|Cruciform text from Luke 1
in minuscule 15
(at the National Library of France)
In a few witnesses to the text of the Gospels – specifically, in Lectionary 233, Lectionary 1635 (known as the New York Cruciform Lectionary, at the Morgan Library), Lectionary 2139, and a lectionary at the Iveron Monastery on
Mount Athos which
currently has no identification-number, and in uncial 047 and minuscule 15 and minuscule 2902 – the
text is arranged in a cruciform shape – sometimes on every page. What motivated the
producers of these manuscripts, in the late 900s and 1000s, to abandon the
traditional format of the text, and to take this impractical and inefficient
|Fol. 42r in Lectionary 233
(at the British Library)
It is possible that cruciform-text arrangement began as a spontaneous expression of some copyists’ Christ-centered piety. And, occasionally, a copyist may have arranged a page’s text in a cruciform format because he wanted to artistically fill the entire page but did not have quite enough text to do so in the normal format. (That seems to be what happened in Lectionary 150 on fol. 248v, and in several other manuscripts and lectionaries.) However, the intriguing possibility exists that the pages of these manuscripts may have initially existed, or were intended to exist – when combined with special covers – as not only books, but as staurothekes – containers of pieces of the True Cross.
It is not my intention here to vindicate or debunk the various legends about the True Cross; instead I will only summarize some of those stories, describe some staurothekes, and suggest how these objects may be related to the cruciform-text lectionaries.
(at Dumbarton Oaks)
The tale of the discovery of the True Cross begins with
Helena, the mother of Constantine, in the early 300s. Helena, who had become a Christian around the year 313 (about the same time when her son legalized Christianity), made a pilgrimage to prominent cities of the eastern Roman Empire, arriving in Jerusalem in 326. She stayed there for some time, not only arranging the improvements of church-buildings there (and nearby in Bethlehem) but also using her considerable wealth to help the poor and needy residents.
|047, from the 700s
In response to a vision, H
elena arranged for an excavation to be undertaken in the area of Jerusalem where it was thought that the tomb of Christ had been. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, received a letter from Constantine instructing him to assist in the search for Christ’s cross, and as a result, not just one, but three crosses, were found in a cistern, along with a plaque that read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Clearly these crosses had once held Jesus, Gestas (the unrepentant thief), and Dismas (the penitent thief), but which was which? In order to determine which cross had held the Savior, each cross was presented to a severely ill woman, under the assumption that the touch of the true cross would cure her. Nothing happened when the first two crosses touched her but at the touch of the third one, she was healed. Helena, convinced that she had discovered the cross of Christ, arranged for part of it to be sent to Constantinople, and another part to Rome, while the rest remained in Jerusalem, where Helena arranged the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
That is the gist of the story as told in 402 by Rufinus in Book 10 of his Church History. Rufinus got his information from an earlier composition by Gelasius of Caesarea. Cyril of Jerusalem (Gelasius’ uncle), in his 4th and 13th Catechetical Lectures, composed in the mid-300s, states (without mentioning Helena) that “the wood of the cross” was discovered in
and “was afterwards distributed piecemeal from here to all the world.” In 351 (in a Letter to Emperor Constantius II) Cyril specifies that “In the days
of your imperial father, Constantine of blessed memory, the saving wood of the
cross was found in Jerusalem.” The story of Helena’s
discovery of the cross of Christ is told by Ambrose of Milan in 395 (in his Oration on the Death of Emperor Theodosius),
and by Paulinus of Nola, in 403 (in his Epistle 31, to Sulpicius Severus). (In Paulinus’ version of the story, contact with the True Cross brings a dead woman back
|A page from
A very similar story is told in the Doctrine of Addai, a composite work of the early 400s. The author of Doctrine of Addai, however, instead of attributing the discovery of the True Cross to
in the 330’s, states that the cross was found by Protonice, the wife of Emperor Claudius, in
the year 51. He also says that after Protonice experienced this proof of Christianity, she wrote a letter telling her husband all about
it, which is supposed to be why Claudius, perturbed by the Jews’ rejection of
their own Messiah, banished them from Rome.
