Crux Vaticana, the Vatican's Golden Cross
Sometime between 565 and 578 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Justin II donated to Rome what was to become one of its most cherished relics – the Crux Vaticana, the Golden Cross of the Vatican. The exact reason behind this gift is unclear and yet it is believed that the Emperor Justin used the Golden Cross as a means to ratify and authenticate the importance of Rome as the seat of the church's authority. However, the very fact that Justin had such relics as the Golden Cross, and was able to present it to Rome, clearly demonstrated that Constantinople had power and authority as well.
A century earlier, in 476 AD the Roman Empire fell to pagan invaders. With Rome's fall, the Byzantine or Eastern Empire, centered at Constantinople gained pre-eminence within Christianity. The Byzantine Emperor was recognized to be endowed with both religious and secular authority. However, Rome continued to be a major religious center, primarily because it retained the remains of holy martyrs such as St. John's. Peter and St. Paul. Upon the cross is the translation from the Latin: "With the wood with which Christ acquired man's enemy, Justin gives his help to Rome and his wife offers the ornamentation."
The Golden Cross or Crux Vaticana is valued not simply because of its gold and jewels or the artist with which it was made. Rather, its true importance is to be found in the belief that within the cross are contained fragments of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Many such fragments had been transferred to Constantinople from Jerusalem in the 4th century. Although there are often many crosses through the world believed to contain fragments of Christ's cross, the Crux Vaticana is considered the most ancient.
The Golden Cross is approximately one foot in height. As its name exemplifies, it is made of gold and embellished with a circle of jewels. For centuries of years, the Crux Vaticana has been used during the most solemn ceremonies at the Vatican, such as Christmas and Easter. However, after over one-thousand years of use, it has become dulled and discolored. Thus, it has remained in need of restoration. The cross has been repaired over many centuries and a major restoration was attempted in the 19th century. The restoration, however, was unsuccessful and even exceeded to further corrode the cross.
For the past two years, another restoration has been underway, culminating this week. The restoration has been paid for by an anonymous donor. The brightly colored jewels added over previous centuries have now been replaced with large, imperfect pearls that recall the masterpieces of the Byzantine era. Although we do not know exactly how the original Golden Cross looked, this restoration is clearly closer to what it would have been.
A circle of twelve pearls form the interior of the cross. Other pearls, alternating with emeralds and sapphires, run along the outer edges of the cross. Emeralds and sapphires are also considered to be a hallmark of the jewelry work of the Byzantine era.
With this restoration completed, it is now believed that modern visitors will be able to experience the Crux Vaticana as it was originally given by Emperor Justin II. The restored Crux Vaticana or Golden Cross will be kept on display inside St. Louis. Peter's Basilica until the 12th of April.