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«HIEROTOPY, JERUSALEM AND THE LEGEND OF THE WOOD OF THE CROSS In his Patterns in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade describes the archetypical need ...»

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Barbara Baert



In his Patterns in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade describes the archetypical need to remain in direct communion with a “centre” producing

the sacred. “The rocks, springs, caves and woods venerated from the earliest

historic times are still, in different forms, held as sacred by Christian communities today. (…) But what the continuity of the sacred places in fact indicates is the autonomy of hierophanies; the sacred expresses itself according to the laws of its own dialectic and this expression comes to man from without. If the “choice” of his sacred places were left to man himself, then there could be no explanation for this continuity”2.

The autonomy of hierophanies and the continuity of the sacred in Nature from without are embedded in the medieval Legend of the Wood of the Cross. How does the narrative, visual and material aspects of this legend relate to that collection of stones, the empty caves, the crusader’s sweat and the dust in pilgrim’s pockets we call Jerusalem? In other words, how was JeI thank Prof. dr. Alexei Lidov for giving me the opportunity to reconsider aspects of my research in the Legend of the Wood of the Cross from a hierotopical point of view. This article is a revision of the material concerning the anthropological concepts of time, space and the human desire to construct the sacred place. See: A Heritage of Holy Wood. The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image // Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions. Medieval and Early Modern Peoples, 22, Leiden-Brill, 2004; The legend of the True Cross between North and South.

Suggestions and Nuances for the Current Research // Annali dell’Università di Ferrara, 1 (2004), р. 123–150; The Mural Paintings in the Campanile of the San Nicolachurch in Lanciano (ca 1330-1400). Contributions to the Reading of an Unknown Legend of the True Cross in the Abruzzi, Italy // Reading Texts and Images. Medieval Images and Texts as Forms of Communications. Papers from the Third Utrecht Symposium on Medieval Literacy, Utrecht 7–-9 December 2000 / Ed. M. Hageman en M. Mostert, Turnhout-Brepols, 2005, p. 311–366.

With special thanks to Liesbet Kusters (K. U. Leuven) for her editorial work on the footnotes, and to Jan Bleyen for the English translation.

Eliade M. Patterns in Comparative Religion. New York, 1954, р. 369.

Hierotopy, Jerusalem and the Legend of the Wood of the Cross 177 rusalem, a catalogue of sacred loci indeed, transmitted by medieval narrative? And how does this widespread medieval tale contribute to our concept ‘Hierotopy’? Originally elaborated and defined by Alexei Lidov, Hierotopy is the formation of the sacred space by means of the interaction of architecture, the material image and rituals. This article however, deals with the mythographic genesis of sacred topography, and does so in the methodological space between hierophany and hierotopy. I will present three angles to detangle this matter: the definition of sacred space in the Legend of the Wood of the Cross, the figure of Seth in Christian tradition, and the impact of the Legend on medieval iconography.



When Adam feels death approaching, he sends his son, Seth, to the earthly Paradise for solace. From the Tree of Life, Seth receives three twigs.

The angel Michael allows him a glimpse of paradise. There he sees a child crying in the top of a tree that first was dry and then became green. The child weeps over the fratricide. He promises salvation in 5000 years. Back home, Seth plants the twigs on the grave of his erstwhile deceased father. In a vision, Moses is asked to go and get the tree at Hebron. So he does. He makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet with the tree and later plants it in the land of Moab where he dies. Again in a vision, also David is asked to pick up the tree in the land of Moab. So he does. On his way to Jerusalem he heals a leper and turns an Ethiopian in to a white man by merely touching them with the tree. At home the tree roots so deeply that David has to divert the city walls. Beneath the tree there came a well. David composes his psalms at the tree’s stem. The tree becomes really big and beautiful by the time of Solomon. Solomon cuts down the tree for the construction of the temple. But the wood constantly changes its dimensions, refusing to fit the temple. Neglected, the wood appropriately is arched over the river Kedron. It is on this wooden bridge that the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba takes place. She foretells that the wood will one day support the Messiah, who shall be executed by the Jews. Filled with mistrust, Solomon tosses the wood into a puddle, the Piscina Probatica (today near Saint Anne’s). In the time of the Passion of Christ, however, the wood is found floating and the Jews fashion a cross from it.

