The Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem is one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome. It is often overlooked by tourists, but it is held in great respect by the keen believers. The basilica is famed for its collection of venerated relics (known as the passion relics), as well as for its historical background, partly haloed by tradition and partly substantiated by historical facts. It is also notable for its proximity to the first of all the major basilicas, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran.

The founder of the basilica was Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. She commissioned its construction in the early 4th century, after a trip to the Holy Land, from where the brought a piece of wood from the True Cross, as well as land from Jerusalem. The initial place of worship was but a mere chapel, built within the precincts of the so-called Palazzo Sessoriano (Helena’s palace). It was only some several decades later that a church proper was built (known back then as Basilica Heleniana or Basilica Sessoriana, in the honor of its founder). This second religious edifice was restored in the mid 12th century, under Pope Lucius II, undergoing further structural and decorative modifications and additions in the 16th century, as well as in the mid 18th century, under Pope Benedict XIV.

By means of all these successive modifications, the basilica has come to accumulate a series of architectural features: while initially it was characterized by a deeply Romanesque air, at present it stands out by its strong Baroque elements. There isn’t much art to see at the basilica, but the tomb of Cardinal Francisco de los Angeles Quinones, designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1536, and the frescoes which cover the apse of the church, presumably created by Antoniazzo Romano, Melozzo de Forli and Marco Palmezzano are truly outstanding. Also notable in this respect is three works by Peter Paul Rubens used to adorn the church, but they have been either alienated or lost.

On the other hand, as said, the church is visited for its collection of passion relics. The authenticity of these relics has often been challenged, but the traditional accounts seem to have prevailed over the scientific doubts. Thus, believers can come here and worship items like two of the thorns from the infamous crown of Jesus, a nail and several pieces of wood from his cross, the panel Christ worn while crucified, a part of the cross on which the repenting thief was crucified, parts of the grotto in which Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the pillar to which the Savior was tied and tortured by the Roman soldiers, and several other sacred relics.

The Chapel of Saint Helena, which was the initial place were the relics used to be kept, it also worth noting. It used to contain earth brought from Jerusalem, more precisely, from Golgotha (hence, the name of the basilica), but at present it only shelters a monumental statue of the founder of the church and a mosaic created by Melozzo da Forli in the second half of the 15th century.

Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme)
12, Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, 00185, Rome, Italy
0039 06 70613053
0039 06 70613053
[email protected]