After the events described in the Gospel – the Crucifixion, the Entombment, the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ – the Holy Cross, the instrument of execution of the Savior, vanished. The holy places associated with the earthly life of the Lord fell into oblivion after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, atop some of which the pagan temples were built. The discovery of the Holy Cross occurred during the reign of Emperor Constantine I the Great. According to six-century historians, St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, at the request of her son, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in search of the places associated with Jesus Christ’s earthly life, and the Holy Cross, whose miraculous discovery was taken by Emperor Constantine as a sign of his victory over the enemy.

There are three different accounts of the discovery of the Cross. According to the most ancient legend (which contained in the works by 5th century historians - Rufinus of Aquileia, Socrates, Sozomen etc. - and derived from the lost evidence of the 4th century), the Holy Cross had been buried under the pagan temple of Aphrodite. After the temple had been destroyed, three crosses were uncovered with the plaque from the Cross and the nails. Bishop of Jerusalem Macarius († 333) offered a woman, who had been suffering from a deathly disease, to touch each of the crosses in turn. The woman recovered at the touch of the cross, which was taken as a sign that it was the True Cross of Christ, and the Holy Cross was raised by the bishop for everyone to see. According to the second version of the legend that appeared in the late 4th - early 5th century, Saint Helen made inquiries about the Cross among Jerusalem Jews, and one elderly Jew named Judas, who didn’t want to disclose the place, after torture pointed to the Temple of Venus. Saint Helen ordered the temple to be destroyed and the place excavated. There the three crosses were discovered; the True Cross was identified after it had been placed on a dead person. A version of this story reports that Judas later converted to Christianity, took the name Kyriakos and became Bishop of Jerusalem. A third version of the story that appeared in Syria in the first half of the 5th century states that the Cross was found in the 1st century AD, not in the 4th century. According to this story, the Cross had been found by Empress Protonike (or Petronike), the wife of Emperor Claudius I, was concealed again and re-discovered three centuries later. Though the first version of the discovery of the True Cross is the most ancient and referred to by authoritative Byzantine historians (e.g. Theophan), the second version was most widespread in the later Byzantine era; thus, the Prologues read on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, is based on this version. The same story underlay the existing feast iconography.

According to St. Cyrill of Jerusalem, the fragments of the True Wood had been spread in the Christian world as early as the 4th century. The exact date of the finding of the Cross is unknown; the event presumably occurred in 325 or 326. After the discovery of the Cross, Emperor Constantine ordered the building of new temples in which to serve liturgies with solemnity appropriate to the status of this city. Circa 335, there occurred the sanctification of a great basilica (Martyrium) built right by the Golgotha at the Holy Sepulchre. Day of the Renovation (i.e. sanctification of the temple) of the Martyrium and the rotunda of the Resurrection (the Holy Sepulchre) and other buildings on the site of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of the Savior (Sept. 13 or 14) would be celebrated annually with a great solemnity, while the memory of the discovery of the Holy Cross became part of the feast in commemoration of the Renovation. In length of time, the feast of the Elevation of the Cross acquired more significance than the feast of the Renovation, the former being one of the twelve festivals of the Orthodox Church.

The earlier icons of the Elevation of the Cross show the evolution of the iconography, such as a row of icons in Constantinople’s St. Sophia Cathederal depicting the Elevation of the Cross, or a miniature image from the Menologion of Basil II (976-1025) showing a bishop standing on a stepped ambo before the altar with the Cross in outstretched arms.

The historical episode with Patriarch Macarius underlay the traditional iconography of the Exaltation of the Cross, whose examples have been known since the 9th century; in the fifteenth – sixteenth century Russian icons this composition was further developed. A crowd of people is shown against a single-domed church; in the center, on a half-round ambo, stands the Patriarch holding high above his head the Cross decorated with twigs; he is supported by deacons; to his right,under ciborium, stand the Emperor and the Empress, with chanters in the forefront. The earliest iconographic variant of this scene is found on a tablet from the St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod (15th c. the Novgorod State United Museum). This scene is also reproduced on the icons of the Elevation. The Miracle of St. George and the Dragon. Selected saints from the I.S.Ostroukhov collection (the early 16th c., State Tretyakov Gallery); The Elevation (the second half of the 16th c., State Tretyakov Gallery); a three-tier icon of the Elevation. TheIntercession. Selected Saints (1565, State Tretyakov Gallery); and a double-sided icon of the Mother of God the Incaration. The Elevation of the Cross (16th c. Moscow’s State Historical Museum).