This painting, by the Italian artist Ippolito Scarsella (c. 1551-1620), recalls stories of Emperor Heraclius of Constantinople (r. 610-641) and the role that he played in rescuing a holy relic that was an item of interest during the long war between Constantinople and Persia (lasting from 602 to 628). The war was sparked in 602, when Emperor Phocas took power in Constantinople by overthrowing the previous emperor, Maurice—an emperor who had close and friendly relations with the Persian ruler, Khosrow II (r. 591-628). When news of Emperor Maurice’s downfall reached Persia, Khosrow II declared war on the upstart emperor, Phocas, starting a conflict that would rage for over two and a half decades. Phocas’ military fared poorly against the Persians, and general discontent with his rule ultimately led to the ascendance of Heraclius, who overthrew and executed Phocas in 610.
As the new emperor of Constantinople, Heraclius now had to deal with the war against Persia that had been going poorly up to that point. Heraclius, however, did not rush to face the Persians—he spent his first decade in power mainly solidifying his control in Constantinople and also dealing with more immediate threats from Avar incursions near the capital city. During that time, the Persian onslaught was still continuing, and most important for the painting above, the Persians conquered the regions of Syria and Palestine in 614. While passing through Jerusalem, the Persians obtained a relic that was supposedly a piece of the cross used in Jesus’ crucifixion (a relic often referred to as the “precious and lifegiving wood”). The chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750s-818), referenced the event of this relic being obtained by the Persians. He wrote, “The Persians captured and led off to Persia Zachariah the patriarch of Jerusalem, the precious and lifegiving wood, and many prisoners” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6106).
Around 622, Emperor Heraclius finally shifted to an offensive stance in his war against Persia, and in the following years of warfare he brought the Persian court to its knees by boldly invading deep into Persian territory, where he outmaneuvered and inflicted successive defeats on Persian armies. Khosrow, after being chased by Heraclius all the way back to the Persian capital city of Ctesiphon in 628, found himself imperiled by mutinous generals and treacherous family members. Ultimately, Khosrow II was overthrown by his eldest son, known variously as Shērōē (or Siroes), Qobad, or Kavadh II. This treacherous son made peace with Emperor Heraclius, and in the negotiations that ensued, the cross relic that had been taken from Jerusalem was transferred into the custody of Heraclius. Peace achieved and the cross relic in his possession, Emperor Heraclius first returned to Constantinople, but then he quickly arranged for a trip to Jerusalem, where the cross relic would be returned. Commenting on this pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the chronicler Theophanes wrote, “Herakleios entered Jerusalem. He restored Zachariah the patriarch and the precious and lifegiving wood to their own place and gave thanks to God” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6120). It is this story of Heraclius bringing the cross relic back to Jerusalem that inspired the painting above.
The cross relic, however, did not remain long in Jerusalem. Although the war with Persia was over, another great war was just beginning. It just so happened that Islam came into being in Arabia while the age-old rivals of the Roman Empire and Persia were squandering each other’s resources and manpower in their latest long war between 602 and 628. Therefore, after Persian troops had marched to the vicinity of Constantinople, and after Heraclius subsequently reversed the tide of war and marched his forces to the outskirts of Ctesiphon, it was now time for Arab armies to pour out of Arabia and wreak havoc on the exhausted realms of Constantinople and Persia. During the reign of the first caliph, Abū Bakr (r. 632-634), Arab armies began expanding into the regions of Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, and these expansionist wars increased dramatically during the reign of the second caliph, Umar I (r. 634-644). The threat from these invasions caused Emperor Heraclius to preemptively retrieve the cross relic from Jerusalem. Theophanes, the aforementioned chronicler, wrote, “Herakleios had despaired and abandoned Syria; he took the precious wood from Jerusalem and went off to Constantinople” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6125).
Unfortunately for Constantinople, aging Emperor Heraclius had grown sickly in the time between the end of the Persian war and the start of the Arab onslaught. Unlike his previous war with the Persians, the emperor now chose not to personally lead his troops into battle against the new threat. Instead, the increasingly ill emperor left the defense of the empire in the hands of his governors and generals, while Heraclius personally went to great lengths behind the scenes to improve the military readiness and fortifications of Anatolia. When Emperor Heraclius finally died of his cumulating health ailments in 641, the exhausted military of Constantinople had not been able to push back the Arab gains in the Middle East and therefore the cross relic remained away from Jerusalem.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.