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 The Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.

To understand the history of the basilica and it's contents, it's necessary to go back to the Crucifixion.  The New Testament accounts report seismic and meteorological anomalies that prompted the Roman soldiers involved to understand that they had done something bad.  They followed the standard Roman cultural response and dug a hole on Golgotha, threw the crosses and everything associated with the Crucifixion into the hole and buried it.  The hill almost immediately became a popular meeting spot for the followers of Jesus.  Altercations broke out between Christian and non-Christian Jews over the meetings.    After years having to break up such disputes, the emperor Hadrian early in the 2d century AD put an end to the problem by having a temple to Venus built on the site.

In the early 4th century, Constantine became emperor and legalized Christianity.  His mother, Helena, a long time Christian herself, in her late 70s, led an expedition to Judea to recover relics from the life of Jesus.  The story of the burial and the temple of Venus was told her by local Christians.  She had the temple demolished and the hill excavated.  The artifacts were found in identifiable condition due to the protection from the rain (sparse in that area anyhow) provided by the temple. In addition to the objects found at Golgotha, St. Helena is credited with recovering many artifacts throughout the Holy Land associated with the life of Jesus and taking them to Rome.  Even the dirt excavated at Golgotha was bagged and loaded on Roman ships.

Helena's palace was located where the present basilica stands.  The first chapel to house some of the artifacts was built at her direction.  Over the centuries, many of the relics were shared with other churches, both in the Byzantine world and in western Europe.  Helen's original chapel was rebuilt and added onto on several occasions until the basilica as it appears today was built in the 12th century and stylistically modified in the 18th century.

During much of the Middle Ages, Santa Croce was an important Church sought out by all Christian pilgrims.  Today, it's essentially a neighborhood parish church in the southern part of Rome.  Few, if any, tourists visit it.  It's located just a kilometer down the street from Basilica di San Giovanni Laterano (St.John-Lateran).  The day we were there, there were only 3 or 4 other tourists.




This is the Aurelian Wall built by the emperor Aurelian in 271 AD as a protective barrier around the entire city of Rome.  The grounds of Helena's palace are bordered on one side by it.




The basilica originally had a Romanesque facade.  The campanile was built at the same time as this iteration of the building, the 12th century AD.  The gardens stretch off to the right.





The lady with the cross at the left side is St. Helena.  The basilica received it's current Baroque appearance during the renovations of the 18th century.




The soil excavated from Golgotha that St. Helena had loaded in ships and brought to Rome?  She plowed it into her gardens here.




The portico of the basilica has the typical Baroque oval shape.




The central nave of the basilica. The eight granite columns in the nave are of pre-Christian Roman origin and were a part of the original 4th century construction. St. Helena built her chapel in the 4th century in the Palazzo Sessoniano, her residence.  Soon thereafter, the palace was renovated and turned into a basilica style building with a nave, two aisles, and apse, etc.  The original chapel remained below.  




The ceiling of the nave created during the 18th century renovation shows the dedication to Pope Benedict XIV.




The Cosmatesque flooring is one of the finest examples in Rome.  It dates to the 12th century construction.




Santa Croce is small for Roman basilicas and has no chapels off the aisles.  Instead, it has alcoves with paintings and altar tables.




The apse contains frescoes telling the story of the True Cross probably dating to the 15th century attributed to Antoniazzo Romano.




Below the main altar are the graves of St. Cesario and St. Anastasio.




The ceiling paneling in front of the apse.




Santa Croce has no transepts.  Where the left transept would be is this stained glass window depicting St. Helena and her son, the emperor Constantine.  His holding of the model of the church indicates that he was the original builder.




To the right of the main altar a passageway leads down to the Chapel of St. Helena.  The first room has this illuminated statue of Helena with the True Cross.




The next room is the original 4th century chapel where the relics were originally kept.  This chapel is an almost exact copy of a martyrium built by Constantine in Jerusalem to guard another fragment of the True Cross.




The mosaics on the ceiling of the Chapel of St. Helena are impressive and well-preserved.




To the left of the main altar a passage leads to the Chapel of the Relics.  If I ever won the lottery big, I'd gladly donate the money to have this monstrosity torn out and replaced.  This quasi-art-deco early-Fascist design shows the influence of Benito Mussolini when it was renovated in 1930.  A dark stain on a beautiful building.




During a renovation of the basilica in 1492, a workman found this brick built in to the wall.  The inscription translates "Cross Title."  When the brick was removed, the clergy who had been called by the workman found behind it an ancient piece of wood with writing scratched into it.  Up to the 19th century, that piece of wood was written off as probably a medieval forgery.  Some additional writings from the time of St. Helena were translated in the 19th century which mentioned the existence of the title though.  Additionally, examinations in the 20th century by experts in a wide range of disciplines have rendered the opinion that this piece of wood could very well be genuine.  In fact, some of the written characters would suggest it is impossible for it to be a medieval forgery.  Portions of the writing have been lost due to deterioration of the edges of the board.  There is enough left to see though that the words on it in Latin were Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum with the same below it in ancient Greek and Hebrew:  "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." No proof exists of it's authenticity but much suggests the possibility of it being the writing Pontius Pilate ordered nailed above Jesus' head.  The same rules apply to it as apply to Christianity:  to the skeptic, no proof is enough and to the believer, no proof is needed.  A picture of the title board from a distance is below.




Photography is banned in the chapel housing the relics during normal open hours.  While I respected that, I happened to be standing in the anteroom outside with my lens zoomed out to the right distance when someone briefly opened the door to enter and I happened to get this somewhat blurry picture of the reliquary.  The long wooden object on the left side of the reliquary is a piece of wood from the cross of the good thief.  The three objects in reliquary chalices on top are (left to right)  (1) A human index finger bone said to be from the finger which the Apostle St. Thomas placed into the side of Jesus. (2) A stone sliver said to be a portion of the scourging pillar from the courtyard of Pontius Pilate. and (3) Two thorns from a crown-shaped garland of thorns found in the excavation of Golgotha.  The large cross in the middle is made of gold and glass and contains and displays three fragments of wood from the True Cross.  Below that on the left is a reliquary chalice containing a nail taken from the True Cross.  On the right is the wooden title board found in 1492 behind the brick marked Titulus Crucis.




Off the hallway going to the Chapel of the Relics is a small side chapel dedicated to a local girl who died from bone cancer in 1937 at age seven.  Circumstances surrounding her life and death have the Holy See considering her elevation to sainthood.  If so proclaimed, she will be the youngest saint of the Church.  If you're interested in her story, it's at