On this day, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and when he observed that, "Every one who is of the truth hears my voice," Pilate famously asked "What is truth?"
That question came to mind recently when we visited the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy which included, among its amazing hoard of treasures, a ornately decorated 13 Century reliquary said to contain a splinter of the True Cross.
The story of the True Cross is an extraordinary example of world mythology, beginning in 1260 with an account by Jacopo de Voragine, Bishop of Genoa, in his book Golden Legend.
According to the good Bishop, when Adam lay dying, he begged his son, Seth, to go to the Archangel Michael and beg a seed from the Tree of Life that grew in the Garden of Eden. This request having been granted, the seed was placed in Adam's mouth when he died and was buried. The seed subsequently germinated, took root, and grew into a tree.
Centuries later, the story goes on, the tree was cut down and the wood from it was used to build a bridge over which the Queen of Sheba passed on her journey to meet King Solomon. Struck by the symbolism represented by the bridge Her Majesty, allegedly, fell to her knees and worshiped it - as depicted (right) by Piero della Francesca.
During her visit with Solomon, the Queen told him that a piece of wood from the bridge would bring about a new order that would replace God's Covenant with the Jewish people and Solomon, fearful of the eventual destruction of his people, had the timber from the bridge buried. Nevertheless, fourteen generations later, this very wood, it is said, became the cross used at the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jacopo de Voragine went on to describe the subsequent finding of the cross by Helena, mother of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. This part of the story dates back to the fifth century and the writings of Socrates Scholasticus and other early writers of ecclesiastical histories...
As the tale goes, the site of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus had been buried, was now surmounted by a temple to Venus. On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Constantine's aged mother had the temple destroyed and the Sepulchre uncovered, whereupon three crosses were also unearthed as depicted (right) in Agnolo Gaddi's 1380 painting.
In order to determine which cross was which, Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, had a dying woman placed on all three in turn on and when she recovered from the touch of the third cross this was taken as a sign that this was the specific cross on which Christ had died.
Socrates Scholasticus reports that the nails with which Christ had been fastened to the cross were also found and that Helena had sent these to Constantinople, where they were incorporated into her son's helmet and the bridle of his horse.
Now, whilst I don't personally believe this to be anything other than a legend, I was greatly moved by the reliquary of the True Cross displayed in the Royal Academy: moved because, whatever the truth or fiction might be about the slither of wood within the silver casing, it represents over 800 years of faith and belief.
In C S Lewis' The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader', the children meet Ramandu who tells them that he is a 'retired' star (of the celestial variety) but Eustace challenges this concept, saying: "In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
To which Ramandu replies: "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it's made of."
The curator's label on the reliquary in the Byzantium exhibition prosaically described the item as: "Silver gilt, cloisonné opaque enamels on a silver gilt support, wood, glass paste."
But that, of course, is only what it is made of, not what it is...
And, whatever we believe, that is truth which may be worth pondering...
Images: Crucifixion by Gustav Doré ; Ramandu by Pauline Baynes