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Caravaca: An Eastern Cross in Western Europe

Cantabria, in northern Spain, is home to one of the most cherished relics in Christianity. According to tradition, the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana houses the largest preserved fragment of the Lignum Crucis, the True Cross upon which Christ was crucified. It is no wonder that this monastery is the arrival point of one of Spain’s most cherished pilgrimage routes ­–the Camino Lebaniego. But there are other relics of the True Cross in Spain. The most famous one is the noted Cruz de Caravaca.

On September 23, 1512, Pope Julius II granted the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana the privilege of celebrating its own Jubilee Year, acknowledging the importance of this relic. By so doing, he was turning the monastery into one of the five holy places of Christianity (along with Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Caravaca de la Cruz), allowed to celebrate a Holy Jubilar year every seven years. And whereas 2023 was a Jubilar year for Santo Toribio, 2024 marks the Holy Year of Caravaca.

Helena of Constantinople and the Holy Cross

The True Cross, tradition claims, was found by St. Helena of Constantinople, the mother of Emperor Constantine, around the year 326. According to Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, Helena ordered the demolition of a Roman temple that stood on Golgotha, and the excavation of a deposit where the Romans disposed of crosses after prisoners were executed. She recognized the True Cross when a dead man came back to life after coming in contact with it. The text reads:

It was so that Adrian the emperor had do make, in the same place where the cross lay, a temple of a goddess, because that all they that came in that place should adore that goddess, but the queen did do destroy the temple. Then Judas made him ready and began to dig, and when he came to twenty paces deep he found three crosses and brought them to the queen, and because he knew not which was the cross of our Lord, he laid them in the middle of the city and abode the demonstrance of God; and about the hour of noon there was the corps of a young man brought to be buried. Judas retained the bier, and laid upon it one of the crosses, and after the second, and when he laid on it the third, anon the body that was dead came again to life.

Lady Egeria’s Itinerarium is the earliest account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land known to date. Written in the late 4th century, it minutely describes how the Holy Cross’ relic was already taken out in procession on Good Friday in her day and age. Numbers 74 and 75, The Veneration of the Cross, read as follows:

Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest anyone approaching should venture to do so again.

The Cross arrives in Europe

While the relic was kept in Jerusalem, fragments of it had already arrived in Europe as early as the 5th century, as in the case of the famous monastery of the Holy Cross in Poitiers, France. But the biggest fragment of the Holy Cross’ relic was taken to Spain, from Jerusalem (or from Rome, according to others), by Saint Turibius of Astorga.

Tradition claims that after Turibius’ death, his relics and those of the cross were taken to a monastery in Liébana (the Monastery of Santo Toribio of Liébana), where the relic is still kept and venerated today. Other versions explain that the cross was moved from Astorga to Liébana much later, in the 8th century, to keep it safe from Muslim invaders.

But, again, this is not the only fragment of the True Cross kept in Spain. The other is the noted Cruz de Caravaca.

Some claim that, upon finding the relic, Helena gave a piece of it to the Patriarch of Jerusalem. But when the infamous Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen (King of Sicily and Jerusalem, and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) went to Jerusalem in the 13th century, he decided to seize the relic and wear it on his chest. Tradition claims two angels suddenly appeared and took it from him, taking it all the way to Caravaca, where it was found two years later.

In fact, the reliquary preserving the fragment of the True Cross in the Cross of Caravaca is a pectoral shaped as an eastern cross, and it is known to be a medieval patriarchal relic from Jerusalem that was guarded in this city, at first by the Order of the Temple and then by the Order of Santiago. Patriarch Robert of Nantes, who was the Patriarch of Jerusalem from 1240 to 1254, was traditionally considered its owner, as he was the first bishop of the Holy City after retaking it from the Muslims in the first Crusade. Friedrich took the relic from Robert’s successor.

“My job is celebrating mass”

There is another story involving two angels around Caravaca. Local tradition claims that the presence of the Cross in the Caravaca is most likely dated 1232 –that is, four years after Friedrich’s coronation as King of Jerusalem.

But what is striking is that the relic got there when the Muslims still controlled those lands. Caravaca was conquered by the Valencian Almohad Sayyid Abu-Zeit. Tradition explains that a priest, Ginés Pérez Chirinos, went there from Cuenca to preach Christianity to the Moorish invaders, and was kept as a prisoner. The Sayyid asked the captives about their jobs, and Ginés said his was celebrating mass. This aroused the Sayyid’s curiosity, and so he asked the priest to celebrate one. Once all ornaments were brought from Christian territories (Cuenca), the Mass started in Abu-Zeit’s main chamber. But Ginés suddenly stopped, as he noticed that there was no crucifix in the alter. At that very moment, tradition claims, two angels entered the room bringing a piece of the True Cross, and they placed it on the altar.

Abu Zayd converted to Catholicism in 1236, adopting the name of Vicent Bellvis.

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