Later the Romans will crucify Christ on it3.

Hereafter follows the Finding of the True Cross. This is the feast of May 3. The story picks up again on 14th of September with the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The relic of Helen was stolen by the Persian Cosdras, but Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor recuperates it in a battle, kills Cosdras, baptises his son, and brings the relic back humbly bare-footed through the Porta Aurea of Jerusalem.

178 Barbara Baert Thus goes the legend as it became widespread in the 13th century4. The famous compilation Legenda Aurea (c. 1260) by Jacobus de Voragine however, gives a summary which leaves out the vision of Seth, and the roles of Moses and David, skipping directly to Solomon5. Jacobus recounts the Legend of the Wood of the Cross as a prefiguration of the Inventio crucis of May 3 and the Exaltation crucis of September 146. The connection between the cross and the lignum vitae is an Early Christian metaphor7. It constitutes the basso continuo of concepts which varied on the synthesis between the cross and the Tree of Life, between Paradise and the sacrifice.

It is known that this typological exegesis started its rampant dissemination in the 12th century. From then onwards, the cross was made part of a diachronic shadow play between the Old and New Testaments: the cross was already there in its potential form in the staff of Moses, in the Tau of Aaron, etc. The idea that the material of the Old Testament wood would effectively become the bearer of the Messiah was unfolded in the narrative since the 12th century from the Book of Genesis to the Passion. The first traces8 of the origins of the legend are evident in the church histories of It would be beyond the scope of the present article to investigate in detail at all aspects of the complex literary history of the formation of the legend. For this see: Meyer W. Die Geschichte des Kreuzholzes vor Christus // Abhandlungen der philosophisch-philologischen Classe der königlich bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 16, 2, Munich, 1882; Miller A. R.

German and Dutch Versions of the Legend of the Wood of the Cross. A Descriptive and Analytical Catalogue / Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Oxford, 1992; Prangsma-Hajenius A. M. L. La légende du Bois de la Croix dans la Littérature française médiévale / Ph.D.

Dissertation, Assen, 1995.

Jacobi a Voragine legenda aurea. Vulgo historia lombardica dicta / Ed. Th. Graesse. Osnabruck, 1969: 303 f.; Jacobus de Voragine. The Golden Legend. Reading on the Saints / Ed. and trans.

W. G. Ryan. 5th edn. New York, 1995, p. 277–284.

Jacobi a Voragine legenda aurea.., p. 605–611; Jacobus de Voragine.., p. 168–173. Originally the feast of the Invention of the Cross was celebrated in Jerusalem on 14th September, and was also seen as the feast of the dedication of the Constantinian church of the Holy Sepulchre. From the 7th century, this feast in honour of Helena and the finding of the Cross was increased in importance by the commemoration of the restitution of the relic of the Cross by Heraclius. For the history of the liturgy, see: Aetheria // Itinerarium Egeria (382–386), Fontes Christiani, 20; Wilkinson J. Egeria's Travels to the Holy Land // Jerusalem-Warminster, 1981, p. 136–137; Le sacramentaire gélasien (Vaticanus Reginensis 316). Sacramentaire presbytérial en usage dans les titres romains au VIIe siècle / Ed. A. Chavasse // Bibliothèque de Théologie, 4, 1, Turnhout, 1958, p. 350–364; L. Van Tongeren. Exaltation of the Cross. Toward the Origins of the Feast of the Cross and the Meaning of the Cross in Early Medieval Liturgy. Louvain, 2000.

See: Reno S. J. The Sacred Tree as an Early Christian Literary Symbol. A Phenomenological Study // Forschungen zur Anthropologie und Religionsgeschichte, 4, Saarbrücken, 1978: passim.

All of the aspects of the complex literary-historical formation process of the legend are too vast to go into here, see: Meyer, op. cit. (n. 3); Miller, op. cit. (n. 3); Prangsma-Hajenius, op.

cit. (n. 3).

