The Legend of Lot and the Tree of the Cross (Holy Tradition)

This legend is told at the Greek Convent of the Cross, which lies in a charming and flowery valley near Jerusalem. In the old church there, interesting also far its frescos and mosaics, is a series of paintings illustrating the story, and under the altar a little fresco of the last scene, Lot watering the Tree of the Cross. In front of the altar is a circle of marble inset into the floor and there pilgrims kneel in adoration, while the priest, letting down a long spoon into the cave below, brings them up a tiny pinch of that blessed earth in which once the Holy Tree of the Cross did grow. The story told in the church runs as follows:

Room of the Holy Tree: Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem
Room of the Holy Tree: Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem

“Abraham before he died gave Lot three shoots to plant and these he set where now stands the convent of the Cross, and they remained green, but did not grow at all.

After his departure from Sodom, Lot fell into sin, and was warned by an angel that he could not be saved unless the shoots grew, and to ensure this he must water them with water from the River Jordan. So he went down with his donkey into the valley to get the water. On his way back, as he passed by the Inn of the Good Samaritan, a pilgrim (some say a Russian pilgrim) met him and begged for a drink and so thirsty was that pilgrim that he drank the skin dry.

The left panel shows (from left to right) Lot escaping the destruction of Sodom, Abraham giving lot the triplet seeding, and Lot planting the tree.
The left panel shows (from left to right) Lot escaping the destruction of Sodom, Abraham giving lot the triplet seeding, and Lot planting the tree.

There was nothing for it but to go down again to the river and bring water up again, but again on his return a pilgrim met him and drank the skin dry. This happened three times and Lot was in despair when the angel appeared to him and told him that the pilgrim was the Evil One in disguise set there to tempt him and that as he had passed the test satisfactorily he might now go and water the shoots. This he did, and the shoots immediately began to grow, and became a tree, which was seen to be of three kinds, Cedar, Cypress and Pine.”

The picture of Lot watering the strange Tree with its three branches of divers kinds, is the last of the series in the church, but the priest, when explaining them, tells further how the Tree stood until cut down by the Jews for the Temple of Solomon.

Rejected by the workmen, it was recognized and worshipped by the Queen of Sheba, and on her advice, stowed away by Solomon in his store houses below the Temple until the time appointed.

The center panel starts from Lot who waters the Holy Tree from the waters of the Jordan river. Many years later it is cut down, and its wood are hauled by two men to the crucifixion site.
The center panel starts from Lot who waters the Holy Tree from the waters of the Jordan river. Many years later it is cut down, and its wood are hauled by two men to the crucifixion site.

Other versions of the legend are told in Jerusalem; the following one, told by one of the monks at the convent of S. Gerasimus by the Dead Sea, carries the story back to Adam.

“When Adam lay dying he thought on that fair Garden from which he had been cast forth and he sent his son Seth to pray that he might be given one fruit from the Tree of Life. So Seth came after many days to the Gate of the Garden and begged the angel to give him the fruit. This could not be, but God in His mercy permitted the angel to give him three seeds which he placed in his father’s mouth before death came, and they were buried with him. From the Patriarch’s grave there sprang a tree unlike all other trees, far though always green it grew not and remained so throughout the years, unknown of men.

Now after Lot had fled from Sodom he fell into grievous sin and was warned by an angel that his only hope of forgive­ness was to carry water from the River Jordan and water with it that small tree that grew on Adam’s grave.

So Lot set forth with his donkey, filled his water skin from Jordan, and returned to Jerusalem. On the way there he met a thirsty pilgrim who asked for a drink and when it was granted, drank the skin dry. He went down again to Jordan and again on his return he met a pilgrim who drank the water and after this had happened a third time Lot was exhausted and fell by the way.

Lot watering the Holy Tree -- Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem
Lot watering the Holy Tree — Monastery of the Cross, Jerusalem

Then the angel appeared once more and Lot said, “What shall I do? If I give not drink to the thirsty I do a great wrong, and if I water not that tree I cannot be saved; and now I am faint and like to die.”

But the angel said, “Fear not, each time thou didst give drink to a pilgrim an angel watered the tree.”

Then Lot died in peace.

