Here we are in the true Sanctuary of the Cross!
John Paul II ~ March 25, 1979
Those who choose the Domus Sessoriana as a guest house for a holiday in Rome have the opportunity to be close to one of most ancient and significant places of Christianity: the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which can boast sixteen centuries of history and the proximity to St. John Lateran ancient papal see.
It is one of the Seven Pilgrims Churches of Rome that since the Dark Ages pilgrims visited in a single day during the visit of the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. This religious itinerary is still recommended in Holy Years, for those who come to visit Rome as a form of devotion, even for the purchase of indulgences.
The Basilica built during the age of Constantine as Sanctuary, similar to those erected in the Holy Land. That place had witnessed the death and Resurrection of Jesus. This Roman Jerusalem hold and offers to Christians the relics of the Passion of the Lord, found on Calvary hill and brought to Rome by Elena, Emperor Costantine’s aging mother: a part of the Cross, the nail, the Titulus and the thorns.
The Church was constructed in a large hall of Sessorium, the imperial residence in wich Helena resided. Due to this fact, the Church was referred to as helenina basilica or Sessorian Basilica. It was an open site of Christian worship, as shown archeological excavations of the 90s.
During its sixteen centuries of history, the Basilica has continually renewed. Furthermore in the tenth century the monastery was annexed. They took turns until 2009 the benedictines, the Canonici from San Frediano, Carthusians and Cistercians.
In the mid-twelfth century, by the will of Pope Lucius II, it was divided into three naves, a portico were added (no longer preserved) and the Romanesque tower visible from the roof garden of the Domus Sessoriana.
In the XVIII century the Basilica acquired peculiarities of Baroque, thanks to the work of the architects Gregorini and Passalacqua that, by the will of Benedict XIV, erected a new facade and built the oval hall, typical element of Borromini’s architecture. On top of the facade there are the statues of the four Evangelists, of St. Helena and Constantine; in the middle there is the Cross adored by two angels.
The Basilica contains notable artworks: the medieval frescoes in the attic; floor Cosmatesque style, the typical geometric stonework of Roman marble of the twelfth and thirteenth century, made of polychrome marble inlays; the apse decorated with the cycle attributed to Antoniazzo Romano, one of the leading exponents of the Roman school of the Renaissance, depicting the Story of the True Cross, Christ blessing and the discovery of the relics of the Cross; paintings by Raffaele Vanni, Luigi Garza, Carlo Maratta and Giuseppe Passeri and Corrado Giaquinto.
Some original frescoes are preserved in the Museum, werheas some paintings are posted in the stairwell of the Conventual Wing of the building.
Behind the apse there are two chapels, one on the left is dedicated to Saint Gregory, the right one dedicated to Saint Helena. The ancient Cubiculum Sanctae Helenae was - according to historical reconstructions - the private room of the Empress in the Sessorium, where the relics have been preserved for more than a millennium and where the floor was strewn with the land of Calvary.
The Chapel is decorated with frescoes by Nicolò Circignani (Pomarancio, XVI sec.), dedicated to the True Cross. On the ceiling there is a wonderful mosaic, depicting the Blessing Christ, the Evangelists and episodes related to the Cross. This mosaic, dating back to the sixteenth century and by Baldasarre Peruzzi, perhaps designed by Melozzo da Forlì, shows for the first time, the parrot and toucan.
In the Chapel there is a statue of St. Helena, a copy of Vatican Juno, properly adapted with the symbols of the Passion.
In 326 DC Helena, mother of the Emperor Costantino, took a trip in Palestine. It may have been a mission to inspect the churches of the East for her son, or maybe just a desire to take a pilgrimage. However after her trip at the end of fourth century, legend began to attribute her with the rediscovery of the instruments of the Passion on Calvary Hill.
How was it possible that she identified the true cross? Helena searched for the inscription and with the help of the evangelical writing she found: the titulus that Pilate had attached to the cross, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, with the reason for his condemnation. Later it is said that Helena divided the cross into three parts: she left one in Jerusalem, one was sent to her son in Costantinople and she took the third to Rome, together with the other relics of the Passion and a large quantity of earth from Calvary, which she used to cover the pavement of the chapel that was later dedicated to her in the Roman Hierusalem built in the Sessorian palace.
The Relics of the Passion of the Lord were conserved and venerated for over a millennium in the semi-underground chapel dedicated to St. Helena. To save them from the humid environment, they were moved from the ancient cubiculum sanctae Helenae and with the permission of Pius V transported to a drier and more secure place: the chapel of St. Helena. The access path to the chapel was through the monastery, thus women entering would have violated the cloister and risked excommunication. The prohibition was removed only in 1935, by pope Pius XI.
This location, however, did not allow for easy flow of piligrims who became more numerous in modern times. For this reason, during the Holy Year of 1925, it was decided to build a larger chapel with more room and easier access. The present "Sanctuary of the Cross" was buit in the ancient Sacristy of the Basilica on design by architect Florestano Di Fausto. The idea behind the work is that of a pilgrimage to Calvary meditating on the mistery of the Passion and Death of Jesus, a theme that is particularly well expressed by the symbols on the route. Climbing the stairs one recalls the Passion of Jesus with the Stations of the Crucis alternated with citations from the New Testament and the Liturgy of Holy Friday, at the end, from the Vestibule and beyond an iconostasis reaches the vision of the Relics held in six precious Reliquaries realized all or in part during the course of the 1800s to substitute the ancient ones confiscated by the Roman Republic in 1798. To complete the catechesis of the Passion that the Relics suggest, in a room next to the Chapel, a life sized copy of the Sindone is located.
According to the timeworn legend a part of the Cross of Lord was brought to Rome and placed in the Sessorian Basilica. A medieval source reports: “Constantine built a basilica in the Sessorian Palace to place the wood of the Holy Cross there, closed in gold and gems and he gave the basilica the name that it still carries, Hierusalem”.
Now the Reliquary of the Cross presents itself in three fragments inserted into a reliquary in the form of a cross: two in the horizontal harm and one in the vertical arm below. The reliquary, by Giuseppe Valadier, was donated by Spanish duchess Villahermosa in 1803.
Many writers of the fourth century told of how St. Helena also found the nails that Jesus was crucified with and that she donated them to her son Constantine having one put into the bridle of his horse and another in his crown.
According to legend, St. Helena brought a third nail with her to Rome and since ancient times it has been among the Sessorian Relics in the Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Many nails were copied in medieval times and made to look like those of the crucifixion, with the aim of give as gifts to the noble and important men of the Church.
This relic was found accidentally during restoration work on the Basilica that had been commissioned by Spanish titular cardinal Pietro Gonzales de Mendoza, in XIII sec.
According to experts the inscription is perfectly compatible with the references in the Bible, in particular the Book of John "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews".
At Holy Cross there are also two Thorns that are retained as having come from the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. This relic was already venerated in Constantinople during the era of Justinian. The two thorns are similar to the thorns conserved in other churches: are straight, woody, pointed and long about 3,5 cm.
During the course of the centuries Holy Cross was enriched with other relics including fragments from the grotto in Bethlehem, from the holy sepulchre and from scourging post, as well as the patibulum of the Good Thief and the finger of St. Thomas.