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The Legend of the True Cross

The Legend of the True Cross

Piero della Francesca (ca. 1410-1492). The Basilica of San Francesco. Arezzo. Ca. 1450-1460.

The true story of the Holy Cross is one of the longest and most fantastic legends of the ‘Golden Legend’. It is told in two separate chapters, one entitled ‘The Finding of the Holy Cross’ and the other ‘The Exaltation of the Holy Cross’. Piero della Francesco made a series of frescoes of this legend in the main chapel of the San Francesco basilica of Arezzo. The Bacci family commissioned the frescoes for their chapel, first to an artist called Bicci di Lorenzo who only painted two scenes namely the four Evangelists and a Last Judgement, then to Piero. Bicci di Lorenzo died in 1452 and Piero della Francesca was asked to finish the work from then on. Piero painted in Arezzo until around 1466 but the frescoes may have been all done long before that date. Piero painted in fresco ten episodes of the ‘Legend of the True Cross’ as told in the ‘Golden Legend’. It is the foremost example of a complete series fully based on the medieval compendium.

Adam’s son Seth was offered a shoot from the tree of mercy and ordered to plant it on the mount of Lebanon. It was a branch of the tree under which Adam had committed his sin. Adam had informed Seth that when the branch bore fruit, his father would be made healthy again. Piero painted his first scene as the ‘Death of Adam’. Adam is seen in agony and talking to Seth who is leaning on a staff. Seth planted the shoot over Adam’s grave. The shoot grew to a tree and it was still standing there in the times of Solomon G49 .

Solomon admired the beauty of the tree. He had the tree cut down for the building of his forest house of which is also written in the Old Testament. The beam never fit in a right place however, so that it was abandoned and thrown over a pond to serve as a bridge.

The Queen of Sheba was about to pass over that bridge, but she saw in a vision suddenly that the Saviour of the world would one day hang from the wood. She therefore refused to go over it and knelt down and worshipped it. Piero’s second fresco thus was the ‘Adoration of the Holy Wood’ in which the Queen of Sheba is seen worshipping the wood after her vision of a saviour.

The Queen told her dream or vision that the kingdom of the Jews would come when a man would hang from this wood to King Solomon. ‘The Meeting of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon’ was Piero’s third scene. The ‘Queen of Sheba worshipping the Wood of the True Cross’ and the ‘Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’ are however in the same fresco, two scenes of different moments in time caught diligently in the same picture.

Solomon feared the prophecy. So the wood was thrown into the pond. Sacred animals came here to bath and the sick were healed at the pond. Piero made another fresco of this, ‘The Transfer of the Holy Wood’.

When Jesus’s time of passion was drawing near, the wood floated up and the Jews remarked it and used it to make Jesus’s cross. After Jesus’s Crucifixion, the cross laid hidden underground.

The East-Roman Emperor Constantine was attacked by hordes of Barbarians along the Danube. He could only beat the Barbarians back when an angel showed him a sign of a cross in flaming light. This was the occasion for Piero della Francesco’s fifth painting, ‘The Dream of Constantine’. An angel falls down from the sky at night over the tent of the emperor. Constantine is sleeping and so is his servant, but guards in heavy armour stand to the watch. Piero had an example of the cycle of the ‘Legend of the True Cross’. Already around 1380 to 1390 Agnolo Gaddi had made frescoes of certain scenes of the legend in the church of Santa Croce of Florence. The ‘Dream of Constantine’ is Piero’s fresco that resembles most Gaddi’s. Piero has used almost the same composition but reversed the scene. Gaddi’s paintings are more gentle and elegant than Piero’s. In the comparison we feel the stern geometric, systematic hand of Piero at work instead of a warmer feeling hearth like Gaddi.