Now these legends have come down from the medieval legends of the Cross,[2] the best known version of which is contained in the Legenda Aurea, called ‘Golden,’ “for like as passeth golde in valewe all other metallys so this legend excelleth all other books.”[3]

What is curious in the Jerusalem version is the prominence of the story of Lot and the Watering of the Tree, an episode which does not occur at all in the Golden Legend.[4] Perhaps this may be explained by the special honour in which Lot is held in Palestine. To the Moslems he is a prophet of righteousness; he is also the eponymous hero of the Dead Sea (Bahr Lut) and the people of the Cities of the Plain were the People of Lot. More, he has become a Christian saint, and there is even a church dedicated to him in Trans Jordan, the ruined Khirbet Mukhayat, with its lovely mosaics and inscription therein to “Holy Lot.” The story of the Queen of Sheba is found in the mediaeval ver­sions of the west but not of the east, while the idea that the cross was made of different woods is found not only in these but in many earlier writers. ‘the Venerable Bede says that they were of four kinds, box, cypress, cedar and pine, John Cantacumene averred that only three were used, cedar, cypress and pine, as in our version, others said they were cypress, palm and olive, or cedar, cypress and olive. In the Golden Legend “there were four manner of trees, that is of palm, of cypress, of cedar, and of olive.” Interpretations are given of the mean­ing of the woods, it has been said “the Cross was made of the palm of victory, the cedar of incorruption, and the olives of royal and priestly benediction,”[5] or again, the cedar signifies power, the cypress suffering, and the olive joy and peace. Most interesting is the mention of the palm wood because the Tree of Life was very early conceived of as the palm tree.

Now in the Golden Legend Seth goes to the Garden of Eden to procure the ‘oil of Mercy’ for his dying father and receives three grains of the fruit of the Tree, which he lays under Adam’s tongue. The Tree here is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for later we read: “the Cross by which we be saved came of the tree by which we be damned,” while in our Jerusalem legend the Tree of the Cross grew from the seeds of the Tree of Life. It is as if in the Golden Legend, by the inclusion of the Palm, the Tree of the Cross was given descent from both the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.[6]

The wood is brought to the crucifixion site, and Jesus is hammered to the cross, with the Roman soldiers watching on the left side and Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene on the right background.
The wood is brought to the crucifixion site, and Jesus is hammered to the cross, with the Roman soldiers watching on the left side and Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene on the right background.

With these legends must also be connected the story that the Cross was actually erected on the skull of Adam, which is commemorated in the Chapel of Adam in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – there where the first Adam was buried did the second Adam prevail. In such ways as these did the loving imagination of the faithful in mediaeval times link together the Tree of the Cross with the Trees of Eden and that Tree of Life that grew “in the holy city Jerusalem” whose leaves “were for the healing of the nations.”

  The last panel, just above the place of the Holy tree, shows Jesus crucified on the cross with the two women witnesses.
The last panel, just above the place of the Holy tree, shows Jesus crucified on the cross with the two women witnesses.

NOTES

  1. See Hanauer, “Folk Lore of the Holy Land,” pp. 36-39. The legend is not known at Artas, it is only told among Christians. In one version the three shoots are given to Abraham by the angels and are mistakenly thrown into the fire by Sarah. Abraham, seeing that the shoots remain miraculously unburnt, rescues them and gives them to Lot to plant. Some of the pictures in the Church show another variant still, a little devil isseen slyly emptying away the water from the vessel borne by Lot’s donkey.
  2. “Legenda Aurea Sanctorum,” written by Jacopus de Voragine in the 13th See Ashton, “The Legendary History of the Cross.” (1887).
  3.  de Worde. (1498).
  4. There is a Greek legend of Lot and the Tree in Fabricius, Cod. Pseudepigr. VT., I.428-431. (See Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible).
  5. W. Seymour, “The Cross in History, Tradition and Art (1898), p. 97.
  6. xxii. 2. The Tree of Life here was thought to be the palm tree, because “she yielded her fruit every month,” and the date palm was supposed to put forth a shoot each month.

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A small hole within a decorated bronze plate marks the place where the holy Tree once stood.
A small hole within a decorated bronze plate marks the place where the holy Tree once stood.
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