In the deepest part of the Holy Sepulchre is a Franciscan chapel that marks the place where, tradition tells us, Empress Helena found the Cross of Christ.
In 312 AD the Emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great, converted to Christianity and legalized the practice of his faith. He accompanied his 80 year old mother, Empress Helena, to the Holy Land. Helena was on a mission to find relics from the tomb of Jesus to bring back to Rome. They found a rock cut tomb that had been paved over with a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter or Venus. After removing this pagan temple, she found the True Cross of Jesus. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over this holy site.
Beneath the Armenian Chapel of St Helena one can walk down 22 steep steps to the Franciscan Chapel of the Finding of the Cross. It is within the deepest part of the Church.
Tradition holds that St Helena not only found the cross of Christ but also the nails and the titulus, the title panel on the Cross that bore the inscription, “Jesus the Nazarene King of the Jews in three languages
The Empress found three crosses, but which one was the Lord’s? To find out, the Bishop of Jerusalem made a sick woman, previously incurable, touch the wood, and upon touching one of the three she was healed straight away.
Later, the Cross disappeared into the hands of the Persians. The relic would be their “trade off” in the event of any negotiations with the Easter Roman Empire (the Byzantines). But in 630, Heraclius, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, was victorious over the Persians and triumphantly returned a part of the Cross to Jerusalem where he placed it in Calvary. This event is commemorated by the Church on September 14, proclaimed as the feast of “The Triumph of the Cross” or “The Exaltation of the Cross”.
According to the story, the emperor intended to carry the cross back into Jerusalem himself, but was unable to move forward until he took off his imperial garb and became a barefoot pilgrim.
The Holy Sepulchre Church has been damaged and rebuilt following Persian capture of Jerusalem, the Reconquest by the Crusaders, natural disasters and a devastating fire.
The extensive collection of relics found by St Helena can be seen at the ancient Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, built during the 4th century, in Rome.
The Basilica is one of the “Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome”. Pieces of the True Cross, a nail from the Crucifixion, thorns from the Crown, small pieces of the tomb of Jesus and the Holy Sepulchre, and a copy of the Shroud of Turin can be found there.