Last month, Christians around the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. An integral part of this, the foundational moment in Christian history, is that three days earlier Jesus was hung on a wooden cross in a humiliating and agonizing death. By the Middle Ages the True Cross (as the cross of Jesus is known) would become the most significant relic in the Christian world. To this day, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem claims to possess pieces of it. But they aren’t the only ones. Fragments of the True Cross are said to reside in churches and basilicas all over Europe. Is it possible that any of them are the real deal? Whatever happened to the scaffolding for the most important event in Christianity?
At first blush it seems unlikely that any given European relic of the cross would be authentic. In the first place there are just so many. By the end of the medieval period, every royal, high ranking noble, and semi-large was claiming to house important relics of one kind or another. In a satirical piece on pilgrimage, the world-renowned sixteenth century humanist Erasmus wrote, “So they say of the cross of Our Lord, which is shown publicly and privately in so many places, that, if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.” Clearly not every one could be authentic.
As it turns out, Erasmus was being hyperbolic. A survey of extant pieces of the cross, published in 1870 by de Fleury, concluded that actually the volume of fragments in circulation was not even enough to reconstruct a cross, much less build a boat. So far, so good, but are they real?