Hierotopy, Jerusalem and the Legend of the Wood of the Cross 179 Petrus Comestor9, Johannes Belethus10 and Godfrey of Viterbo’s Pantheon (1180) 11. Jacobus de Voragine names the first two as his authorities in his Legenda Aurea (ca. 1260). It is most probable that the 12th century authors picked up their material from oral circuits, but monastic backgrounds can also be traced back to the 11th century12. Even further back in time we find dualistic milieus, like the 9th-century Bogomils13. Philologists consider this milieu responsible for the syncretism between two origins14: one group originated around the figure of Seth in Greek apochrypha about the life of the protoplasts. The other group developed around the Moses-lore in mainly Slavonic manuscripts on the basis of exodus 15: 25 ostendit ei lignum15.

Another important but exclusively Slavonic feature is the story of a threefold tree withered by Lot16. Isaiah's references to the cedar, the cypress and the pine while making the “place of My Feet glorious” (60: 13) have alGervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia (1212), focuses on Comestor’s Temple passage.

‘Traditio Graecorum habet quod de arbore illa, in cuius fructus peccaviat Adam ramus fuit translatus in Jeruzalem qui in tanteam excrevit arborem, quod de illo facta est crux domini’.

The typology connected with the apple tree becomes more frequent from the 12th century;

Cadwell J. R. Gervasius Tilburiensis. Manuscripts of Gervase of Tilbury's Otia Imperialia // Scriptorium, 16, 1 (1962), p. 28–45; Gervasius Tilburiensis. Le livre des merveilles.

Divertissement pour un empereur / Trans. by A. Duchesne, J. le Goff, et al. Paris, 1992;

Klijn A. F. J. Seth in Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Literature // Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 46, Leiden, 1977, p. 19.

Beleth J. Rationale divinorum officiorum // Patrologia Latina, 202, Paris, 1856, cols. 152–153;

Miller, op. cit. (n. 3), p. 100–101.

Not edited in: Godfrey of Viterbo. Pantheon // Patrologia Latina, 198, Paris, 1855, cols. 872 ff.;

it is included in Meyer, op. cit. (n. 3), p. 112–114; Miller, op. cit. (n. 3), p. 108–114.

Angelov D. Le mouvement bogomile dans les pays balkaniques et son influence en Europe occidentale // Actes du colloque international de civilisations balkaniques (Sinaïa, juillet 1962), p. 173–183; Bozoky E. Le livre secret des cathares. Interrogatio Iohannis. Apocryphe d'origine bogomile. Edition critique, traduction, commentaire / Foreword by E. Turdeanu.

Paris, 1980; Miller, op. cit. (n. 3), p. 47.

See also: Ivanov J. Livres et légendes bogomiles. (Aux sources du catharisme). Paris, 1976.

Klijn, op. cit. (n. 8): passim.

For the Cathars, Moses belonged to the ‘negative zone’. He would have led the Israelites out of Egypt at the command of the evil God; Nelli R. Le phénomène cathare // n.p., 1967, 146, n. 24. Moses makes no further appearance in the mainstream Wood of the Cross Legends of Beleth, Comestor and Jacobus de Voragine, although he was already present in the earliest texts of 12th century (e. g. a Middle English variant with an 11th-century prototype).

On this basis it could be investigated whether Moses was suppressed by the church scholars because of a ‘negative’ past.

Miller, op. cit. (n. 3), p. 31–33; The figure of Lot occupies a central place in a Greek variant (800–1000) which was translated into Slavonic around 1200. By the side of the Nile Lot finds three shoots, which he must water and care for as atonement for his incest. Solomon finds this wood, and vainly tries to incorporate it into the Temple. Later, the Cross is made out of it.

180 Barbara Baert ways been understood as relating to the three types of wood that were made in the construction of the Cross of Christ. In fact, this is the founding legend of the Holy Cross monastery in Jerusalem17.

The Legend of the Wood of the Cross was deeply rooted in the anthropology and mythology of the Christian world, which is evidenced by its diffusion over all the classical languages of the sacred word and in later times also in the vernaculars of Western Europe. What is the common concept and purpose of this tradition in the light of sacred space and hierotopy?

The legend follows the Wood of the Cross on its ‘pilgrimage’ from the Tree of Life to its final destiny as the instrument of the Passion. The old patristic symbolic superposition of paradise with Jerusalem develops in a diachronic narrative18. The selection as well as the interlace of passages based on the books of the bible, are pivoted by three mechanisms.

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