Constantine won the battle and believed in Christ. He converted to Christianity and due to the grandeur of the Constantines Byzantium would be renamed Constantinople, thus also indicating the transition from heathen gods to Christianity of the East-Roman empire. Piero diverted from the ‘Golden Legend’ to follow another tale of Emperor Constantine. A biography of the emperor written by Lactantius told that Constantine was asked in a dream to put the sign of Christ, the chi-rho letters on his shield. The next day Constantine won a battle against Maxentius. Piero painted the fresco of ‘The Battle at the Bridge’ as the battle between the emperors Constantine and Maxentius. In the two battle scenes of the frescoes Piero slightly deviated from the original story of the ‘Golden Legend’. This battle scene is one of the most admired frescoes. Powerful horses and the armies with flying pavilions and frightful long lances held high are poised for battle. Constantine indicates the direction of Maxentius whose army is seen fleeing on the other side of the river.

At the death of his father, the younger Constantine sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to recuperate the cross.

The Queen asked the Jewish scholars about the place where Christ had been crucified. But the Jews refused to answer for fear of the Emperor. Helena threatened them all to die by fire. The Jews then handed over one of them, Judas, and said that he would answer since he was the son of a just man and a prophet. But the Jews had told Judas to yield nothing to the foreign Queen unless forced to. So Helena had to threaten again and she threw Judas in a dry well. Judas was tortured and of this scene Piero again made a panel in the chapel, his ‘Torture of Judas’.

After seven days without food and drink, Judas promised Helena to show where the cross was. Judas took Helena to a place where stood a pagan temple of Venus. Helena had the temple razed and the site ploughed up. Then Judas himself started to dig and found three crosses, which he showed to the Queen. A way had to be found to prove which of the three crosses was the one on which Jesus had been crucified. The crosses were placed in the centre of the town. A body of a young man was being carried past and Judas halted the cortege. When Judas held the third cross over the corpse, the young man came back to life. The true cross was thus identified. This became one of the most important scenes of Piero della Francesca, the ‘Finding and the Proof of the True Cross’.

Judas was later baptised and given the name Quiriacus. Still later he was ordained bishop of Jerusalem.

Helena also wanted to have the nails of the cross. Quiriacus went to the place of the burial, prayed and the nails appeared miraculously on the surface. Helena brought a piece of the cross and the nails to her son Constantine who had one nail inserted in his crown. Other parts of the cross remained in Jerusalem.

Still later, Emperor Julian the Apostate had Saint Quiriacus tortured and put to death.

In 615 Chosroës, king of the Persians, subjected all the earth’s kingdoms to his rule. When he came to Jerusalem, he took the part of the Holy Cross that Helena had left there, built himself a huge tower and stayed there with the piece of the wood. He relented power to his son and decreed that he himself was God now.

The Christian Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople marshalled a large army and laid battle to Chosroës’ son near the river Danube. The two men agreed to fight in single combat on a bridge over the river, the victor to take over the empire and thus sparing both armies. Piero della Francesca made a panel of the battle between Heraclius and Chosroës’ son, usually explained as the battle between Heraclius and Chosroës himself. This battle scene shows an old, defeated Chosroës knelt before his throne. Piero della Francesca has, as happened in many medieval pictures, shown two scenes of different moments: the battle on the left and Chosroës’ demise on the right. This battle scene is better preserved so again it is an image of Renaissance armies that has been reproduced many times. The black eagle flag of Heraclius prevails and also a flag with the cross of the Resurrection is held above the armies.

Heraclius won, so all the people of Chosroës acknowledged Heraclius as their Emperor and all were baptised.

Heraclius now journeyed to Jerusalem to confront Chosroës himself. He found the ‘god’ seated on his golden throne and decapitated him.

Heraclius brought the rests of the Holy Cross back to the Mount of Olives, mounted on his royal palfrey and arrayed in all his imperial regalia. He rode through the same gate through which Jesus had passed on his way to Crucifixion. But the stones of the gateway fell down and blocked the road. An angel carrying a cross in its arms came down and announced that when Jesus had passed here he wore no royal pomp. Whereupon the angel disappeared. Heraclius now shed tears, took off his royal garments and stepped forward thus humbled. The gateway raised itself from the ground to allow passage. The truly devote Emperor thus praised the Holy Cross and brought it back to its rightful place. This was the subject of Piero’s last fresco, the ‘Exaltation of the True Cross’ in which the angel suggests the Emperor to enter the gate in humility.

