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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.

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History and Sidelights

Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Image by PD Art