Jacobus da Voragine
The Golden Legend
The Finding of the Holy Cross
This feast is named for the finding of the holy cross because, it is said, the cross was found on this day. It had been found earlier by Adam's son Seth in the earthly paradise, as we shall see below, by Solomon in Lebanon, by the queen of Sheba in Solomon's temple, by the Jews in the water of the pond; and on this day it was found by Helena on Mount Calvary.
The finding of the holy cross occurred more than 200 years after the Lord's resurrection. We read in the Gospel of Nicodemus that when Adam became infirm, his son Seth went to the gates of paradise and begged for some oil from the tree of mercy, with which he might anoint his father's body and restore his health. The archangel Michael appeared to him and said: "Waste no toil or tears trying to obtain oil from the wood of mercy, because there is no way you can acquire it before 5,500 years have gone by!" ...this although it is believed that only 5,199 years elapsed from Adam's day to Christ's passion. Elsewhere we read that the angel offered Seth a shoot from the tree and ordered him to plant it on the mount of Lebanon. In a certain admittedly apocryphal history of the Greeks we read that the angel gave him a branch from the tree under which Adam committed his sin, informing him that when that branch bore fruit, his father would be made whole. When Seth went back and found his father dead, he planted the branch over Adam's grave, where it grew to be a great tree and was still standing in Solomon's time. Whether any of this is true we leave to the reader's judgment, because none of it is found in any authentic chronicle or history.
Solomon admired the beauty of this tree and had it cut down and used in the building of his forest house. l John Beleth says, however, that it was not possible to find a place where the trunk of the tree could be fitted in: it was always too long or too short. If it did not fit into a place too narrow for it and it was carefully shortened, it was immediately seen to be so short as to be completely useless. Therefore the workmen would have nothing more to do with it, and it was thrown over a certain pond to serve as a bridge for those wishing to cross.
When the queen of Sheba came to hear Solomon's words of wisdom and was about to cross this bridge, she saw in spirit that the Saviour of the world would one day hang upon this very same wood. She therefore would not walk on it but immediately knelt and worshiped it. In the Scholastic History, however, we read that the queen of Sheba saw the wood in Solomon's forest house, and when she returned home, she sent word to Solomon that a certain man was to hang upon that wood, and that by this man's death the kingdom of the Jews would be destroyed. Solomon therefore had the wood taken out and buried in the deepest bowels of the earth. Later on the pond called Probatica welled up at that spot, and the Nathineans bathed the sacrificial animals there. So it was not only the occasional descent of an angel of the Lord, but also the power of the wood, that caused the motion of the water and the healing of the sick.
When Christ's time to suffer was drawing near, the aforesaid wood floated up to the surface of the pond, and the Jews, seeing it, used it in making the Lord's cross. It is said that the cross was made out of four kinds of wood, namely, palmwood, cedar, cypress, and olivewood. Hence the verse:
Ligna crucis palma, cedrus, cypressus, oliva.
There were four wooden parts to the cross-the upright shaft, the crossbeam, the tablet above, and the block into which the cross was fixed, or, as Gregory of Tours says, the crosspiece that supported Christ's feet. Hence each of these parts might be made of any of the kinds of wood enumerated above. The aposde seems to have this variety of woods in mind when he says: "You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth." The eminent doctor, 4 at the place referred to, explains these words as follows: "The breadth of the Lord's cross is the crossbeam upon which his hands were extended; the length means the shaft from the ground to the crossbeam, where the whole body hung from the hands; the height means from the crossbeam to the top, where the head touched; the depth is the part hidden by the earth in which the cross stood. By this sign of the cross all human and Christian action is described: to do good works in Christ and to cling to him perseveringly, to hope for heaven, and to avoid profaning the sacraments."
