Saturday 7 January 2012

Signs, Symbols, and Meanings in Art (No.3) - The True Cross

Warning!  This Legend is a complex read.
Piero Della Francesca's Death of Adam from the story of the True Cross fresco in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo.
If you look at the left hand side of the fresco you can see Seth with the Archangel Michael.
This legend of the True Cross is not familiar to us today, but it was common knowledge to medieval man.
According to legend, when Adam grew old, his son, Seth, went to the gates of Paradise and begged for some healing ointment. The Archangel Michael appeared and gave him a branch, supposedly from the Tree of Knowledge.  Seth returned to find his father dead, and planted the branch over his grave.  It grew into a tree which was cut down to build a house for King Solomon, but the trunk could not be accommodated, and so was laid across a stream to serve as a bridge.  On her visit to Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, who had had a vision that the Saviour would one day hang upon this trunk, approached the bridge and knelt to worship it.
Procession of the Queen of Sheba where she recognises the wood of the Cross  from the fresco in Arezzo 
She told Solomon that a man would come to destroy the kingdom of the Jews, and Solomon ordered the wood to be buried deep in the earth. When the time of Christ’s Passion drew near, the wood floated to the surface of a pool and was used to make his Cross.
The story leaps several hundred years to the 4th century, when the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and baptised.  His mother, Helena, went to Jerusalem to seek a relic of the True Cross, but Jewish scholars refused to tell her where to find it.  One Jew was thrown down a dry well and, after six days without food, he capitulated and led Helena to the site of the Cross on Golgotha. Three crosses, however, were found, and since they could not distinguish Christ’s from those of the two thieves, Helena and her companion placed them upright in the city and waited for the Lord to give a sign. A young man was restored to life when the True Cross was held over him, and Helena returned home with part of the supposed relic, now preserved in St. Peter’s, Rome. The True Cross became famous over the centuries as it performed miracle after miracle. According to legend, Chosroes, king of Persia, stole part of the True Cross. Coveting its power, he used it to subjugate his citizens. In the name of the Cross the emperor Heraclius defeated him and ordered the Persians to embrace the Christian faith. On his victorious return to Jerusalem, Heraclius was told by an angel to humble himself. 
Michele Lambertini's painting, The Emperor Heraclius Carries the Cross to Jerusalem, shows him entering the city barefoot, carrying the cross.
Musee du Louvre, Paris via wikipedia
The story of the True Cross links the Fall of Man to the Redemption. It was painted in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, especially in churches that possessed a relic of the Cross, such as Santa Croce, Florence.  Here Agnolo Gaddi painted frescoes of the narrative in the Chancel.
courtesey Web Gallery of Art via wikipedia
Agnolo Gaddi - fresco in Santa Croce, Florence - Discovery of the True Cross 
The story provided artists with a cast of celebrities, a variety of settings and a token piece of anti-semitism. Episodes were not necessarily painted in sequence. Piero della Francesca, painted his frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo. He put the battle scenes of Heraclius against the Persians opposite each other in the lowest tier of the cycle to create a balanced decorative scheme.
Below are some of the scenes from Piero della Francesca's frescoe, which fills the whole of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo 
 Burial of holy wood
Heraclius restores the cross to Jerusalem
 detail from the above painting 
The Queen of Sheba meeting with King Solomon - the handshake between the Queen and King of Israel, portrays 15th century hopes for a union between the Orthodox and Western Churches. 
Detail of Battle depicts the defeat of the Persian king, Chosroes, who had stolen the Cross. 
Finding the True Cross - the town in the background is meant to be Jerusalem but is a fair representation of Arezzo in the 15th century. 
Congratulations if you have made it to the end of this post. The legend of the True Cross is a very complicated story, and although I have tried to simplify it, and hope that the paintings help the narrative, it is a convoluted tale to absorb.
Signs and Symbols and Meanings in Art No.1No. 2
all images from Arezzo via wikipaintings. 


  1. I love this blog Rosemary.. What interesting reading.
    I learnt something i did not know.. I enjoy reading about bible stories and history.. please "some more"
    I will read it again.. its fascinating.
    thank you
    Have a good saturday

  2. Rosemary, once again I learn something new. Art history is largely a foreign land to me, and it had never occurred to me that a story like this might unite artists in its representation. A stunning array of art too- a True Cross exhibition just for us. Thank you!

  3. Definitely more to come Val. I am so pleased that you managed to make your way through it, and that you enjoyed doing so - thanks.

  4. Dear Kate - glad that you found it interesting. References to this story regularly occur in paintings without necessarily being understood by the viewer today.

  5. Glad you enjoyed it Antonio and thanks

  6. i did manage it to the end of your very interesting post. the part with Constantine and his mother Helena was known to me, well from school! Byzantine history was a huge part of our history lessons in Greece, but gosh! its a long time ago... Thank you for a woonderful post : )

  7. Dear demie - you did well getting to the end, it is a rather demanding post, perhaps something a bit lighthearted next time!

  8. Hello, Rosemary - Thank you for the story of the True Cross, a history with which I was not familiar. I have often supposed that a secondary reason for stained glass windows and church frescoes was that they serve as teaching aids for those church-goers who were not literate. They certainly illustrate your history well!

  9. Thank you for your comment Mark - Your supposition about church frescoes and windows is correct, the majority of the population was illiterate. The “Doom Walls” (Last Judgment) in particular had an incredibly powerful impact for medieval worshippers. I hope to feature some of them in 2012.

  10. wonderful story, rosemary. and wonderful paintings. thank you.

  11. Thanks for sharing the legend of the True Cross with us. Have you seen this artwork from Agnolo Gaddi ('The Triumph of the Cross') you can have a look at it here .

    1. The Triumph of the Cross is also a part of the narrative of the True Cross legend and also features in the frescoe cycle by Agnolo Gaddi in Santa Croce, Florence which I showed in this post - thanks very much Flopie

  12. Dear Rosemary,

    This Legend of the True Cross is new to me and very interesting. Thank you for narrating it for us. There is so much to learn about our Lord Christ.

    1. I am pleased that you enjoyed learning about the legend. As I mentioned it was a well known story to medieval man that has almost been lost to us in our modern world.

    2. Today I went back and read your Signs Nos 1 and 2 also. You explain the symbolism in a very nice format. Thank you, again especially since the opportunity to learn these in medieval times didn't offer itself to me.

    3. I have another post coming soon explaining some of the hidden signs in one of Holbein's paintings which you might enjoy. Yes, because medieval man did not have any education and could not read, the religious world was shown to them in the form of art. In Britain there were painted walls in the churches called 'Doom Walls' showing what hell was like, in order to keep medieval man on the straight road to Heaven. Many of these were painted over during Cromwell's Reformation period, but are now being discovered again. I intent to do a post on them too during the coming year.

    4. Yes, by all means call me "Joe". A friend of mine once told me ... "You can call me anything you want to as long as you call me for supper" ... Just thought I would throw that in, but yes, by all means to you I am ... Joe.

  13. Dear Rosemary, thought you might like to know that Shadowman is my Joe. He really likes your blog and has directed me to this post which I am about to read. Olive

    p.s. he rarely comments on blogs so that he commented on yours is wonderful

    1. Dear Olive - that is a really interesting piece of information. I had no idea. It is lovely to be able to communicate with you both. I am so pleased that he enjoys some of the things I put on the blog. That will spur me on to try harder. Can I call him Joe?


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