The Legend of the True Cross

The Story Behind the Art

Dream of Constantine, Agnolo Gaddi, Santa Croce

This popular medieval story was part of the Golden Legend by the 13th-century bishop of Genoa, the Blessed Jacopo de Voragine, and remained an inspiration to artists (notably in the renowned fresco cycle by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, but also in Agnolo Gaddi's recently beautifully restored work in the chancel of Santa Croce) until the Counter-Reformation suppressed it for its historical inaccuracies.

It begins with Noah’s son, Seth, as an old man, asking for the essence of mercy. The Angel Gabriel replies by giving Seth a branch, saying that 5,000 years must pass before mankind may know true redemption. Seth plants the branch over Adam’s grave on Mount Sinai, and it grows into a magnificent tree.

King Solomon orders the tree cut, but as it is too large to move, the trunk stays where it is and is used as the main beam of a bridge. The Queen of Sheba is about to cross the bridge when she has a vision that the saviour of the world will be suspended from its wood, and that his death will mark the end of the Kingdom of the Jews. She refuses to cross the bridge, and writes of her dream to Solomon, who has the beam buried deep underground. Nevertheless, it is dug up and used to make the cross of Christ.

The cross next appears in the Emperor Constantine’s dream before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when he hears a voice saying that under this sign he will conquer. When it proves true, he sends his mother Helen to find the cross in Jerusalem. There she meets Judas Cyriacus, a pious Jew who knows where Golgotha is, but won’t tell until Helen has him thrown in a well and nearly starved to death. When at last he agrees to dig, a sweet scent fills the air, and Judas Cyriacus is immediately converted.

To discover which of the three crosses they find is Christ’s, each is held over the coffin of a youth; the True Cross brings him back to life. After all this trouble in finding it, Helen leaves the cross in Jerusalem, where it is stolen by the Persians. Their King Chosroes thinks its power will bring him victory, but instead he loses the battle, and Persia, to Emperor Heraclius, who decides to return the holy relic to Jerusalem. But the gate is blocked by the Angel Gabriel, who reminds the proud Heraclius that Jesus entered the city humbly, on the back of an ass. And so, in a similar manner, the emperor returns the cross to Jerusalem.

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