This precious wood of the cross lay hidden underground for over two hundred years and was rediscovered by Helena, mother of Constantine. At that time an innumerable horde of barbarians gathered on the bank of the Danube: their aim was to cross the river and to subjugate all the lands as far as the western limit. When Emperor Constantine learned of this, he moved his camp and took his stand with his army along the opposite bank of the Danube; but more and more barbarians were arriving and were beginning to cross the river, and Constantine, seeing that they were bent on drawing him into battle the next day, was stricken with terror. That night an angel awakened him and urged him to look upwards. The emperor looked toward heaven and saw the sign of the cross formed in flaming light, with the legend In hoc signo vinces written in golden letters. Heartened by the celestial vision he had a facsimile of the cross made, and ordered it to be carried at the head of the army. Then his troops rushed upon the enemy and put them to flight, killing a great many of them. Soon thereafter Constantine called the heads of all the temples and questioned them closely, seeking to find out what god had the cross as his sign. They said they did not know, but then some Christians came along and told him about the mystery of the cross and the faith in the Trinity. Constantine believed perfectly in Christ and received the sacrament of baptism from Pope Eusebius, or, as some books have it, from the bishop of Caesarea. Many of the things stated in this account, however, are contradicted by the Tripartite History and the Ecclesiastical History, as well as by the life of Saint Silvester 5 and the Acts of the Roman pontiffs. There are those who hold that it was not Constantine the great emperor who was converted and baptized by Pope Saint Eusebius, as some historians seem to imply, but Constantine's father, also named Constantine, as we find in some other histories; for this latter Constantine came to the faith a different way, as we read in the legend of Saint Silvester, and he was baptized not by Eusebius but by Silvester.
When the elder Constantine died, the younger, remembering the victory his father had won by virtue of the holy cross, sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to find the cross, as is related below. The Ecclesiastical History gives a different account of this victory: it says that when Maxentius invaded the Roman empire, Emperor Constantine arrived at the Albine 6 bridge to do battle with him. Constantine was exceedingly anxious about this battle and often raised his eyes to heaven in search of help from above. Then in a dream he saw, in the eastern part of the sky, the sign of the cross blazing with fiery brilliance, and angels standing by and saying to him: "Constantine, in this sign you will conquer." And, as we read in the Tripartite History, while Constantine puzzled about the meaning of this, the following night Christ appeared to him with the sign he had seen in the sky, and ordered him to have a standard made with this sign on it, because this would be of help to him in combat. So Constantine, again happy and confident of victory, drew on his forehead the sign of the cross that he had seen in the sky, had the military standards changed to the shape of the cross, and carried a gold cross in his right hand. After that he prayed the Lord not to allow his right hand, which he had armed with the salutary sign of the cross, to be bloodied or stained by spilled Roman blood, but to grant him victory over the tyrant without bloodshed.
Maxentius meanwhile gave orders to arrange his boats as a trap, stringing floats across the river to look like a level bridge. Now, when Constantine drew up to the river, Maxentius rushed upon him with a small band of troops, commanding the rest to come after him; but he forgot his own stratagem and started across the false bridge, thus being caught by the ruse with which he had hoped to deceive Constantine, and was drowned in the depths of the stream. Thereupon Constantine was unanimously acclaimed emperor by all present.
We read in a fairly reliable chronicle that at that time Constantine's faith was not yet perfect and that he had not yet been baptized, but that after an interval he had a vision of Saints Peter and Paul 7 and was reborn by holy baptism at Pope Silvester's hands. Then, cured of his leprosy, he believed perfectly in Christ and so sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to search for the Lord's cross. Ambrose, however, in his letter about the death of Theodosius, and the Tripartite History both say that he received baptism only in his last hours, having put it off in order that he might be able to be baptized in the river Jordan. Jerome says that he became a Christian under Pope Silvester. There is doubt about whether or not he delayed baptism, so that Saint Silvester's legend is likewise questionable on more than one point. This account of the finding of the cross, which we read in the Ecclesiastical History, seems more authentic than the story usually read in the churches. In the latter many things are stated which clearly are not in accord with the truth, unless perhaps one would choose to say, as was said above, that not Constantine but his father, also called Constantine, was the one concerned; but this does not seem very likely, although that is what we read in certain histories from overseas. 8
