Cross of Caravaca

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Cross of Caravaca, double cross also known as the cholera cross, plague cross, St. Zacharias' cross, St. Benedict's cross, or Lorraine cross, is a cross with two horizontal bars, the upper one being shorter. It is believed to protect against "pestilential air," meaning epidemics of plague, smallpox, cholera, typhus, and others, as well as tuberculosis, weather anomalies, misfortunes, and sudden deaths. Incidentally, for example in Poland's Biłgoraj region, the plague cross[1] has three arms (see photo 5).

Origin of the name

The name is associated with the town of Caravaca de la Cruz in the Murcia region of Spain. The town is famous for its relic, which consists of splinters from the cross of the crucifixion. These splinters were kept in a reliquary shaped like a patriarchal cross, which has two horizontal bars. The higher, shorter bar symbolizes the plaque with the letters INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum), placed on the cross above Jesus' head. This reliquary (see photo 3) is the prototype for the cross known as the Caravaca cross.

The appearance of the reliquary with fragments of the holy cross in Murcia is explained by the following legend. In the first half of the 13th century, the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula was still under the control of the Moors (the Muslim inhabitants of the Peninsula). Zayd Abu Zayd, the Almohad-appointed governor of the Valencia province, was at odds with his African caliph and sought support from King James I of Aragon. Intrigued by Christianity, while in Caravaca, he asked or commanded a priest at his court to celebrate Mass. The necessary items and vessels for the ceremony were gathered, but during the Mass, the celebrant noticed that the most important element, the symbol of the cross, was missing. The Muslim governor, seeing the priest's confusion, pointed to a window where two angels appeared carrying a cross. This was the cross that soon became famous as the miraculous crucifix of Caravaca. Impressed by the miracle and the Mass, Zayd Abu Zayd decided to be baptized on the same day, May 3, 1232. The official conversion took place in 1236, and Zayd Abu Zayd adopted the Christian name Vicente Bellvis.

An even more legendary version suggests that the bored Arab ruler, seeking entertainment, summoned Christian prisoners from the dungeons of Caravaca castle and asked if any of them could perform something extraordinary. A priest named Ginez announced that he could do greater things than the most powerful ruler because he could turn bread into flesh and bring God to earth. Intrigued, the Muslim asked the prisoner for a list of items needed for such a feat and provided them, commanding the promised "trick" to be performed. At the last moment, the priest realized he had forgotten the most important thing—the cross. He raised his eyes to heaven in terror, seeking help, and at that moment, two angels appeared with a double-barred cross, which they placed on the makeshift altar. Astonished by the miracle, the Arab ruler converted to Christianity and began the Christianization of his subjects.

The cross was 17 cm in height, with arms 7 cm and 10 cm in length. Aside from the aforementioned legend, it is unclear how the cross ended up in Caravaca. It was undoubtedly of Eastern origin, similar to the so-called Lorraine cross, which has the same form as the Caravaca cross. It likely belonged to the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Arnulf of Chocques, chosen during the First Crusade. The cross appeared in Caravaca along with the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, known as the Templars, who took over the local castle in the second half of the 13th century. The cross with relics of splinters from the crucifixion was said to have been received from another Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Robert of Nantes. According to other speculations, the cross was captured by Ferdinand III the Saint during the war with the Moors in 1241 and gifted to the Templars. The cross with relics of the "true cross" (Vera Cruz) quickly became renowned for its miracles. During one of the Moorish attempts to retake the fortress from the Templars, the besiegers poisoned the water supply used by the besieged. Fortunately, wineskins were found, and after immersing the cross in the wine, it not only gained healing properties, but when poured into the poisoned wells, it made the water drinkable again. To commemorate this event, a picturesque three-day festival called Los Caballos del Vino is held in the town at the beginning of May. During the festival, residents, dressed as Moors and Christians, participate en masse in various contests. On the first day, the beauty of the horses participating in the events is judged. On the second day, a race of decorated horses and their accompanying four men takes place. On the last day, the decorations of the horses are evaluated. There are also contests for the most beautiful costumes, and royal pairs with the most beautiful, handmade, elaborate, and colorful outfits are chosen.

The town received the suffix "de la Cruz" in its name, and the fame of the miraculous cross spread throughout all the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. Pilgrimages to Caravaca de la Cruz were recorded as early as the second half of the 14th century. After the Templars, the castle was occupied by the knights of the Order of Santiago (the Order of St. James of Compostela, the Order of St. James of the Sword). During the period of strong anti-Catholic propaganda in the Second Spanish Republic, the cross with the relic was stolen in 1934. In 1945, Pope Pius XII gifted a piece of the True Cross, originating from the wood discovered and brought from Jerusalem in the 4th century by Empress Saint Helena, to the basilica. This relic, housed in a replica of the original reliquary, is now kept in Caravaca de la Cruz. In 1998, during the pontificate of John Paul II, the Holy See granted the Basilica of the Most Holy and True Cross, built between 1617 and 1703 inside the old Moorish castle, the right to celebrate a Perpetual Jubilee (recognizing every seventh year as a Holy Year, in perpetuity), making it the fifth place in the world to have this privilege, alongside Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, and Santo Toribio de Liébana.

Amuletic Power

In Spain, the Caravaca cross was believed to protect against accidents and sudden deaths, curses, thefts, storms, lightning, floods, and droughts. It was used to heal severe, fatal diseases and even helped with insomnia. People would hang it on their front doors (from the inside) or keep it in a box wrapped in purple silk, or wear it as a medallion. It was also valued in Spanish colonies (Latin America, the Philippines). Thanks to the Jesuits, it became known throughout Europe and became a popular talisman not only among Catholics.

The Caravaca cross arrived in Poland in the mid-16th century, coinciding with its spread in Italy during the Council of Trent. In 1545, during the council sessions in Trent, a plague broke out, which the Spanish cardinals combated using the Caravaca cross. Pilgrims began bringing small reliquaries in the shape of the Caravaca cross to Poland, calling them the "Spanish cross" or using a Polonized version of the city's name: karawaka or karawika. In Poland, the cross primarily protected against plagues (in Germany, it also protected against storms and snowstorms - Wetterkreuz), but it was also a talisman against many other misfortunes. Due to the increasing use of images, crosses, and coins bearing the image of the Caravaca cross as amulets and talismans, Pope Innocent XI banned their use in 1678. However, this did not stop the faithful from believing in the miraculous powers of the Caravaca cross. Jan Ursyn Niemcewicz noted that King John III Sobieski had a Caravaca cross for protection at the Battle of Vienna (1683). Polish clergy also largely ignored the papal prohibitions. From "Nowe Ateny" (1745-1746) by Father Benedykt Chmielowski, considered the first Polish encyclopedia, we learn: "Caravaca crosses, exported from Spain, or crosses from the city of Caravaca with letters, rubbed against the miraculous crucifix there; the cross of St. Benedict with letters is very effective against spells and the devil." Another clergyman, Father Marceli Dziewulski, a Franciscan from Krakow, preached from the pulpit of the Church of St. Catherine in Kazimierz that "the Caravaca is the most certain protection against the plague..., thanks to the protection of the Blessed Mother, it will not allow even the greatest sinner to perish."


  1. In the article, the terms "plague cross" and "Caravaca cross" are used interchangeably. However, it should be noted that they are not synonyms.
    • The term "plague cross" has a broader meaning and refers to all crosses, regardless of form, that were erected in connection with a plague.
    • The plague cross denotes both crosses intended to prevent a plague and those erected in thanksgiving for deliverance from or the end of a plague.