As late as the 15th century, pilgrims who came to the Monastery of the Cross testified that behind the altar of the main church they could see in the ground the remains of the tree that was said to have furnished the wood for the cross of Jesus. A shrine still marks where the tree was seen, in a small crypt chapel at the end of a passage from the north aisle of the church (see diagram, above).
An ancient Christian legend linking the Tree of the Cross to Abraham and his nephew, Lot, is recounted in a sequence of painted panels lining the walls of the chapel (below). At the left end of the north wall, Abraham dines with three angels, who announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah will bear him a son (Genesis 18). According to the legend, when the angels moved on to Sodom to visit Lot, they left with Abraham their three staffs.
The panel to the right of this one shows Lot fleeing the destruction of Sodom with his two daughters; his wife, in the background, has turned into a pillar of salt, her punishment for looking back at the burning city. In the next panel, Lot confesses to his uncle that his daughters had seduced him. Abraham offers Lot the three staffs of the angels and tells him to seek divine forgiveness by planting the staffs and watering them with water brought from the Jordan River.
In the panel just beyond, better seen in the photograph below, a dark, horned Satan can be seen lurking in the background, as he hinders Lot for 40 years from bringing water from the Jordan to the planted staffs. In the panel just at the turn of the corner, however, Lot’s desire to repent finally prevails: As he pours the water on the staffs they instantly blossom into a miraculous tripartite tree, with branches of pine, cypress and cedar.
In the center panel, the tree has reached maturity and a builder of the Temple of Solomon approaches to cut it down. The Temple builders later discard a beam from the tree as unsuitable, in the right-hand panel.
The ultimate use of the tree as the cross upon which Jesus is crucified is shown in the painting above the altar at the chapel shrine (below). A stone base beneath the altar bears a circular opening that marks where the tree is said to have stood. Centered behind the circular opening, directly under the cross, is another image of the tree, blooming as Lot pours on it the water of the Jordan, a potent symbol of hope for pilgrims who journey to the Monastery of the Cross.