When Helena arrived in Jerusalem, she gave orders that all the Jewish wise men located throughout the entire area should come together in her presence. This Helena had previously been an innkeeper or inn-servant, 9 but because of her beauty Constantine [the elder] had attached her to himself. Ambrose has this to say about her: "They assert that this woman had been an innkeeper or servant, but was joined to Constantine the elder, who later became emperor. She was a good innkeeper, who diligently sought a crib for the Lord, a good hostess who knew about the innkeeper who healed the wounds of the man who fell among robbers, a good servant, who preferred to spurn all things as dung in order to gain Christ: therefore Christ lifted her up from the dunghill to the throne." Thus Ambrose. Others, however, assert, and we read in a reasonably authentic chronicle, that this Helena was the only daughter of Clohel, king of the Britons. When Constantine came to Britain, he took Helena to wife, and so the island devolved to him after Clohel's death. Even British sources attest this; yet elsewhere we read that Helena was a native of Trier. Be that as it may, the Jewish scholars, somewhat alarmed, asked each other: "Why do you think the queen has summoned us?" One of their number, Judas by name, said: "I know why! She wants to learn from us the whereabouts of the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Be cautious, therefore, and let no one of us presume to tell her! Otherwise you can be absolutely sure that our Law will be annulled and the traditions of the fathers completely wiped out. My grandfather Zacheus foretold this to my father Simon, and on his deathbed my father said to me: 'Look, my son! When they come searching for Christ's cross, show them where it is or you will be tortured; for from then on the Jewish nation will never reign, but those who adore the Crucified will rule, because Christ was indeed the Son of God.' I asked him: 'Father mine, if our forefathers truly knew that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, why did they nail him to the gibbet of the cross?' 'God knows,' he replied, 'that I was never in their counsels and often spoke against them. But because Christ denounced the vices of the Pharisees, they had him put to death on the cross. He rose again on the third day and ascended to heaven as his disciples looked on. My brother Stephen believed in him and the Jews in their madness stoned him to death. Be careful therefore, my son, and do not rashly blaspheme him or his disciples.' " It does not seem very probable, however, that this Jew's father could have lived at the time of Christ's passion, because from that time to Helena's, when this Judas is supposed to have told his story, more than 270 years had elapsed-unless, perhaps, it could be said that men lived longer then than they do now. However that may be, the Jewish scholars now said to Judas: "We have never heard anything like that; but if the queen questions you, see to it that you tell her nothing! " When they all stood before her, she asked them about the place where the Lord had been crucified. They refused absolutely to say where it was, and she condemned them all to die by fire. This frightened them and they handed Judas over to her, saying: "This man is the son of a just man and a prophet. He is learned in the Law and will give you the answers to all your questions." So she dismissed them all except Judas, to whom she said: "You have the choice of death or life: choose which one you prefer! Show me the place called Golgotha, where the Lord was crucified, so that I may find his cross." "How could I know the place?" he responded; "More than two hundred years have gone by since then!" "I swear by the Crucified," the queen said, "that I will starve you to death unless you tell me the truth!" She therefore had him thrown into a dry well and left him to suffer the pangs of hunger. After he had been without food for six days, he asked to be pulled out of the well on the seventh, and promised to show where the cross was. He was lifted out, and when he came to the place and prayed there, the earth suddenly quaked and a mist of sweet-smelling perfumes greeted their senses. Judas, filled with wonder, clapped his hands and said: "In truth, O Christ, you are the Saviour of the world!"
The Ecclesiastical History tells us that at that place there was a temple of Vcnus, which Hadrian had built so that any Christians who came to pray there would seem to be adoring Venus. For this reason few came and the place was almost consigned to oblivion; but Helena had the temple razed and the site ploughed up. After that, Judas girded himself and started manfully to dig, and when he had dug down twenty yards, he found three crosses buried and took them forthwith to the queen. Since they had no way of distinguishing Christ's cross from those of the thieves, they placed them in the centre of the city and waited for the Lord to manifest his glory; and behold! At about the ninth hour the body of a young man was being carried past, and Judas halted the cortege. He held the first cross and the second over the body, but nothing happened. Then he extended the third cross, and the dead man immediately came back to life. In the histories of the Church we also read that when one of the leading women in the city lay close to death, Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, brought in first one and then another of the crosses, to no effect; but when he placed the third beside the lady, she opened her eyes at once and rose up cured.
Ambrose says that Judas determined which was the Lord's cross by finding and reading the title that Pilate had placed on the cross. At that moment the devil was up in the air screaming and shouting: "O Judas, why have you done this? My Judas did just the opposite: I pressed him and he betrayed his master, but you, despite my interdict, have found the cross of Jesus! Through the other Judas I gained the souls of many; through you I seem to be losing those I gained. Through him I reigned among the people, through you I will be expelled from my realm. But I will pay you back in turn: I will raise up another king against you, a king who will abandon the faith of the Crucified and by torture will make you deny the Crucified!" It would seem that he said this referring to Julian the Apostate, who, when Judas had become bishop of Jerusalem, inflicted many torments on him and made him a martyr of Christ. Judas heard the devil shouting and screaming but was not frightened in the least. Unshaken, he cursed the evil spirit, saying: "May Christ damn you to eternal fire!"
Judas was later baptized and given the name Quiriacus. When the bishop of Jerusalem died, Quiriacus was ordained bishop. Now the blessed Helena did not have the nails from Christ's cross and asked the new bishop to go to the place and try to find them. He went there and prayed profusely, and at once the nails appeared on the surface, gleaming like gold, and he collected them and delivered them to the queen, who fell to her knees and bowed her head, worshiping them with much reverence. Helena brought a piece of the cross to her son and left other pieces, encased in silver, in the place where the cross had been found.
