and Florence Cathedral in Italy.
Many other churches from Spain to the Philippines also claim to possess at least a fragment, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to have the entire right wing of the true cross buried in the monastery of Gishen Mariam.
Arthur Blessitt: carrying the cross
The Cross continues to be a universal symbol of God's love that's understood across language and cultural barriers. Starting on Christmas day 1969 and finally ending on 17 May 2008, Arthur Blessitt carried a full size wooden cross through every nation and major island group of the world.
Listed in the Guinness World Records for the world's longest walk: over 39,671 miles, through 319 countries & major island groups (53 of them at war) for 44 years, Arthur Blessit tells the fascinating and eye-opening story of his literally worldwide pilgrimage in his book The Cross available now at Eden.co.uk.
The true cross: not-so-trivial files
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records King Alfred receiving a holy relic - possibly a fragment of the true cross from Pope Marinus in 883 AD. Ned Flanders, parody Christian character and neighbour to The Simpsons, also claims to have an extra large piece of the true cross.
April 6th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison