After discovering the true cross, the legend goes, Helena sent a fragment home to her son. The earliest extant version of the legend reads: “Part of the Cross she sent to Constantine but she also left a part in Jerusalem.” By the mid-fourth century, supposed fragments of the cross had been dispersed throughout Europe and the Middle East. According to Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem, “The whole world had been filled with pieces of the wood of the Cross.”
Three splinters from the cross, thorns from Jesus’ crown, a nail and the plaque (called the titulus) that identified Jesus as the “King of the Jews” were said to have made their way to Helena’s palace chapel in Rome, which was renamed Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (the Holy Church in Jerusalem, see photo of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in the main article).
Today, these relics are housed in a special chapel in Santa Croce. The cross fragments are encased in the gold and glass cross above. The titulus is just visible through the glass front of the reliquary above.
According to the Gospel of John (19:19–20), the titulus Pilate placed on the cross read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews,” in three languages—Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
On the 25- by 14-centimeter titulus relic in Santa Croce, the multilingual inscription appears on three lines. Only three letters of the Hebrew remain on the top line. The Latin (second line) and Greek (third line) inscriptions are complete, but they are written from right to left, following the Hebrew style.
Although all the Santa Croce relics are said to have been brought to Rome by Helena, the titulus was “rediscovered” in 1492, when restoration work in the church revealed the plaque built into a wall behind a mosaic panel.
In 1997, several Israeli and European archaeologists and paleographers (experts in how scripts changed over time) dated the inscription to between the first and fourth centuries C.E.