The Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) is a very interesting basilica just a short walk from San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. It is one of the seven pilgrimage churches in the Eternal City. Too often overlooked by visitors (though pilgrims wouldn't miss it), Santa Croce is well worth a visit for its extraordinary collection of relics from the Holy Land, its full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin, the shrine of a young girl who is being considered for sainthood, and its connections with Constantine and St. Helen.
History of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
The Church of the Holy Cross is located on a Roman imperial estate and is built into part of the Sessorian Palace. Several sources, including an inscription in the church, verify that the Sessorian Palace was owned by the empress St. Helen (c.255-330), Constantine's mother.
From the end of the 4th century it was said that St. Helen had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, during which she discovered the True Cross on which Christ was crucified and many other relics. It was also said that she wished to set up a shrine in Rome for pilgrims who could not travel to Jerusalem.
Historical evidence is scarce on this, as no early writers record a connection between Helen and the True Cross. Fragments of the cross, however, were circulating in the West by 348 AD. The earliest historical record of the church, dated to 501 AD, refers to it as "Hierusalem basilica Sessoriani palatii." Architecturally, it is notable that the 4th-century Chapel of St. Helen is quite similar in design to a martyrium that was erected by Constantine in Jerusalem to house a fragment of the True Cross.
The history of the church was first explicitly recorded in a 6th-century passage in the Liber Pontificalis, which states that Emperor Constantine (306-37) founded "a basilica in the Sessorian Palace" and that it received many donations. The church was not referred to as "Holy Cross" until the Middle Ages.
However, the church's connection with St. Helena remains firm. The Chapel of St. Helena, which is held to be the empress's private chapel in the Sessorian Palace, was decorated with mosaics by Emperor Valentinian III (425-455), his mother Galla Placidia and his sister Honoria.
Within a few centuries, the area around the chapel had become isolated from the rest of the city. It was maintained by the clergy of the Lateran but by the 8th century had fallen into quite a poor state. Restorations were made under Pope Gregory II (715-31) and again in 1145, as part of an ongoing papal effort to revive the Lateran area.
In the 12th century, the chapel was rebuilt as a Romanesque basilica (the Cosmatesque pavement and bell tower date from this period), which was referred to as Sanctae Crucis (the Latin equivalent of the Italian Santa Croce) - indicating a relic of the True Cross was enshrined there.
While the papacy was based in Avignon in the 14th century, the church was abandoned. But in 1370, shortly before the papacy returned to Rome, Pope Urban V handed it over to Carthusian monks, who restored the church.
In 1492, a dramatic discovery was made in the course of repairs to a mosaic: a brick inscribed with the words TITULUS CRUCIS (Title of the Cross). Sealed behind the brick was a fragment of an inscription in wood, with the word "Nazarene" written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. This Title is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts:
It is not known how the relic came to the church or who placed it behind the brick, but one possibility is that it was hidden in the wall around 455, when the clergy needed to protect it from the attacking Visigoths.
Regardless of its history, the Title was a highly important discovery. Unlike the cross and the nails of the Crucifixion, there was no previous tradition of the existence of the Title of the Cross. The discovery gave the church renewed importance and resulted in increased building activity and restoration of the church. (On the relic's authenticity, see the listing of all the relics in "What to See," below.)
In 1561, Lombard Cistercian monks from the congregation of San Bernardo replaced the Carthusians as caretakers of Santa Croce. Cistericans still serve the church today. Between 1741 and 1744, Pope Benedict XIV had the Church of the Holy Cross rebuilt in the opulent Baroque style. The architects were Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua. The long-planned roads linking Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme were finally completed at this time.
In 1930, the relics enshrined in the Chapel of St. Helen were moved to a new chapel upstairs, the Chapel of the Holy Relics. The chapel is reached by a wide stairwell flanked by the Stations of the Cross, also dating from 1930. The stairway and its decoration has a definite Mussolini-era feel to it.
What to See at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
The main impression of the basilica today is of the 18th-century Baroque remodelling of the facade and interior. However, there are traces of earlier structures here and there:
The canopy over the altar is 18th-century Baroque. The basalt urn beneath the altar contains the relics of Saints Caesarius and Anastasius.
Down a flight of stairs to the right of the high altar is the interesting Chapel of St. Helen. The chapel and its two adjacent rooms are part of the Sessorian Palace complex owned by St. Helen. In the 4th century, this room was adapted into a chapel, possibly for the personal use of St. Helen herself. The floor level here is the original floor level of the Roman palace, which is 1.98 meters beneath the modern basilica.
