Friday, April 14, 2017

The Wood of the Cross - Good Friday, April 14, 2017

As I write about the lopped or rough-hewn cross, I will try to not repeat what has been said already in the Tree of Jesse blogs, especially those from August 2015, but some repetition is probably inevitable.  So, the writer asks for the readers’ indulgence.

The medieval mind was preoccupied with the interplay of words and images (typological thinking) Examples shown in three biblical texts are: 1) Isaiah speaks of a stem from the tree stump of Jesse, 2) Jeremiah prophecies a righteous Branch from David, 3) Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree that grew from the center of the earth to a great height, but was then cut down as predicting the life that the King was to lead.  The tree was hewed down so it can regrow as a Messianic kingdom.  The medieval mind saw these symbols of growth and destruction of trees as the destruction of Israel and subsequent redemption through Jesus Christ.  The reference is not just to the events of the gospels but also the hoped for second coming as expressed in Revelation 5.5.

            et unus de senioribus dicit mihi ne fleveris ecce vicit leo de tribu 
            Iuda radix David aperire librum et septem signacula eius.
            (Vulgate: Apocalypsis 5:5)
            And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe
            of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose
            the seven seals thereof. (Revelation 5.5 KJV)

Multiple layers of means were sought and found.  Pictorial representations showing topological reasoning reinforced the need to hear or read the words and consider the many possible layers of meaning.

Typological window of the Redemption from Cathedral of St. Stephen, Chalons-en-Champagne, France. Glass dates 1138-1147. Center-the body of Christ is on a green cross, flanked by St. Mary and St. John. The round figures on the left and right above the cross are the sun and the moon. The half-round windows clockwise from the top are: Church Triumphant, Moses raising the brazen serpent, Synagogue, and the sacrifice of Isaac. The Crucifixion of Jesus was often linked with the near sacrifice of Isaac and the substitution of a ram for Isaac, the sacrifice of Jesus by his death, and the lifting up of the bronze snake of Moses to save the Israelites were all closely linked in medieval thinking.  The Church (Ecclesia) triumphing over Synagogue appeared from about 850-early 1300s when the images almost disappear.

The link between the stump of Jesse, the rod of Moses, the wood of the (true) Cross, and the Tree of Life was made well before the 11th or 12th century.  For example, Bishop Quodvultdeus of Carthage (active c. 437-c.453), a younger contemporary of and correspondent with Augustine of Hippo, wrote a sermon that identified the wood of the cross with the shoot from the stock of Jesse, and the rod of Moses.[i]

 O agne occise, o Christe sancte pro nobis crucifixe, qui ut lapsa reparares in cruce pependisti: ipsa est illa virga regni tui, crux ipsa, in quam, qua virtus in infirmitate perficitur; ipsa illa virga crux, ipsa illa virga quae floruit ex radice Jesse; ipsa illa virga quam portabat Moyses, quae conversa in serpentem glutiit magorum serpentes: doctrina Christi diffusa per omnes gentes, haereticos superans dementes.[ii]

Oh lamb had been slain, who was crucified for us, O holy Christ, who hung upon the cross that [our] Fall may be repaired: scepter of thy kingdom is that the very cross, into which…any virtue is made perfect in weakness: none other than that the rod of the cross, this very same rod which flowered from the root Jesse, that she was carrying a rod as Moses, which was turned into a snake swallow[ing] magicians’ snakes: the doctrine of Christ spread throughout the nation, surpassing the demented heretics.

Quodvultdeus’ sermon was attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo.  And under that name the sermon was known in England by the early 12th century.  Quite a number, perhaps nine, of his sermons were known in England.  Two manuscript copies of the sermons are preserved in cathedral libraries.  One early 12th century manuscript is in the Salisbury Cathedral library.[iii]  The second 12th century copy is among a collection of sermons in a manuscript at Worcester Cathedral library.[iv]

References to the wood of the Cross in the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend), Vita Adae et Evae (Life of Adam and Eve), the Holy Rood legend, and the Pantheon of Godfrey of Viterbo have been mentioned in previous blogs.

Looking over my notes, I may have left out one more version of the wood of the Cross.  The Gospel of Nicodemus or The Acts of Pilate was written perhaps as early as the 4th century.[v]   An apparently later addition to the text was a description of Jesus’ descent into and Harrowing of Hell.  There is scholarly debate as to the original language of composition and the date of the Descensus part of the tale.  It was probably not added until after the 6th century since Gregory of Tours (540-594) references the Gospel of Nicodemus without mentioning the Descent in Hell part of the story.[vi]   In any case, Anglo-Saxon England knew the Latin story.  The text includes another version of Adam’s son, Seth, begging before the gates of Paradise for the oil of mercy for his father Adam.  Seth recalled that as he begged for the oil of mercy, the angel Michael came to him and said that he could not have the oil of mercy but that a Savior, the Son of God, would come in 5,500 years and raise up the body of Adam and the bodies of the dead.  Jesus will “lead our father Adam into paradise to the tree of mercy.”  In the second Latin version of the text, the writer has the prophet Jeremias(h) say, “When I was upon earth, I prophesied of the Son of God, that He was seen upon earth, and dwelt with men.”[vii]

