The Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, not far from the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano that we have mentioned earlier, is one of those churches which is rich in history and art. It is within the precincts of the palace of emperor Constantine, whom we revere as the one who gave Christians religious freedom (and other religions too) with the Edict of Milan in 313. This palace also served as a residence for some of the other emperors before him. He made important restructuring to the palace and called it “Sessorium.”
In 324, the seat of the empire moved to Constantinople and the emperor gave the palace to his mother, Elena (248-329 AD). For this reason, the Basilica is called “Sessorian” or “Elenian.” The mother of emperor Constantine, Elena (Helen) is today venerated as a saint and she is the one who found the relics of the Cross of Jesus. Constantine gave her the title of Augusta (i.e. Empress).
When his son moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinople in 324, she was given the opportunity to live in the Palatium Sessorianum, which then became her exclusive residence. In 327-328 AD, Helen undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit the places of the Passion of Christ; during this trip, as the historian Eusebius says, she became involved in numerous acts of Christian piety and construction of churches and she salvaged the relics of the Cross of Jesus. History and legend mingle in the story of this miraculous discovery: from the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Varagine (XIII century), we learn how Helen found numerous crosses on Golgotha and to recognize the one that belonged to Jesus she put the body of a deceased man in contact with the wood which on being touched to the True Cross resurrected” (from the Basilica’s official website).
Let us remember that the event of the finding of the relics of the Holy Cross led to the establishment of a liturgical feast that we celebrate in September, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: “The cross immediately became an object of veneration. At a Good Friday celebration in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century, according to an eyewitness, the wood was taken out of its silver container and placed on a table together with the inscription Pilate ordered placed above Jesus’ head: Then ‘all the people passed through one by one; all of them bowed down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they moved on.’ To this day, the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox alike, celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September, the anniversary of the basilica’s dedication. The feast entered the Western calendar in the seventh century after Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross from the Persians, who had carried it off in 614, 15 years earlier. According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim” (franciscanmedia.org).
So the chapel that Helen built in the palace would later become the first part of the successive Basilica. The Basilica was considerably modified in the 8th and 12th centuries. The Basilica was also completely rebuilt in the 18th century and this is what we see today.
In the church, as we have said, we have the chapel of the relics of the Holy Cross, including the Titulus Crucis, “the wooden tablet of the Cross, probably brought to the Basilica in the VI century and discovered during the restoration works of the XV century. The tablet is written from right to left using Hebrew, Greek and Latin characters and reports the reasons for the death sentence: ‘I. NAZARINVS RE[X IVDAEORVM]’” (from the Basilica’s official website).
The church, which is also a parish, was under the care of the Cistercian monks until 2009 when it was handed over to the diocesan clergy by Pope Benedict XVI. The church is certainly worth a visit for the considerable collection of works of art that are contained therein. Let us only mention here the beautiful fresco by Antoniazzo Romano in the apse.