The Greek Cross Room inside the Vatican Museums gets its name from the shape of the room which takes the form of a plus sign. Unlike the Latin cross, which has an elongated descending arm, the arms of the Greek Cross are equal. Although today we usually associate the cross as a Christian symbol for the crucifixion of Christ, the Greeks also used the cross as a symbol. The Greek Cross symbolized the four elements of nature which are air, fire, water, and earth.
The Greek Cross Room was designed by Michelangelo Simonetti between 1775 and 1799 with Giuseppe Camporese finishing the design after the death of Simonetti in 1787. The room was initially built as an entrance to the Museo Pio Clementino.
One of the first things you will notice is the stunning mosaic floor in the center of the room.
This floor is designed like a shield with the head of the goddess of war, Athena, or Minerva in Ancient Greece. The mosaic dates from the 3rd century A.D and was found in Frascati outside of Rome in 1741. It was relocated to the Vatican and restored to its original beauty.
You will also notice the blue section of the mosaic. This is a very rare and precious stone known as lapis lazuli that can only be mined in Afghanistan. The lapis lazuli (whose price is comparable to gold) is the reason the mosaic floor is cornered off and protected from visiting feet.
On either side of the room, you will also see two large sarcophagi which were ancient burial stone coffins. On the left is the sarcophagus for Saint Helena and on the right is the sarcophagus for her granddaughter, Constance.
Both sarcophagi are made from red Egyptian porphyry, which is one of the rarest and most expensive stones in the world.
Sarcophagus of Saint Helena
Saint Helena or Flavia Julia Helena was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine who was best known for legalizing Christianity in the beginning of the 4th century A.D. Helena was born in 248 A.D. After she went on a pilgrimage to Syria, Palestina, and Jerusalem between 326 to 328 A.D., she discovered what is called the True Cross on which Christ was crucified alongside the two thieves, Saint Dismas and Gestas. Today only fragments of the cross remain in different churches throughout the world.
Although her original sarcophagus is on the left as you enter the Greek Cross Room her remains are no longer inside. Today she is buried in the Mausoleum of Helena outside of Rome.
The Sarcophagus was sculpted around 340 A.D and in 1777 it was brought to the Vatican where it was restored by Giovanni Pierantoni. The Sarcophagus is designed with military scenes of soldiers on horseback which leads a lot of scholars to believe that the sarcophagus was originally designed for her husband, Emperor Constantius, or even her famous son, Constantine.
Sarcophagus of Saint Constance
Constance or Constantia was the oldest daughter of Emperor Constantine – who built the original St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. She was also the granddaughter of Saint Helena. She was said to be born between the years 307 A.D. to 317 A.D. and died in 354 A.D.
Again, although she was originally buried in this sarcophagus her remains are no longer inside. She is now buried at the church Santa Costanza in Rome. Originally she was buried in this sarcophagus in a mausoleum on via Nomentana in Rome before being moved to Piazza San Marco between 1467 and 1471. In 1790 forty oxen carried the sarcophagus to the Vatican where it remains today. The tomb has designs of Cupids and grapes and it sits on top of a base designed by Francesco Antonio Franzoni of four lionesses.
How to Visit
The Greek Cross Room is just after you exit the Round Room and before you go up the small staircase entering into the Gallery of the Candelabra. This room can get quite packed during high season, especially because the center of the floor is roped off due to the mosaic of Athena. Plan ahead if you want to make the most of it by finding the best time to visit the Vatican without the crowds.