She also brought to Constantine the nails that had held the Lord's body on the cross. Eusebius of Caesarea reports that the emperor had one of them fashioned into a bit for his war bridle, and had the others welded into his helmet. Some assert, however, as does Gregory of Tours, that four nails had pierced Christ's flesh, and that Helena put two of them in the emperor's bridle, fixed the third into the statue of Constantine that dominates the city of Rome, and cast the fourth into the Adriatic sea, which until then had been a whirlpool perilous to mariners. She also commanded that this feast be solemnly celebrated annually in honour of the finding of the holy cross.
Ambrose has more to say on this subject: "Helena sought the Lord's nails and found them, and had one of them made into a bit and the other worked into the royal crown: it was right that the nail be on the head, the crown at the top, the bridle in the hand, so that the mind should be pre-eminent, the faith should shine forth, and the royal power should rule."
At a later time Julian the Apostate put Bishop Saint Quiriacus to death because he had found the holy cross while the emperor was trying to destroy the sign of the cross everywhere. When Julian was on his way to attack the Persians, he invited Quiriacus to sacrifice to the idols, and when the bishop refused, Julian ordered his right hand to be cut off, saying: "With that hand you wrote many letters recalling many people from the cult of the gods." Quiriacus answered him: "You are doing me a favour, you rabid dog, because before I believed in Christ, I often wrote letters to the Jewish synagogues to dissuade everyone from believing in Christ, and now you have cut this scandal from my body." Then Julian had lead melted and poured into the saint's mouth, and an iron bed prepared on which Quiriacus was laid while hot coals and fat were sprinkled over him. When the saint lay there motionless, Julian said to him: "If you will not sacrifice to the gods, at least say that you are not a Christian!" Quiriacus cursed him and refused, so he ordered a deep trench to be dug and venomous snakes to be put in it, and Quiriacus to be thrown in on top of them; but the snakes died instantly. The emperor commanded that the bishop be thrown into a caldron full of boiling oil, and the saint, making the sign of the cross, was about to step into it of his own volition, and prayed the Lord to baptize him again with the bath of martyrdom. This angered Julian, who ordered the soldiers to plunge a sword into Quiriacus's chest, and so the saint merited to finish his life in the Lord.
The great power of the cross is evident in the experience of a young notary, a Christian. A sorcerer had deluded him and promised him great wealth, then led him to a place to which the sorcerer had summoned the demons. There the notary saw a huge Ethiopian 10 seated on a high throne, around which stood other Ethiopians armed with spears and cudgels. The large Ethiopian asked the sorcerer: "Who is this boy?" The sorcerer: "My lord, he is our slave." The demon to the notary: "If you will adore me and be my servant, and deny your Christ, I will have you seated at my right hand." The notary quickly made the sign of the cross and declared that he was in all freedom the servant of Christ his Saviour; and the minute he made the sign of the cross, the horde of demons vanished. There came a time when this notary went into the church of Saint Sophia with his master, and they both stood before an image of Christ the Saviour. The master noticed that the image had its eyes fixed on the notary, looking at him attentively. The master wondered at this and directed the young man to move to the right, and he saw that the image's eyes turned and were again fixed on the notary. He had the youth go to the left, with the same result. The master begged him to say how he had merited of God that the sacred image should so keep its eyes on him. The young man answered that he was not aware of having done anything meritorious, unless it was that he had refused, before the devil, to deny his Lord.
1 It was called the forest house because so many cedar trees had been used in its construction.
2 John 5:2.
3 Natmei (in Graesse) is no doubt a scribe's error (or Graesse's) for the Nathinaei of I Chron. 9:2, which the New English Bible translates "temple-servitors."
4 Most likely Augustine, whom Jacobus, elsewhere in the Legenda aurea, calls doctor egregius, the term he uses here.
7 See the legend of Saint Silvester, chapter 12 above.
8 The confusion about Constantine's part in the finding of the cross (or his father's, whose name was not Constantine but Constantius) no doubt goes back to the manuscript sources available to Jacobus, including not only Eusebius and the Tripartite History but the more or less "authentic," or frankly apocryphal, documents to which Jacobus refers. The uncertainty about the time of his baptism persists among present-day scholars.
9 The word stabularia can mean either innkeeper or servant in an inn.
10 Aethiops, in Jacobus's time, meant a black man, the colour black standing for evil as white for
Virtue. This followed patristic exegesis of passages in the Old and New Testaments. There was no racial implication, because black people were rarely if ever known in Jacobus's time and place.