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What is in that Reliquary? Trying to Find the True Cross

What is in that Reliquary? Trying to Find the True Cross


The cross of Jesus is one of the most important objects in Christianity and there are many reliquaries around the world which are believed to contain a piece of the cross. The most famous one is located in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

The cross, which Jesus is said to have brought to Golgotha and was a witness to his death, is one of the most legendary artifacts of the Bible and other texts related to his story. Due to the lack of items which belonged to the main characters of holy texts, the cross also appears as one of the links between biblical times and now. However, it is also a very mysterious relic.

The Cross and the Empress

Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, became famous in history due to her passion for Christianity, her fierce love to the new religion, and her attempt to convert her son into the new faith. Empress Helena’s travels to the Holy Land changed the world. She arranged her journey to identify the most important places in Christianity. One of her discoveries is related to Christ’s last day of life and death – the cross. The relic immediately became popular. According to a letter written by the nun Egeira in the 380 AD:

''Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the [liturgical] 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 around 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. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again. 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.''

Helena of Constantinople.

Helena of Constantinople. (Public Domain)

In the 4th century AD, it is believed there was also Christ’s crown of thorns, but this artifact became lost soon after the nun’s visit. There is no proof that the two relics really belonged to Jesus, however, there is also no evidence that they couldn't have belonged to him either. When the city of Jerusalem was captured by Sassanid Emperor Khosrau II in 614, he removed the relic, but after fifteen years it was returned.

Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrow II.

Battle between Heraclius' army and Persians under Khosrow II. (Public Domain)

The Same Relic?

Before Heraclius the Byzantine Emperor would bring it back to its homeland, he decided to take the cross on a pilgrimage to Constantinople. After an impressive celebration, he took it back to Jerusalem. The relic officially arrived on March 21, 630.

However, some researchers suggest that it was no longer the same relic. The real one may have been damaged by the Persians, but Heraclius and other nobles wanted to bring this legendary object back for political reasons. However, in the case of relics it is not always so important if they are real. It is much more vital the emotion they bring and/or the religion they support.

The topic of the relic became important again when in 1009 Fatimid caliph decided to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to legend, the Christians hid a part of a cross to save it. Since then it seems to be lost, however, several people have tried to find it. There is also a legend that the cross was discovered again and taken back to the church during the crusades. However, there is no confirmation to this story.

The capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. 1.The Holy Sepulchre 2. The Dome of the Rock 3.Ramparts

The capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. 1.The Holy Sepulchre 2. The Dome of the Rock 3.Ramparts (Public Domain)

The last record of the relic comes from the times of the Battle of Hattin in 1187. It is suggested that Saladin stole the relic, and although the Christian rulers wanted to bring it back, it was lost. The last time the True Cross relic was officially seen was in the city of Saladin – Damascus.

The Battle of Hattin, from a 15th-century manuscript.

The Battle of Hattin, from a 15th-century manuscript. (Public Domain)

Searching for the Relics

The number of relics supposedly from the holy cross is so impressive that they couldn't come from just one cross. If one starts to look around, one will perhaps find that a local church says it contains a relic of the True Cross too.

Although a small relic of the True Cross is still found in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, many churches in Europe believe that they have the most authentic one. It has become a reason for arguments between bishops and priests and a competition between parishes since the crusades.

Most of the relics were brought to European churches from Constantinople. This suggests that if the relics are real, Heraclius never brought the true cross back to Jerusalem. The churches also compete about the size of the relic they hold. Each parish has attempted to prove that their relic is the original. Relics of the cross are connected with famous places like Notre Dame in Paris, Florence Cathedral, Santa Croce in Rome, Santo Toribio de Liebana in Spain, Monasterio de Tarlac in the Philippines, monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, etc.

Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The most important reliquary is made of silver and remains at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It holds a story not only of the man who could have died on it, but of the Christian religion that was created due to his famous death on the cross.

Top image: The Crucifixion. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


Helena Augusta by Jan Willem Drijvers, available at:

The True Cross by Fernand Cabrol, available at:

Relics Reserved in the Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, available at:

Precious Relic of the True Cross, available at:



I viewed a reliquary once wherein they claimed to house a feather from the Holy Ghost.

The catholic empire was built upon bones and indulgences.


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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