The first room of the chapel has a Roman-era statue of St. Helen holding the cross. This is a copy of the Vatican Juno; the pagan goddess has been transformed into Helen with the addition of the cross. Beneath the statue is a floor believed to contain soil from the Holy Land. Under the protective glass covering the soil are many paper prayers from the faithful. The mosaics on the ceiling are 15th-century copies of 5th-century originals put in place by Emperor Valentinian II (425-55) and the empresses Galla Placidia and Honoria. In the second room of the chapel, look for a 4th-century inscription to St. Helen on a statue base on the right wall.
Adjacent to the Chapel of St. Helen is the Gregorian Chapel, built 1495-1520. It is designed as a mirror image of the Chapel of St. Helen, to which it is ajoined. The marble relief of the Pietà was added in 1629. The Altar of St. Gregory contains a famous reliquary, shaped as a triptych with a silver frame. It contains some 200 relics in it, with a 13th or 14th century mosaic of the suffering Christ in the center. According to the Decree on Purgatory, passed by the Council of Trent in 1536, if the Eucharist is celebrated at certain altars, including the Altar of St. Gregory in this chapel, the pilgrim's soul is granted a plenary indulgence and the personal intercession of St Gregory.
At the top of a wide staircase off the left aisle is the Chapel of the Holy Relics, added in 1930. The stairs are flanked by the Stations of the Cross, and the journey to the Chapel is meant to symbolize Christ's journey to Calvary. At the top of the stairs on the right is the brick with the inscription TITULUS CRUCIS, discovered in 1492. The Title itself, found sealed behind the brick, is in a glass display with other relics behind the chapel's altar. The collection of relics here are impressive and most relate directly to the life of Christ.
The relics enshrined at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in the Chapel of the Holy Relics are:
(Note: These may not be the permanent positions of the reliquaries, but this was their position when I visited in July 2006.) Devotionally, the relics from the True Cross are probably the most important. But from a historical and archaeological (as well as devotional) perspective, the Title of the Cross may be the most interesting. As mentioned above in the history of the church, this wooden fragment was discovered sealed behind a brick in the triumphal arch of the basilica in 1492.
The Title was long thought to be a medieval forgery, especially since there was no previous tradition of the existence of such a relic. But in the 19th century another important discovery was made: the travelogue of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria, who traveled to the Holy Land in the late 4th century. Egeria described the veneration of the Title relic at Jerusalem. Further indication that it is not a forgery is the fact that not only the Hebrew, but also the Latin and Greek script is written from right to left. This suggests the inscription was made by a Hebrew accustomed to writing in that direction, not a medieval Latin-speaker.
In a side room in the Chapel of the Holy Relics is another fascinating sight: a full-sized, exact replica of the Shroud of Turin. It is stretched out on the wall at eye level and well-lit, providing a rare opportunity to inspect the famous relic up close. In the corner of the room stands a gory statue of Jesus that was designed based on the portrait in the Shroud.
At the base of the stairs to the Chapel of the Relics is a shrine containing the remains of a modern saint, Antonietta Meo (1930-37), nicknamed Nennolina. This young girl died at the age of six, after having suffering from bone cancer that led to her left leg being amputated. She had visions, wrote letters (most dictated to her mother) and composed a short prayer to Jesus, dedicating her sufferings to him. At least one healing has been attributed to her intercession since her death, and she is currently being considered for official canonization as a saint. She had been baptized at Santa Croce and her body was moved inside its walls in 1999.
Festivals and Events
Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is the station church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, when the relics are exposed for veneration, and on Good Friday when Mass is preceded by a papal procession from the Lateran.
Quick Facts on Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
|Names:||Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem · Santa Croce in Gerusalemme|
|Styles:||Romanesque; Baroque style|
|Dates:||4C, !2C, 18C|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.888094° N, 12.515928° E|
|Address:||Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santa Croce in Gerusalemme|
- Personal visit (July 18, 2006).
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 52-55.
- Santa Croce in Gerusalemme - Churches of Rome
- "Walking off the Map and into the Holy Land" - Angela E. Pometto, Catholic Herald, March 9, 2006
- Rough Guide to Italy, 7th edition (2005), 769.
Map of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.