Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume I/Constantine/Prolegomena/The Mythical Constantine/The Finding of the Cross

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7. The Finding of the Cross.

It is said in a certain “tolerably authentic chronicle,” according to Voragine, that Constantine sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem to try to find the cross on which our Lord was crucified. When she arrived, she bade all the Jewish Rabbis of the whole land gather to meet her. Great was their fear. They suspected that she sought the wood of the cross, a secret which they had promised not to reveal even under torture, because it would mean the end of Jewish supremacy. When they met her, sure enough, she asked for the place of the crucifixion. When they would not tell, she ordered them all to be burned. Frightened, they delivered up Judas, their leader and instigator, saying that he could tell. She gave him his choice of telling or dying by starvation. At first he was obstinate, but six days of total abstinence from food brought him to terms, and on the seventh he promised. He was conducted to the place indicated, and in response to prayer, there was a sort of earthquake, and a perfume filled the air which converted Judas. There was a temple of Venus on the spot. This the queen had destroyed. Then Judas set to digging vigorously, and at the depth of twenty feet, found three crosses, which he brought to Helena. The true cross was tested by its causing a man to rise from the dead, or according to others, by healing a woman, or according to others, by finding the inscription of Pilate. After an exceedingly vigorous conversation between the devil and Judas, the latter was baptized and became Bishop Cyriacus. Then Helena set him hunting for the nails of the cross. He found them shining like gold and brought them to the queen, who departed, taking them and a portion of the wood of the cross. She brought the nails to Constantine, who put them on his bridle and helmet, or according to another account, two were used in this way, and one was thrown into the Adriatic Sea.

It is interesting to trace the melancholy consequences of this particular enterprise of Constantine’s in the sad death of St. Cyriacus née Judas. The Emperor Julian, the apostate, “invited” him to sacrifice to idols. When he refused, melted lead was poured into his mouth; then an iron bedstead was brought, on which he was stretched, while a fire was built underneath and the body of the martyr larded with salt and fat. The saint did not budge, and Julian had a deep well dug, which was filled with venomous serpents. But contact with the saint killed the serpents, and a cauldron of boiling oil succeeded. Julian was so angry at the alacrity and cheerfulness of the saint’s preparations for this bath, that he killed him with a blow of his sword. There is some consolation in the thought of this premature death, in the fact that, unless his claim that he was nephew to Stephen, the Proto-martyr, be disallowed, he had reached a ripe old age of two hundred and fifty years or thereabouts.

The literature on this legend is very great. The finding of the cross is mentioned as early as Cyril of Jerusalem (ab. 347–350), within twenty-five years of the visit of Helena recorded by Eusebius (V. C. 3. 26), and with great frequency afterwards. The failure of any mention by Eusebius seems, however, conclusive against any finding, or pretended finding, at the time of Helena’s famous visit, though the contrary is acutely argued by Newman. The finding and use of the nails is often separated from the other, and is found in many of the sources on Constantine. But even those who believe in the miracle of the finding of the cross will hardly vouch for the story in the above form, which is substantially that of Voragine.

Compare Sinker’s article, Cross, Finding of, in Smith and Cheetham, Dict. 1 (1880), 503–506; Jameson, Hist. of Our Lord, 2 (1872) 385–391; Newman, Essays on Miracles (Lond. 1875) 287–326; and especially Voragine, whom see under Sources. Under the article Helena, in Smith & W. is a sub-article by Argles on the Invention of the Cross, which gives an admirable abstract of the sources in order.

These examples of the stories which have gathered around the name of Constantine do not begin to exhaust the list. The interesting tales of the sword of Constantine presented to Athelstan (Reg. Malms. 1, 1879, p. 55, 468; Eul. Hist. 3, 1863, p. 12), his conversion through remorse, and the whole series of allusions and stories in mediæval fiction and poetry must be passed here. If any one has the curiosity to follow them up, he will find the references in the articles of Heydenreich a good guide to literature. A few stories, like that of Constantine and Tiridates, one hesitates to class among the wholly fictitious (compare, under Sources, Agathangelos, Zenobius, and Faustus).