The legends of the finding of the True Cross were written down first and Greek.  Depictions of the Crucifixion in late Latin art appear just before or about the same time as the Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia.  Rufinus wrote his books in Italy around 400. They were copied frequently given the number of extant versions.  Rufinus wrote a Latin transliteration of earlier Greek Church Histories to which he added his version of the finding of the True Cross. 
A couple of the earlier crucifixion scenes are found in the British Museum.

4th century Late Roman carnelian intaglio Crucifixion.  British Museum 1895,1113.1

One of four Maskell ivories that formed the sides of a casket. British Museum 1856,0623.5 c.420-430 Made in Rome.

Parenthetically, it is Rufinus’ version of Church History that reached Anglo-Saxon England.  For details, see Gneuss and Lapidge. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100.  Manuscripts are located at Wormsley Library (7th cen. Northumbria or Ireland, then England), Pembroke College Cambridge from Bury St. Edmunds from mid-9th century, Worchester Cathedral MS Q 28 (10th cen.) and Corpus Christi College Cambridge dated to mid-10th and 11th centuries.

Though there are lots of legends as to the wood of the cross, whether the cross was made of one species of wood or three (cedar, pine, cypress), there is no mention of the color of the cross except for the color that one would associate with one species or another. The legends of the finding of the True Cross by Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, record what she did with the cross.  The wood was divided between Jerusalem and Constantinople.

Helena supposedly encased the fragments of the True Cross in a silver reliquary that was left in the care of Bishop of Jerusalem, presumably for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre finished about AD 335, at least that is the version of Theodoret (d. 457)[viii]

There is even earlier evidence for the display of the Cross in silver gilt case from Egeria, a pilgrim to Jerusalem in the 380s.  She is thought to be a nun or a wealthy widow because her Letter or Itinerary to her circle of female friends that describes in some detail the veneration of the Holy Cross on Good Friday (Chapter 37)

Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha [part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem] behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table.
Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it…
And as all the people pass by one by one, all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it...[ix]

Another version of the finding of the Cross by Helen with its accompanying nails was recounted by Bishop Ambrose of Milan in his funeral orations for Emperor Theodosius in February 395.[x]  Again there is no special mention of the wood.  Ambrose seemed especially concerned about the use of the nails in a crown made by Helena for her son Emperor Constantine.

The fact that pieces of the True Cross taken to Constantinople was being distributed to places outside of Jerusalem and Constantinople is described by the Bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril, in his Catechetical Lecture X, Section 19:

The holy wood of the Cross bears witness, seen among us to this day, and from this place now almost filling the whole world, by means of those who in faith take portions from it.[xi]

The encasement of the True Cross and fragments thereof in precious metal adorned with gems is exemplified in the beautiful crux gemmata found in apse mosaics and processional crosses that have survived the centuries. The encasement of sacred fragments in gold adorned with enamels were even made in Anglo-Saxon England.

Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross, made perhaps at Winchester, 10th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, 7943-1862.  The core of this cross is oak.

[i] Quodvultdeus, Sermo De cataclysmo ad catechumenos quoted in Nicole Fallon.  The Cross as Tree: The Wood-of-the–Cross Legends in Middle English and Latin Texts in Medieval England.  Ph.D. Thesis. U. of Toronto. <> 
See also, Quodvultdeus:  <>
[ii] De Cataclysmo: Sermo ad Catechumenos, Caput V-6. Migne, J. P. Patrologia Latina Vol. 40, p.696. Text online at: <,_Augustinus,_Sermones_Dubii._De_Cataclysmo_Sermo_Ad_Catechumenos,_MLT.pdf>
[iii] Salisbury Cathedral Library Manuscript No. 35 f.82r-.97v.
[iv] Part of sermons 1-3 appears in Worcester Cathedral Library F. 92 Sermones ab Adventu ad Pascha. f.89v-90v.
[v]Izydorczyk, Zbigniew, ed. The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus. (1997) Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.  <> See also: <> <>
[vi] Izydorczyk, Zbigniew, ed. The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus. (1997) Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.  <> See also: <> <>
[vii]   Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson. The Gospel of Nicodemus. The Acts of Pilate.  Edinburgh, T. T. Clark, 1867. <> Christ's Descent into Hell. Latin. Second Version. Chapter 6. <>
[viii] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Chapter 17. <>
[ix] Egeria and The Fourth Century Liturgy of Jerusalem, Veneration of the Cross. <>

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