What seems to have happened is that when someone inAccording to Ambrose, the nails which held Christ to the cross were also discovered by Helena, who sent two of them to Constantine, in settings that formed a jeweled crown and a horse-bridle; Ambrose explains this as a fulfillment of the pattern for the leader of God’s people in Psalm 21:4 (“You set a crown of pure gold upon his head”). Theodoret, writing in the 440’s, explained the horse-bridle as an attempt to fulfill the prophetic pattern in Zechariah 14:20 (“In that day, ‘Holiness to the Lord’ shall be engraved on the horses’ bells”).
heard the story about Helena
discovering the cross, he confused Helena
the mother of Constantine with Queen
Helena of Adiabene (a region which on a modern map would be in eastern Turkey,
and northwest Iran). According to Josephus (in Book 20 of Antiquities of the Jews), Helena of
Adiabene also visited Jerusalem, and under her supervision, impressive monuments
(including a tomb) were built in the city (which Josephus mentions repeatedly in
Book Five of Wars of the Jews). The Syriac story-teller adjusted and
embellished the story to make it fit the first century, and explained Claudius’
expulsion of the Jews from Rome (mentioned
in Acts 18:2) in the process.
|The Iron Crown of Lombardy
Other writers state that
sent two nails to Constantine, and he had them fashioned into a helmet and
horse-bridle. (What about the third
nail? Some reports say that it was thrown into the sea, like Jonah, to calm a storm; others say that
it was kept at Jerusalem in a
silver case, and indeed such a case is still there.)
|The covers of the Gospels of Theodelinda.
According to one tradition, centuries later, Gregory the Great gave the nail-crown to Queen Theodelinda of
Lombardy, expressing gratitude for her role in the conversion of her subjects. Known as the Iron Crown of Lombardy, this relic still
exists at the Duomo of Monza near (The metal band in the interior of the crown is silver, however, not iron). The covers of Theodelinda’s Gospels are also there; its pages, unfortunately, are not extant. Milan, Italy.
|The fragment of the True Cross
in the Vatican. Photo credit:
Ku.Ra Communicazione/AP Photo
Paulinus of Nola mentions in his Epistle 32 (another letter to Sulpicius Severus) that he donated a tiny fragment of the True Cross to a church-altar at Primuliacum (adding it to a collection of relics), having received it from Melania, who, in the previous century, had become a resident of Jerusalem in the 360’s before she departed from there in 402 and went to Italy, where she gave the fragment to Paulinus. The veneration of small pieces of the True Cross was very popular in medieval Christendom, especially in
Europe. Apparently very many people received cross-shavings as tokens of gratitude from church-leaders.
Although the story of
Helena’s discovery of
the True Cross was extremely well-known in medieval Christendom – the event had
its own feast-day, September 14, in the Byzantine lectionary-cycle – the same
cannot be said about the backgrounds of most wooden fragments that have been presented as pieces
of the True Cross. Few pieces of
the True Cross have an ancient, traceable history. Since at least the time of Leo I in the 400s, ancient fragments have been kept at Rome,
where they are presently encased within a metal cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
also has a fragment (far smaller than the piece that was captured by Saladin in
1187 at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin).
|Fragments of the True Cross
on display in Jerusalem.
|A Serbian staurotheke at Pienza
(Photographs by Gabriele Fattorini)
A Serbian staurotheke at Pienza (in central
also shaped like a cross, similarly has a round rock crystal at the
intersection of its beams, but unlike the Cong Cross, it still contains the small
wooden relic. A monastery in Spain is said to possess a substantial piece of the True Cross. A test on
the wood of the fragment at the Santo Toribio Monastery has shown that it is cypress-wood, not black
pine. Other respectably ancient fragments are housed at the Olesnicki Chapel in Poland, in the Guelph Cross, in the Hildesheim Cross, etc.
