Thursday, September 14, 2023

Durandus on the Exaltation of the Cross

This feast is called the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, because Chosroas, the king of the Persians, came to Jerusalem, and took away with him from there the wood of the Lord’s Cross, and having made for himself a house decorated like heaven, he made a seat for himself in it, and put the wood on his right in the place of the Son, and a rooster on his left in the place of the Holy Spirit, and standing in the middle, ordered that he be called God.

The Emperor Chosroas adored by the Persians, and Heraclius being told in a dream to recover the relics of the Cross. Painted ca. 1385 by Agnolo Gaddi in the choir of the Franciscan basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence, as a part of a cycle which tells the full legend of the Cross.
On hearing this, the Roman emperor Heraclius moved his army (against the Persians) and having beaten the son of Chosroas in single combat, took back the Lord’s cross. As he was approaching Jerusalem in great splendor, the gates of the city were closed by an angel, so that he could not enter. And as he wondered very greatly at this, a voice was heard from heaven saying that the King of kings, when He came to suffer for all, had not entered Jerusalem thus decked out, but humbly, and sitting upon a donkey.

And he, at once recognizing his own pride, came down from his horse, and was greatly humbled. And the gates opened up to him of their own accord, and he entered the city barefoot, and as he did so, many people who suffered from various kinds of ailments were cured through the Cross, and the emperor himself broke forth with these most devout praises of the Cross, saying, ‘O Cross, moreover splendid than all the stars, renowned to the world, etc.’ Therefore, he lifted up the cross, and established, with the agreement of the bishops, that in his empire the day of the Exaltation would henceforth be a solemn feast.
The Exaltation of the Cross by Heraclius, mid-15th century, by Piero della Francesca; part of a similar cycle in the basilica of St Francis in Arezzo, Italy. The artist’s habit of depicting people in outlandish hats, which he shares with a number of his Tuscan contemporaries, comes from seeing the delegates of the Eastern churches to the ecumenical council of Florence, which concluded in 1449, shortly before he began this project.
Long afterwards, in the sacristy of St Peter’s basilica, Pope Sergius found a silver container, and in it a cross put together from a large portion of the saving wood, adorned with precious stones, and this was put in the basilica of the Savior (i.e. the Lateran), and adored by the people on the day of the Exaltation.
The feast of the Finding of the Cross is greater than that of the Exaltation because of the authority of the one who instituted it, for the former was established by the Pope, namely Eusebius, but the latter by the emperor.” (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum 7, 30, 1-2)

Our friend Durandus evinces some very typically medieval confusion in narrating these events, which took place nearly 700 years before his time. In the reign of the Persian emperor Khosrow II (590-628), whose name is usually Latinized as Chosroas, one of his generals did capture the city of Jerusalem, steal the True Cross from the basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, and bring it back with him to Persia. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius then engaged Persia in a long and spectacularly successful war, penetrating into enemy territory so deeply and so rapidly that at times he lost communication with his own supply lines. In the midst of his astonishing reversals, Khosrow was overthrown in 628 by his son Kavad, who then sued for peace. Heraclius was able to impose the return of the True Cross and various other relics taken in 614 as one of the terms of the peace treaty, and did indeed bring them back to the Holy City in a splendid ceremony.

Piero’s fantastically complicated version of the battle between Heraclius and Chosroas.
All this is narrated in the Roman Breviary in the second nocturn of Matins, leaving out the most obviously legendary embellishment, the story of Chosroas and his chamber made to look like heaven, which is also included in Bl. Jacopo da Voragine’s Golden Legend. The idea of an emperor ordering himself to be worshiped as a god is, of course, a memory of the ancient Romans’ cult of the divinized emperors, the principal cause of conflict between them and the early Christians. It is also unlikely that a Greek-speaking emperor would “break forth with devout praises of the Cross” in the form of the Roman antiphon for the Magnificat at First Vespers.
Aña O Crux, splendidior cunctis astris, mundo célebris, homínibus multum amábilis, sanctior universis: quae sola fuisti digna portáre talentum mundi, dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulcia ferens póndera; salva praesentem catervam in tuis hodie láudibus congregátam. (O Cross, more splendid than all the stars, renowned throughout the workd, much loved by men, more holy than all things, who alone wast worthy to bear the Price of the world, sweet word, bearing the sweet nails and the sweet burdens, save the flock here gathered today in thy praises. A polyphonic setting by Orlando de Lassus.)
The events surrounding the loss and recovery of the True Cross under Heraclius have long been associated with the feast of the Exaltation in the West, but in the Byzantine Rite, they are not mentioned at all. There are, however, a few mentions of the emperor Constantine in the feast’s liturgical texts, and one of his mother Helena, the discoverer of the Cross.
As I explained in an article last year, many major feasts in the Byzantine Rite are followed immediately by a “synaxis” (“σύναξις” in Greek, “собóръ” in Church Slavonic), a commemoration of a sacred person who figures prominently in the feast, but who is, as it were, overshadowed by its principal subject. (Scholars of the Eastern rites also call them “concomitant feasts.” Byzantium borrowed this custom, along with various others, from the traditions of the Syrian church and of Jerusalem.) This past Saturday, for example, was the Synaxis of Ss Joachim and Anne, which is kept the day after the Birth of the Virgin Mary. Another is kept in honor of the Virgin Herself on the day after Christmas, another of St Gabriel on the day after the Annunciation, etc.
The dedication of the church of the Holy Sepulcher, which Constantine and Helena built over the site of the Lord’s tomb, was celebrated on September 13th, and was one of the most important feasts in Jerusalem; in the oldest sources of the city’s native liturgical rite, it was kept with an octave. The complex also contained the site where the True Cross was found, and the Cross itself was long kept within it. The Exaltation of the Cross therefore began as a kind of synaxis or concomitant feast for this dedication. Since the latter was closely tied to the traditions of the Holy City, but obviously less important elsewhere, in Byzantium, the Exaltation supplanted the Dedication in importance.
The chapel of the Finding of the Cross within the Holy Sepulcher, served by the Armenian Apostolic Church; from this post of photos by Nicola dei Grandi, also from 2019:
Durandus notes that in the West, the feast of the Finding of the Cross was superior in dignity to that of the Exaltation, although the reason which he gives for this is not really correct. (In pre-Tridentine Roman books, and in the missal and breviary of St Pius V, they have the same rank.) There was a Pope called Eusebius, but he ruled for only 4 months in the year 310, and obviously has nothing to do with either feast.
There have been four Popes named Sergius. Durandus does not say which was the one who discovered the silver reliquary of the True Cross in the sacristy of St Peter’s basilica, but such a reliquary does exist. The Crux Vaticana is also known as the Cross of Justin II, the early Byzantine emperor (reigned 565-78) who gave it to Pope John III sometime around 568. The wood of the Cross contained within it comes from the portion which St Helena had sent to her son in Constantinople more than 200 years earlier. This cross was used for centuries at the adoration ceremony of Good Friday; after being kissed by so many people for so long, the original container mounted in the middle finally disintegrated, and was replaced in the early 19th century.
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Gfawkes05, CC BY-SA 4.0. The silver is gilt, which is why it appears as gold.
Justin II gave a second cross, very similar in form, to St Radegund, the Queen of the Franks (520 ca. – 587); her friend St Venantius Fortunatus, bishop of Poitiers, composed the famous hymns of the Cross Vexilla Regis and Pange, lingua to celebrate its arrival.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: