What type of wood was Jesus’ cross made from?
On Sept. 14, the Catholic Church marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In England and other parts of Britain, the feast has been called “Roodmas.” The word “rood” refers to Christ’s cross and comes from an Old Saxon word, ruoda, meaning a stake or cross.
There are various ideas about what type of wood the cross was from. Many have heard the legend that it was made from dogwood which, according to legend, was then a large tree like the oak. Because the dogwood was so ashamed of its role in the crucifixion, it asked to be cursed so as to never grow tall or strong again. Christ agreed, but also adorned it with a glory of red flowers that have four petals, shaped like a cross, a center like a crown of thorns and dents in each petal that look like nail marks.
It’s a lovely story to remember when you see dogwood blooming. However, the cross could not have been dogwood, since the tree — whether tall or short — is not native to the area of the Holy Land.
Another tree sometimes said to have been ashamed to have given its wood for the cross is the aspen, which does grow around Israel. Sometimes called the “quaking asp” or the “trembling poplar,” the aspen’s leaves move in the slightest breeze. It is said the tree trembles because it was used as the wood of the cross. The name for the tree in Hebrew is baca, which also is the name of the “Valley of Weeping” mentioned in Psalm 84.
“The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, by the 19th century, it was accepted that the cross was made of pine, citing the work of Charles Rohault de Fleury. De Fleury was a noted architect who researched the relics of the cross and wrote “Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion” in 1870. His calculations were based on his microscopic examination of the relics and his determination that the cross was made of pine.
In Rome’s Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, there is a relic that was discovered there under a mosaic tile in 1492. It was identified on the tile as the “titulus cruces” (the “title of the cross”). It consists of a wood fragment, about 10 by 5 inches, with partial words in Aramaic, Greek and Latin. These appear to be be part of the inscription: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” placed on Christ’s cross. While this titulus has been carbon-dated, experts do not agree to its age. Some date it to the first century; others to the Middle Ages. However, they do agree that it is made of walnut.
Finally, there are several traditions that say the cross was made from three types of wood: pine, cedar and cypress. Each year, during Lenten matins (morning prayer) in Eastern Orthodox churches, one prayer reads: “Let us venerate the Cross of the Lord, offering our tender affection as the cypress, the sweet fragrance of our faith as the cedar, and our sincere love as the pine; and let us glorify our Deliverer who was nailed upon it.” (Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent).
This tradition of three types of wood might trace back to words in the Book of Isaiah: “The glory of Lebanon shall come to you — the juniper, the fir and the cypress all together — to bring beauty to my sanctuary, and glory to the place here I stand” (Is 60:13).
However, if you want to go even farther back than Isaiah, there are legends that can take you to Abraham’s nephew, Lot.
In Jerusalem’s Monastery of the Cross, there is a painting called “Lot Watering the Tree.” It is a representation of a common Orthodox icon by that title. What is odd about this picture of an old man watering a tree is that the tree has one trunk, but three different trees grow from the one trunk.
The legend is that when Abraham welcomed the three visitors (Gen 18:1-15), they gave him their staffs when they left. One staff was cedar, another pine and, the third, cypress. Abraham gave these to Lot, who planted them in what became the Promised Land and watered them with water from the Jordan. The staffs became one tree, which was later used for the cross.
Even Adam figures into a legend about the cross’ wood. It can be found in the medieval best-seller known as “The Golden Legend,’ written by Jacobus de Vorgaine in 1275. The story says that, as Adam was old and dying, he sent his son, Seth, to Eden to beg the guardian cherub for the “oil of mercy.” The request was denied, but the angel did give Seth three seeds from the Tree of Life. These were placed in Adam’s mouth and, after he was buried, the seeds grew into one tree with three trunks. After many adventures — including encounters with Noah and the Queen of Sheba — the trees were used to construct the cross of Christ.
In 326 A.D., when St. Helen discovered the “True Cross” in Jerusalem, it is said that she found it under a mound of basil. At the time, the herb was unknown and so it was given the name “basil” for the Greek word “king” (basileios). Some stories say the basil was growing from the cross itself.
In Eastern churches — both Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Christian — the feast of the Holy Cross includes basil. On this feast day, the cross is venerated by the faithful, just as Latin Catholics do on Good Friday. However, before the veneration, the priest rests the cross in a bed of basil and carries it through the church. Then the basil is blessed and its leaves are kept by the faithful as a sacramental. So if one couldn’t have a relic of the cross, one could still have a branch of dried basil, blessed by the cross.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Garden Way of the Cross” at campus.udayton.edu; Communion.stblogs.org; armenianchurch-ed.net; Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at goarch.org; godsagardener.com; Creationtips.com; fisheaters.com; the Russian Orthodox Church in America web site at www.roca.org; “A Study of the Folklore of Plants in Palestine;” Orthodox Christian Education Resources at illumination-learning.com; and seetheholyland.net.