The True Cross in Constantinople

 

On August 1/12, the Dormition fast begins with the
feast of the Procession of the Honorable Wood of the Holy
and Life-Giving Cross, commemorating a tradition that
began in Constantinople. How did the True Cross come to
Byzantium, and what did this mean for that great Christian
city? This excerpt from the book
Sacred Relics and
Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople
by Holger A. Klein describes the history surrounding
the Holy Cross in the Byzantine Empire.

The Persian invasion of Syria-Palestine in 614 and the
Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637/38 resulted in a number
of important relic translations during the reign of
Emperor Herakleios (610-641) and changed
Constantinople’s status as a repository of sacred
relics for centuries. As suggested by the Chronicon
Paschale
, the relic of the Holy Lance, Sponge, and
the True
Cross from Jerusalem were recovered from the Persians
during the fall of 629, transferred to the capital, and
exhibited for public veneration in the church of Hagia
Sophia for several days. While Emperor Herakleios,
according to some sources, triumphantly returned the relic
of the True Cross from Constantinople to Jerusalem and
exalted it in the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher on 21 March of the following year, the
unexpected loss of the Holy City to the Arabs soon
necessitated the relic’s transfer back into the
capital, where it was now safeguarded by the emperor and
kept inside the confines of the imperial palace.

The forced relocation of the “larger part” of
the relic of the True Cross from Jerusalem to
Constantinople and its presumed deposition in the imperial
palace not only ensured the Empire’s safety and
prosperity for the future, it also re-affirmed the
emperor’s role as the guardian and protector of
Christianity’s most sacred treasure. While a smaller
portion of the relic, associated with Constantine the
Great and set in a bejeweled processional Cross, had
already been used in imperial processions in the beginning
of the sixth century, and is known to have preceded the
imperial army on military campaigns during the reign of
Emperor Maurice, it was the alleged return of the True
Cross from Jerusalem that effectively transformed
Constantinople into a “New Jerusalem” and the
imperial palace into a locus sanctus at the heart
of the Empire. The possession of the True Cross not only
reinforced the emperor’s divine mandate but also
rendered him the most important distributor of relics of
the True Cross in the Christian world, a position future
emperors would eagerly exploit in building political
alliances with Christian rulers and potentates in Western
Europe.

Where the relic of the True Cross from Jerusalem was
originally kept cannot be determined with certainty. In
the second half of the seventh century, when Bishop Arkulf
visited Constantinople on his way back from the Holy Land,
a portion of the relic was, at least for the time of its
public veneration during Holy Week, kept inside Hagia
Sophia in a “very large and beautiful chest […] to
the north of the interior of the building.”
Arkulf’s testimony has often been considered as an
indication that the main relic of the True Cross had, by
the seventh century, been entrusted to the care of the
Patriarch. Judging from later accounts, however, it is
more likely that the relic of the True Cross from
Jerusalem and the so-called “Cross of
Constantine,” first mentioned by Theodore Anagnostes,
were both safeguarded inside the imperial palace,
presumably in the skeuophylakion, and removed only
temporarily for specific liturgical and ceremonial
functions. As recorded in Constantine VII
Porphyrogennetos’ Book of Ceremonies [10th
cent.], important relics of the True Cross were still kept
in the skeuophylakion of the imperial palace during the
tenth century and taken out on specific feasts and
occasions. One such feast was a six-day-long festival
celebrated in mid-Lent that included a public display and
veneration of the relic of the True Cross inside Hagia
Sophia and a related imperial ceremony performed in the
palace.

 

According to the Book of Ceremonies, celebrations
started on the third Sunday of Lent in the skeuophylakion
of the imperial palace. Between the third and sixth ode of
Orthros [Matins], the “three glorious and life-giving
Crosses,” were removed from the treasury, embalmed by
the protopapas, and taken to the Nea Ekklesia, to be
venerated by all. After Orthros was concluded, the Crosses
were taken to the gallery of the church, where the
clergies of the Nea and the imperial palace jointly
intoned the troparia of the Crucifixion. At this time, the
emperor and his co-emperors were given the opportunity to
venerate and kiss the precious and life-giving relics.
Then, the three Crosses were separated from each other.
Accompanied by the clergy of the Nea, a deacon carried one
of them back down to the main level of the church to be
displayed for further veneration. The second Cross was
taken over by the papias of the Great Palace, who,
accompanied by the palace clergy, the protopapas of the
church of St. Stephen, and the diaitarioi of the palace,
carried it in festive procession through the Heliakon [of
the Chrysotriklinos] and from the Chrysotriklinos into the
Lausiakos, where it was displayed for the veneration by
members of the senate. The Cross was then taken to the
Church of the Protomartyr Stephen in the Daphne palace,
where it remained over night. On the following day, the
papias took the relic to Hagia Sophia, where it was
displayed for veneration by the faithful during the rest
of the week. The third Cross never left the gallery of the
Nea. After none on Friday, when public venerations had
ended at Hagia Sophia, the papias and the clergy of the
Nea brought the respective Crosses back into the palace.
Finally, between the third and sixth ode of Orthros on
Sunday, the protopapas and the skeuophylax returned all
Crosses to the skeuophylakion.

What is striking about this description is not only the
fact that, by the tenth century, three Crosses of the
glorious and life-giving Wood, were kept in the
skeuophylakion of the imperial palace, but also that these
relics were employed in a complex ceremony that involved
their display in three distinct locations within the
imperial palace—the Nea Ekklesia, the Lausiakos, and
the Church of St. Stephen—as well as in the church
of Hagia Sophia.

Another, closely related ceremony involving the True Cross
is described in the Book of Ceremonies for the
week before and the two weeks following August 1. Once
again, the ceremony started between the third and sixth
ode of Orthros in the skeuophylakion of the palace. After
the relic was embalmed, it was taken to an unspecified
church within the imperial palace, where it was displayed
for veneration by the emperors. The relic was then taken
to the Lausiakos, where it was set up to be venerated by
the members of the senate. Afterwards, the Cross was taken
to the church of St. Stephen, from where it was carried
through each of the quarters of the capital to
“cleanse and sanctify all places and houses of the
God-guarded and imperial city; and not only the buildings,
but also the walls of the city and its suburbs.” When
the relic returned from its journey on August 13, it was
first brought to the Chrysotriklinos and placed on the
imperial throne. Then, the papias, accompanied by the
protopapas and the clergy, took the relic through the
rooms of the imperial palace to cleanse and sanctify them
as well. For a short while thereafter, the relic was kept
in the oratory of St. Theodore, before the papias carried
it back to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos after
Vespers. Here, the relic was received by the skeuophylax
of the palace and returned to the treasury between the
third and sixth ode of Orthros.

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