Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

Today's photos:

 

1.  The façade of the Basilica of Santa Croce.

2.  The entrance into the basilica.

3.  Notice the black cross hanging over the altar. It appears to be suspended in mid-air.

4.  A close-up of the "suspended" cross.

5.  The statue of St. Helena, transformed from an ancient statue of Juno.

6.  The Chapel of St. Helena.

7.  The stairway which leads to the Chapel of the Relics.

8.  The entrance into the Chapel of the Relics.

9.  The painting at this side altar shows Pope Innocent II and the antipope Victor II.

10. A close-up of the painting. The scene is described in the text.

 

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) is a church often overlooked by visitors to Rome, perhaps because it is located just outside the historic center, not too far from the better-known Basilica of St. John Lateran. The fascinating history of Santa Croce goes back to the fourth century during the time of the emperor Constantine (306-337). According to the tradition, the church was founded in 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine. It was originally built within a part of the imperial palace where Helena lived.

 

A curiosity

 

The part of the palace where the church originated was called the Sessorium, a Latin word meaning "a place of residence". That part of the palace was often used for meetings of the imperial council. Because of this, the church was originally known as the Basilica Sessoriana. The word sessorium survives today in the English word "session", used to indicate official gatherings, such as a "session of Congress".

 

The name of the basilica, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, derives from the story that St. Helena traveled to the Holy Land, found the Cross of Christ and other relics of the Passion and brought them to Rome. She then had a special chapel built to house these precious relics. In the apse of the church is a large fresco which refers to this event: The Finding of the Cross, a work attributed to Antoniazzo Romano (1492). Hanging above the main altar is a black cross which appears to be suspended in mid-air (photos #3 & 4).

 

The medieval bell tower visible above the left side of the façade (photo #1) belongs to the period of the reconstruction of the church by Pope Lucius II (1144-1145). Several other restorations took place over the centuries, the last major one coming under Benedict XIV (1740-1758), as the inscription across the façade indicates:

 

BENEDICTUS  XIV  P M  IN  HONOREM  S  CRUCIS  PONTIF  SUI  ANNO  IV

 

Benedict XIV Supreme Pontiff in honor of the Holy Cross in the fourth year of his pontificate

 

Inside the church a fifteenth-century ramp to the right of the sanctuary leads down to what is called the Chapel of St. Helena (photo #6) at the level of the ancient Sessorium. Here is where the sacred relics were placed and where they remained for over 1,600 years, until 1930, when a special chapel was built to contain them: the Chapel of the Relics.

 

A curiosity

 

At the bottom of the ramp leading to the Chapel of St. Helena is an enormous statue of the saint (photo #5) in a niche in the wall. It was created in 1730, transformed from an ancient Roman statue of Juno which had been found in Ostia Antica. The changed, or added parts of the statue are the head, the arms, the cross in her right hand and the nails held in her left hand. The rest of her is pagan Juno!

 

The Chapel of the Relics (photo #8) is reached by ascending a stairway (photo #7) on the left side of the sanctuary. On the walls of the stairway are depicted the Stations of the Cross, between which are stone tablets, each one with a Latin text referring to the Passion of Christ. The final text on the left reads:

 

ECCE  LIGNUS  CRUCIS

IN  QUO  SALUS  MUNDI  PEPENDIT

VENITE  ADOREMUS

 

Beholod the wood of the Cross

on which the salvation of the world hung.

Come, let us adore.

 

The items contained in the chapel are considered to be the most sacred relics of the Christian world. They include the following: three pieces of wood from the True Cross, part of the placard on which were written the letters INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews), one of the nails which fastened Christ to the cross, two of the thorns from the crown of thorns, fragments of the column of the scourging of Christ, one of the thirty denarii paid to Judas, the sponge which was dipped in vinegar and offered to Christ on the Cross, and the finger of St. Thomas, which the apostle placed in the wound of Christ after his resurrection. It should be pointed out that these relics are kept in gold reliquaries behind glass, as a result of which you are seeing more reliquary than relic. However, along the stairway leading to the chapel there are photographic reproductions of the reliquaries along with written explanations of what they contain.

 

In addition to the relics listed above, Helena is said to have brought to Rome some soil from Calvary, the site of the crucifixion. This soil was placed beneath the floor of the chapel and is presumably still there.

 

A curiosity

 

The legendary story of how Helena identified the cross she found as that of Jesus is important because it has been depicted many times over the centuries in Christian art. By order of the emperor Hadrian (117-138), a temple to Venus was built on the hill of Calvary in an attempt to obliterate the memory of Christ. Helena, after having ordered the destruction of the temple, had the area excavated. The excavations brought to light three crosses, presumably that of Christ and those of the two thieves. But how was she to know which was the True Cross? Following the advice of a bishop who accompanied her, Helena ordered that the dead body of a man, whose funeral was being conducted at that moment, be placed on each of the three crosses one after the other. When the body touched the Cross of Christ, the man was immediately restored to life.

 

Of course there is much more to see and admire in this magnificent basilica than what I have written here. This short article is just intended to whet your appetite for a possible on-sight visit or some further reading.

 

There is, however, one painting on the main floor of the basilica which is of particular interest to  me because it relates a story about Innocent II, the pope who rebuilt the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in the twelfth century. In my guidebook of that beautiful basilica in the Trastevere neighborhood, I relate the story of the conflict between Innocent II and the antipope, Victor IV who had succeeded another antipope, Anacletus II. After only two months, Victor IV resigned in favor of Innocent. I was amazed to find that this tiny piece of Church history is recalled in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. On the main floor of the church, in the second chapel on the right side, the altarpiece is entitled: St. Bernard induces Victor IV to humble himself before Innocent II (photos #9 & 10). In the painting Innocent is shown wearing the tiara, the papal crown, while Victor holds his own tiara in his hands as he symbolically surrenders it to the rightful pope.

 

The Church celebrates the feast of the Triumph of the Cross (Esultazione della Croce in Italian) every year on September 14. It recalls the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena. The feast day was first instituted by Pope Sergius I (687-701). In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, several other Christian denominations celebrate this feast, including the Church of England, the U.S. Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches.

 

A curiosity

 

This feast is celebrated in a unique and spectacular way in some of the Christian villages of Lebanon and Syria. Large wooden crosses are constructed and bonfires are lit on the peaks of hills to recall the signals by fire sent from Jerusalem to Constantinople to inform Constantine of the important discovery made by his mother. The feast is particularly popular in the small Syrian town of Maalula, but the celebrations this year were much curtailed because of the fierce fighting currently raging in that area.

 

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