The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is one of the great churches of Rome. Home to an assortment of relics related to the Crucifixion of Jesus, it was historically and ironically the least important of the city’s traditional pilgrimage churches. Nevertheless it is one of the seven recognized pilgrimage churches of Rome, despite the fact that it is neither a Basilica Major nor one of the five Patriarchal Basilicas; and its importance has gone up a notch since the Basilica of St. Sebastian was demoted. The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is part of the Vatican City UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Of the original seven great churches of Rome, five were the burial sites of Apostles or early Christian saints; and one was the home church of the Bishop of Rome. The last, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, is the only one that puts saints and politics aside and focuses exclusively on Jesus himself. Specifically, it is dedicated to his last hours of suffering, torture, crucifixion and death; it is one of the world’s greatest repositories of relics related to the Jesus of Nazareth.
In the early 4th century, Helena of Constantinople, mother to the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine I, went on a Christian pilgrimage throughout the Holy Land. During her tour she identified many places related to the life of Jesus and the Apostles, most of which were subsequently adorned by churches. In addition, she went on a relic hunting spree that netted cartloads of artifacts tied to early Christianity. Among her ‘discoveries’ were pieces from the True Cross; bits of the Crown of Thorns; and other souvenirs from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Sometime around 320, Helena brought her collection of relics to Rome, and placed them in a chapel of the imperial palace. In 325, the chapel was expanded and designated as a basilica. It became an overnight success with religious visitors, and was soon an all but mandatory stop on Rome’s pilgrimage trail. Its name, the Basilica of the Holy Cross In Jerusalem, refers to the fact that the church stands on a bed of soil brought back from the city of Jerusalem, and is considered by the Church as part of that Holy City in absentia.
The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem has something of a checkered history, especially in recent years. Many of the relics kept here have been denounced by scientists, historians, and even some church officials as pious frauds. Moreover, the church’s leaders have come under scrutiny for a variety of religious and financial issues. The basilica is now used for concerts and other events, which is also frowned upon by many in the Church.
The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is one of the city’s oldest churches. However, because it has been renovated and expanded numerous times, it bares little resemblance to the ancient palace-chapel of the 4th century, though parts of this early church still survive. Much of the current structure dates to the 12th, 16th and 18th centuries, and from the exterior appears to be a typical baroque-era edifice that tends to blend in with the crowded surrounding buildings.
The focal point of the interior is the Chapel of the Relics, which only dates to the 1930s. The treasures of the Church are kept here. Among them are pieces of the True Cross, including the panel which famously mocked Jesus as King of the Jews. There also two thorns from Jesus’ crown; a nail that was used in the Crucifxion; a piece of the cross of the good thief; the finger of Thomas, which had been placed in Jesus’ wound; a piece of the pillar that Jesus was tied to while being tortured; and other questionable but fascinating odds and ends.
The Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem is located on the city’s east side, not far from the Basilica of St. John in Lateran. Of Rome’s seven pilgrimage churches, it is probably the quietest, and a pleasant escape from the crowds of St. Peter’s Basilica across town. It is open daily from 7:00am-7:30pm (closed 12:45pm-3:30pm for lunch). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.santacorceroma.it (official website).
To find other relics in Rome that are related to the life of Jesus, the best bets are the Basilica of St. John In Lateran, where the Scala Santa are located; and the Basilica of St. Peter In Vatican, where Veronica’s Veil and a host of other precious artifacts are kept.