In the earliest-known Christian art — that of the catacombs and of the house church at Dura Europos — we find a small vocabulary of images (though not icons in the Eastern Orthodox sense) representative of Christian faith — everything from the Good Shepherd (an image borrowed from the pagan “Ram Bearer”) to simple depictions of biblical stories. Among them are Jonah, the raising of Lazarus (in which Jesus is shown as a magician with a wand), and a number of others. What we do not find is the cross.
To modern Christians that seems very strange, because the image of the cross is today everywhere in Christianity, and in nearly every denomination and sect of it. It has been for many centuries.
One would also think that there would be no question about the visual appearance of the cross, but that is not the case. It is not just that there are differences such as that between the ordinary “latin” cross and the Russian “eight-pointed” cross. The uncertainties go right back to the original texts. The Greek word in the New Testament that is generally translated “cross” — σταυρός (stauros, pronounced stav-ROS in modern Greek) is in itself vague. Originally — in classical Greek — it meant an upright wooden pole. By New Testament times it apparently had come to signify anything from an upright pole to a pole with a crossbeam, etc. Even the Latin word, crux, could indicate a number of different forms, everything from a simple stake to more elaborate frameworks on which an execution could take place.
In early Christian tradition as reflected in written sources, the cross of Jesus seems to have been regarded as in the form of the letter “T,” without a beam extending above the crossbar. This is found (as is the more usual form) in later Christian art — even in the time of the Reformation. But the Russian tradition, as we have seen, long preferred the eight-pointed cross consisting of an upright pole, a crossbeam set a short distance down from the top of the upright, a horizontal signboard placed above the crossbeam, and a slanting foot support above the base.
According To Socrates Scholasticus (born c. 380 c. e.), Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity, Constantine, dreamed that she was to go to Jerusalem. She did so in 326-328, though already in her late seventies. She supposedly found the site of the tomb of Jesus, and in it three crosses — one that of Jesus, and two those of the malefactors crucified with him. She also found (though not attached) the signboard placed above the head of Jesus at the crucifixion. The problem was in determining which cross was that of Jesus.
Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, according to the story, came up with a method. He knew of an ill woman at the point of death. He had her touched by each of the crosses. The first had no effect on her illness, nor did the touch of the second cross. However, when the third cross was brought to her, she was immediately healed and healthy.
Socrates goes on to say that Helena had a church erected over the sepulchre for which her son supplied the materials, and she left part of the cross there, kept in a silver case. The rest of the cross she sent to her son Constantine, who thought it would protect any city in which it was kept. So he had it placed inside a statue of him erected on a pillar in Constantinople.
It makes a good story, very typical of fanciful Christian hagiography, but like most such stories it has its problems, not least among them the fact that the church historian Eusebius says nothing at all about the cross being discovered by Helena, or connecting her with the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then too, Eusebius quotes a letter of Constantine to Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, in which the Emperor relates that excavations on the site of a pagan temple had uncovered a token “of the holiest passion.” So perhaps during excavations to remove a pagan temple and to replace it with a Christian church, some wood was found (or said to be found) which was then put forth as “the True Cross.” But Constantine says nothing about any relation of this to his mother Helena.
But the stories behind icons are not what we think of today as history. Instead, they are hagiography, stories written with a religious (and sometimes religio-political) purpose in mind. There is even a further story associated with the finding — that a funeral was passing by with the body of a dead man. Each of the three crosses was placed on the corpse, and when touched by the third — the cross of Jesus — the dead man came to life.
Be that as it may, the icon type I want to discuss today is that known as the Elevation of the Cross, one of the major Church Festivals of the year celebrated on September 14th.
Here is an example:
It bears the title inscription VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA GOSPODNYA — “THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS OF THE LORD.” It depicts the raising of the cross, after its discovery, before the people of Jerusalem for their veneration. In this example, bishop Makariy (Macarius) stands just to the left of the cross. Another bishop is opposite him. At far left, crowned, is Tsar (Emperor) Constantine, and at far right Tsaritsa (Empress) Elena, Helena.
Note the large size of the cross. In other examples of the same icon type, the cross is often depicted in a much smaller form, as we see in the next icon, which bears the title VOZDVIZHENIE CHESTNAGO KRESTA — THE ELEVATION OF THE HONORABLE CROSS:
In this more elaborate icon, the cross is only a fraction of the size of that in the previous example. It is so small, in fact, that
Bishop Macarius is holding it in his hands above his head. This is the influence of the use of small crosses in church ritual. Note also that in this image, the positions of Constantine and Helena are reversed; she is on the left, and he is on the right.
Note the dark mark in the lower left border just beneath the central image. It is a candle burn, something one often sees on old icons. It was common to display an icon for veneration on a shelf with a candle burning before the image, and sometimes the candle was placed too close.
It is helpful to remember that in the hymns sung on the Festival of the Elevation of the Cross, there are some lines that one frequently finds on Russian cross-associated icons and on Russian crosses in general.
The first is from the tone 1 Troparion:
“O Lord, save thy people” (Спаси, Господи, люди Твоя — (Spasi, Gospodi, liudi tvoya).
The other, very common on cast brass crosses and icons of the Crucifixion, is:
“We bow before your Cross, Lord, and praise your holy resurrection” (Кресту Твоему поклоняемся, Владыко, и Святое Воскресение Твое славим — Krestu tvoemy poklonyaemsya, Vladiko, i svyatoe voskresenie tvoe slavim.”
It is also worth remembering that in Eastern Orthodoxy, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena are called not only saints, but also “Equal to the Apostles.”