Piero della Francesco added a magnificent ‘Annunciation’ on a fresco of the left wall of the basilica, which only apparently has no connection to the other stories. The Queen of Sheba saw a saviour on the Cross. The whole story of the New Testament is the life of Jesus, which ended on the Cross and started with the Annunciation. The Cross is the everlasting symbol of Jesus’s life, and Jesus’s life was announced by an angel to Mary.

All the frescoes of the legend in Arezzo’s basilica are fabulous. They are the images filled with the wonder of centuries, an ode to the main symbol of Christendom. The ‘Finding and Proof of the True Cross’ is one of the largest frescoes in the church. Two scenes are depicted in the same one picture. To the left, Judas has indicated the place of the burial of the crosses. Judas stands next to the hole that was dug. He shows the Cross to Queen Helena who is accompanied by her court, which includes a dwarf. Men with shovels stand next to the pit and a man heaves the Cross from the ground, out of the earth, to Helena and Judas. Behind the rocks of the Mount of Olives rises Jerusalem, which is an idealised view of Arezzo.

In the scene on the right Helena has knelt in the middle of the town. A deceased youth is brought forward in his coffin. Judas holds the True Cross over the corpse and the young man is seen to come miraculously to life again, to exalt the Cross. Helena is accompanied by her ladies in waiting whereas the funeral party consists of men mostly.

Piero della Francesco’s paintings are a good example of the tremendous frescoes, or ‘affreschi’, that adorned Italy’s churches. One recognises the separate areas painted in one colour each. These effects are natural in the fresco technique, in which it was almost impossible to paint one colour over the other to obtain all kinds of hues of various colours within each other. The areas of one sole colour had to be juxtaposed in frescoes, adding to the impression of quiet dignity that emanates from the paintings. And Piero painted in light colours, with shadows only to be seen on the ground. Although filling the enormous surfaces was a long work, Piero della Francesca cared for every detail. He painted many figures, all his figures are different, all are variously dressed, and all wear different hats or headdresses. Piero della Francesca’s scenes are always static and remain so also in this panel, even though a story is told. Piero succeeded in showing the story in a lively manner without leaving his personal style. Action is mainly indicated by the two oblique lines, on the left and right, formed by the Cross. In both subscenes the Cross is heaven from the ground and rises out of the mass of figures and these lines bring the liveliness in the composition. In other scenes also such as the battle scenes, the oblique lines that rise out of the mass of figures give an impression of nervousness, of movement, energy and epic exaltation.

Piero della Francesca’s style is very apparent in the Arezzo paintings. Piero is the artist of tranquil dignity, of quiet force, of powerful silent expression, and of static testimony. He was a painter of strict geometric lines as can also be seen in the horizontality of his composition, and in the exact perspective demonstrated in the receding lines of the buildings on the right. This strictness is also present in the pure forms of the façade behind the scene of the proof of the True Cross. The façade is made up of rectangles, of triangles and of circles alone without any ornament. This is one of the best expressions of Piero’s mathematical and ordered mind. Piero’s light colours, his judicious creation of space in the picture and the all-pervading eery light of his scenes make him stand out from all other major Italian artists of his time.

Piero placed his figures in front of an austere city scene thus confronting people with an almost alien environment of cold marble. He pictured flesh and blood in front of cold stone. Only the people are in soft round forms, which contrast with the hard lines of their background. The coolness that is thus generated lends the viewer an impression of the heavenly eternal within which move the human figures.

Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the basilica of Arezzo can be considered to be among the major works of art of the past centuries. Among these we can name the ‘Holy Lamb’ of the Van Eyck brothers, the San Marco murals by Fra Angelico, the altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald in Colmar, the Maestà altarpiece of Duccio di Buoninsegna in the cathedral of Pisa, the frescoes of the Arena Chapel in Padua made by Giotto and the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo.

In the thirteenth century Saint Louis, king of France, bought a large piece of the cross and the thorn crown of Jesus from Emperor Balduin II of Constantinople. The King built a chapel for the relics, which is now the splendour of Gothic art of Paris, the ‘Sainte Chapelle’ or Holy Chapel. The relics are still in Paris, in the Notre Dame cathedral not far from the Sainte Chapelle. A special French Order, called the ‘Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem’, jealously guards them.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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