April 4th 2020

“The Exaltation of the True Cross” and and “The Discovery and Proof the True Cross”.  These two frescos can be seen below. We begin with the second image shown. As in other scenes in the cycle, Piero uses Voragine’s Golden Legend as his main source.  Voragine tells how St Helen, the mother of Constantine, goes to Jerusalem to find the True Cross.  Having interrogated some locals, and in particular one by the name of Judas, she has him  confined in a dry well without food or water.  Eventually,  on the seventh day he shows her where the True Cross is buried.  But when her men begin to dig, they find three crosses.  This is the scene shown in the lower of two images, on the left.   Confident that the identity of True Cross will be revealed to them,  they carry the crosses into the city.   When they come upon the dead body of a young man being carried along a street, they hold each of the crosses over him.  The True Cross brings him back to life and this is the scene depicted on the lower right. The young man sits up on the bier with his back to us.  The True Cross is extended over him.   Although Piero uses the new method of perspective,  particularly for the buildings on the right, he evokes a convincing sense of depth principally by the foreshortening of the young man’s body and the True Cross, and by the shadows cast by the figures in the light of morning. Of course, the symbolism of a dead man being raised from death around dawn does not require comment.  The hill in the background suggests the Mount of Olives which is mentioned in the Golden Legend and the beautifully rendered city,  shining in the light of the rising sun, which is meant to be Jerusalem,  is actually Arezzo itself.   The scene higher up shows the walls of Jerusalem and is set centuries later.  St Helen had left a part of the True Cross in Jerusalem but it was stolen by the  Persian King Chosroes.   After a battle (which is shown below these two frescos) the Christian Emperor Heraclius defeats him and returns the relic of the True Cross to Jerusalem.  The Golden Legend relates that when the Emperor and his entourage  arrived at Jerusalem stones miraculously became a wall to block his entry.   An angel reminds him that Christ entered Jerusalem in a far more humble way.  When he takes off his shoes and walks towards the city with the relic of the True Cross, the wall disintegrates.  Here the image of the Emperor is lost but you can see his bare feet as he holds the relic of the True Cross aloft.  (Piero shows it  in the form of a cross.)  Outside the walls  the leading men of the city kneel and take off their hats in adoration.  The elderly man on the right might be Piero himself,  on his way to pay homage.  These two frescos are directly opposite the death of Adam scenes and those of the Queen of Sheba.  The return of the True Cross corresponds to the twig planted on the grave of Adam.  The pre-Christian Queen of Sheba corresponds to  the Christian royal mothe , St Helena.  The ladies in waiting surrounding St Helen in both scenes are arranged behind her in an apse-like manner  in the same way as those of the Queen of Sheba.  These two royal women, are both given the gift of recognising the True Cross and become part of its story.   This story was not without political and religious significance. In the lifetime of Piero there was a move to reunite Eastern and Western Christians. Moreover, in the face of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, a united Christian front would be very important.  The exotic clothes of Greek delegates at Council of Florence which ended in 1445 had caused a stir and it is thought that the exotic hear gear shown here is based on those worn by Greek delegates to the Council.  Franciscan interests in Jerusalem and the relics of the True Cross may have also become significant.  Whilst many such influences were at play, as well as the artistic tradition to which Piero belonged, what he achieves in this cycle of frescos is his own remarkable telling of central position of the actual wood, upon which Christ died, within human history. He starts with Adam and ends with the return of the True Cross to Jerusalem.  In each scene he shows figures suspended in selected moments of that complex narrative.  His purpose was not to present the world as he experienced it, but rather to unfold a sacred narrative that grounds and elevates all human history.  And this is the narrative which brings us to this most singular of Holy Weeks.   The shadow of the cross looms large, but by the grace won through it, may we understand its light.  Faithful cross above all other, One and only noble tree, None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit can equal thee, Dearest wood and dearest iron, And they burden, dear is he. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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