Heraclius and the Holy Cross
In its chapter for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Golden Legend recounts the story of the return of the Cross to Jerusalem after its capture by the Persians. The Persian king Chosroës had sacked Jerusalem and taken a part of the Cross back to his capital, where he had it placed by his side and demanded to be worshiped as a god. This is depicted on the left of the upper registerr of Agnolo Gaddi's fresco that follows the Legend's account:
In the center of this register, an angel in a dream calls Heraclius to arms. On the right, he meets Chosroës in single combat on a bridge over the Danube.
In the lower register, Heraclius beheads Chosroës and sets out for Jerusalem on horseback with the Cross. Before his arrival an angel advises that he must enter Jerusalem in humility like Christ, not on horseback and in his regalia; so on the far right we see him walking up to the city gate barefoot and "stripped down to his shirt."
All of this, except for Heraclius' dream, is straight out of the Golden Legend. In Palma's painting at the top of this page, Heraclius is also barefoot. Even his crown has been removed and left with his armor on the ground in the bottom left.
Depictions of the story may include the entire series of events or just Heraclius's humble entry into Jerusalem. In the latter he is always humbly dressed and barefoot, and he usually carries the Cross himself. In Piero della Francesca's fresco he wears a tall mitre and a wrap of what could be sackcloth, and the cross is carried by an attendant. The pious reactions of the Jerusalem crowd are rendered in various ways – a single man bowing in Gaddi, seven or eight men kneeling in Piero, and an aged man raising his arms to Heaven in Palma (perhaps alluding to the blind men whom the Cross cured soon thereafter).
The Golden Legend confusingly says that Chosroës had captured "part of the Cross" but that Heraclius "carried the sacred cross back to Jerusalem," as if it were the entire Cross. Gaddi chooses to picture a partial cross; others, including Palma, have a complete one.
Prepared in 2017 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
Palma il Giovane, Heraclius Bringing the Cross to Jerusalem, in the Church of San Giovanni Elemosynario.