Of the myriad holy relics in Christendom, none is as sacrosanct as the so-called True Cross—the piece of wood on which Jesus Christ was crucified. While some historians doubt its authenticity, the True Cross did exist. It was discovered in Jerusalem by St. Helena 300 years after the Crucifixion, changed hands several times through the centuries, and vanished from recorded history after the Second Crusade, when it was seized by the great Muslim warrior Saladin. This remarkable collection features coins of the five historical figures who held the True Cross.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect who presided over the trial of Jesus. Although he could find no crime worthy of crucifixion, and symbolically washed his hands of the decision, he yielded to the demands of the Sanhedrin, condemning Jesus to die on the cross. Modern scientists suggest the Crucifixion occurred on Friday, 3 April, 33 CE. The body of Christ and the cross were placed in a tomb near Calvary, where it lay undisturbed for three centuries.
In 326 CE, the Roman Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Although she was in her eighties, she was spry, and she considered the visit her duty as a pious Christian. Furthermore, as Augusta Imperatrix, she was charged with locating lost relics from the time of Jesus.
The city of Jerusalem was still partially in ruins, two hundred years after the Emperor Hadrian had viciously put down a Jewish uprising and lain waste to the city. On the site of Jesus’ tomb near Calvary, the pagan Hadrian had erected a temple to Venus. Disgusted at the sacrilege, Helena ordered the structure demolished. Touring the ruins after the demolition, she found the remains of three crosses—the same three crosses, she believed, that were used at Calvary when Jesus was put to death.
According to legend, Helena took the three relics to the bedside of a deathly ill woman. The first two crosses had no medicinal properties, but when Helena touched the third cross against the skin of the dying woman, the woman was immediately healed. Helena then realized what she’d found—the True Cross of Jesus.
In 335, five years after Helena’s death, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher was completed on the site, and the True Cross housed there. Pilgrims arrived almost immediately to venerate the relic, and did so for the next three centuries. But because of its profound religious significance, Jerusalem, then as now, was an unstable place.
In 614, the Sassanian Emperor Khosrau II—the last King of Persia before the Muslim conquest of Iran—sacked the city and made off with the True Cross. Fourteen years later, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the lost artifact from Khosrau’s successor, the usurper Shahrbaraz, returning it to its rightful place in Jerusalem. Although the Muslims took possession of the Holy Land in 638, the caliphs respected the sanctity of the Christian church and left the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher unmolested. There the True Cross remained for five and a half centuries.
The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. They massacred the Muslims and Jews living in the city, and made a palace of the mosque, but left the True Cross alone. In 1187, Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, repulsed the Christians from Jerusalem, winning the city after the Battle of Hattin. He removed the True Cross to Damascus, where it presumably remains to this day, waiting to be discovered.
This collection features five genuine ancient coins, one from each of the historical figures associated with the True Cross: a bronze prutah issued by Pontius Pilate, a bronze follis with the portrait of Helena minted by the Emperor Constantine, an oversized Khosrau II silver dirham, a billon 12 nummi coin from the reign of Heraclius, and a bronze fals from the Ayyubid dynasty, founded by Saladin. For wholesale information, click here.