|The relatively large piece
of the True Cross at the
Santo Toribio Monastery
As the Middle Ages commenced, a highly embellished form of the story of the True Cross was incorporated into a collection of stories known as The Golden Legend (Book 3). To those who embraced this form of the story, if the wood in one fragment of the True Cross was different from another fragment, this only showed that the True Cross had been made of different kinds of wood. Isaiah 60:13 was recruited into the service of this idea: “The glory of
shall come to you, the cypress, the pine, and the box tree together, to
beautify the place of My sanctuary, and I will make the place of My feet
glorious.” The phrase “the place of My
feet” was interpreted by those who venerated fragments of the Holy Cross as a
reference to the small bar which sometimes was placed under the feet of victims
of Roman crucifixion.
The expanded version of the story is the basis for the medallion-illustrations of Constantine and Helena in the Stavelot Triptych, a staurotheke which can be viewed in fine detail at the website of the Morgan Library.
|The Stavelot Triptych, an exquisite
relic at the Morgan Library.
After the city of
thoroughly looted by Crusaders in 1204, relics and fake relics virtually poured
into Europe. In
1215, the Fourth Lateran Council passed a regulation prohibiting the sale of
relics, but this was far from successful.
As relics became more commonplace, they tended to be regarded as common
items; relic-pendants, even those supposed to contain splinters of the True
Cross, were treated like jewelry. In
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the
Pardoner candidly admits that many of the relics he encourages people to
venerate and purchase are forgeries; likewise John Calvin and other leading
writers in the Reformation-period ridiculed the proliferation of fragments of
the True Cross.
|The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke -
outer cover and inner compartment.
of Paschal I.
A hundred years before the Sack of Constantinople, though, the possession of a fragment of the True Cross was still a rare privilege, and the relic was considered worthy of a special display. Reliquaries were specially designed to hold the fragment. Typically, the rectangular box had an outer cover, decorated with a picture of Christ’s crucifixion as described in John 19:26-27: John and Mary stand below the cross as Christ says to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother.” Within the box, a cruciform compartment held the slightly smaller cruciform container of the fragment itself. The Fieschi Morgan Staurotheke is a good example of this design, and the Staurotheke of Paschal I (817-824) shows some of the same artistic style, as does the Mosan Reliquary.
|The Mondsee Gospels
at the Walters Art Museum
Reliquary-crosses were designed to be used in processions; the bishop or priest could raise the cross as a banner. On stationary display, the cross-shaped staurotheke often featured a round shield of rock crystal at its center. Rock crystal was a particularly useful stone for reliquary-makers; not only could it be delicately carved, but when shaped into a round hemisphere or similar shape, it acted as a lens, magnifying whatever was underneath the rock crystal.
|A Gospels-cover at
the Victoria & Albert
I propose that the format of the text in cruciform lectionaries was an experiment by copyists who intended for the pages to be bound within covers that served as staurothekes. Such a book is mentioned by John Rufus in his biography of his mentor, Peter of Iberia (411-491). Writing before 518, John Rufus states that Peter and his companions, as they traveled to
Jerusalem, carried with them
some relics, and “Besides this, they carried only the little book of John the
Evangelist, in which was fastened a part of the wood of the holy, precious, and
saving cross, by which they were guarded.” (See page 47 of The Lives of Peter the Iberian, Theodosius of Jerusalem, and the Monk Romanus,
by Cornelia Horn and Robert Phenix, Jr., © 2008 by the Society of Biblical
|The St-Denis rock crystal
probably was made to be
placed in front of a fragment
of the True Cross.
Several extant Gospels-covers feature a cruciform design, with a round piece of rock crystal in the center. Others lack the rock crystal itself but seem to have been designed to hold one. The purpose of the rock crystal on these covers would have been to secure a fragment of the True Cross as part of the cover, and to magnify its appearance. See, for example, the use of rock crystal in the Mondsee Gospels Cover, the Pax of Ariberto, the Shrine of the Stowe Missal, and the empty sockets in the cover of the Trier Gospels-Lectionary of Roger of Helmarshausen.
|The design in the St-Denis rock
crystal is very similar to this