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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Potency of a Symbol


Even the life-giving wood of the Cross of Salvation, on which our Lord and Redeemer hung, down whose trunk flowed the pious blood of Christ, whose image angels adore, humans venerate, demons dread, through whose help our people had always won the victory in war – alas! was now captured by the enemy. And the bearers of the Cross fell with it, the bishop of Acre and the precentor of the Lord's Sepulchre: the first was killed and the other was captured. As the cross fell to the ground, King Guy felt compassion for it and, indeed placed his own hope in it. He rushed forward and embraced it, intending – if it please God – to recover it, but if not, to fall with it.*


The True Cross was the single most important object of Christian veneration, the palladium or standard, to be carried into battle and in ceremony. In the words of historian Benjamin Kedar, it was a "major focus of liturgy and consciousness."** Its loss on 4 July 1187 was traumatic, and symbolised what indeed the defeat at the Battle of Hattin had been for the Latin East - a watershed, and the beginning of a decline towards its inevitable demise.


A delightfully ingenuous version of the Biblical origins of the Cross was included in a late twelfth century Old French text known as The Condition of the City of Jerusalem , its author a certain Ernoul. According to this account, when Adam lay on his death bed, he requested that one of his sons bring him a branch of the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden, and when he was handed it he bit into it and his soul departed. (One wonders how his son had managed to get access into the garden, and how it was that Adam had not already had enough of biting into that particular tree!) When his sons tried to remove the branch from his teeth, they found that it was not possible, and so they buried him with the branch still in his mouth. It then took root and grew into a tree that, when the Biblical Flood came, was uprooted and swept away, until it washed up on Mount Lebanon. There it took root (and presumably, somehow converted into a cedar, though Ernoul does not go into this issue). It was eventually cut down and taken from there to Jerusalem to be used in the construction of the First Jewish Temple, and when, many years later the Romans condemned Jesus to crucifixion, a branch of it was used to make the Cross. Adam’s head, so Ernoul informs us, was still enclosed within the timber, and consequently was baptised in Christ’s blood when it flowed from his wounds.***


According to a different tradition to the one recorded by Ernoul, the tree from which the wood of the True Cross had been cut, had grown to the west of the city and was preserved there in the chapel of the Georgian Abbey of the Holy Cross. In this tradition it had been planted there by Lot as a penance for his adultery with his daughters. In the crusader period the stump of this tree could still be seen below the altar.


The recovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena was regarded as nothing short of a miracle. She had found it together with the crosses of the two thieves, covered with a mound of earth on which a temple to Venus had been erected. The difficulty of knowing which of the three was the Cross of Christ was resolved when Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, arranged for a dying woman to touch them. When she touched the third cross she was immediately healed, thereby securing its identification.


The Cross was subsequently kept in Jerusalem, no doubt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by her son, the Emperor Constantine. In 614 Jerusalem was invaded and occupied by the Persians, and the cross was taken away by them when they left the city in 628-29. Emperor Heraclius recovered it and it was returned by him to Jerusalem in 630, and was subsequently kept in one of the chapels of the church sealed in a chest, apparently remaining there after the Islamic conquest of the city in 638.


When the crusaders occupied the city in 1099 part of the cross preserved in a silver case was rediscovered in a secluded corner of the church. It was found, according to chronicler William of Tyre, by a Syrian who had seen it hidden there some time earlier. The Latins now housed it in a highly decorated reliquary, and from the various descriptions found in both Muslim and Christian sources there appear to have been more than one such reliquary in the various forms of a gilded and jewel-studded cross or a casket An official known as the scriniarius (keeper of relics) was appointed to guard the holy relics.


One of these was the cross-shaped standard carried and lost at Hattin. The other piece may have been the source of some of the many fragments that were sent as devotional relics to the West. Of all the transportable holy objects, pieces of the True Cross were the ultimate prize. The source for these relics, whether the piece preserved in a casket in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or in the stump surviving under the altar in the Abbey of the Holy Cross, appears to have had the miraculously ability to provide an inexhaustible supply of fragments to supply the demand (rather like the hero of a favourite book from my Australian childhood, an anthropomorphic pudding that, however much was eaten of it, always re-formed and became whole, to be eaten yet again). This ability was a source of much satire by Protestant critics of the Catholic Church, such as John Calvin, who noted with considerable but effective exaggeration, that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to fill the hold of a large ship.





*The Chronicle of the Third Crusade. The Intinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, trans. Helen J. Nicholson, Aldershot and Burlington, 1997, p. 33; **Benjamin Kedar, "Intellectual Activities in a Holy City: Jerusalem in the Twelfth Century" in Sacred Space: Shrine, City, Land, ed. B.Z. Kedar and R.JZ. Werblowsky, London and Jerusalem. 1998. p. 130-31; ***This source was preserved in the early thirteenth century compilation, The Rothelin Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, published in Crusader Syria in the Thirteenth Century, trans. Janet Shirley, Aldershot and Burlington, 1999, pp. 20-21.

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