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The Battle of Heraclius and Chosroes

The True Cross became famous over the centuries as it performed miracle after miracle. According to the legend, the Sassanian king Chosroes II (590-628; Khosrau in Persian) coveting its power, stole the relic and used it to subjugate his citizens. Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium, in A.D. 528 came with his troops to rescue the cross by force.

The Battle Scene

Piero interpreted the encounter as a complex battle spreading across the wall from left to right, full of blood and heavy weaponry. Painted in exquisite detail, the procession to victory can be read in the flags, moving from the imperial eagle to the standards of Islam, one, decorated with Moorish figures, in tatters, the other with crescent moons, falling to the ground. The warriors on both sides wear all sorts of armor, including colorful Roman molded leather cuirasses and Renaissance style harnesses of polished laminated steel, reflecting the real light that streams from the window on the altar wall. A war-weary bugler in a tall white hat sounds his horn, while all around him weapons fly through the air. At the right-hand edge of the battle, a mounted knight receives a dagger-thrust to the throat, and as he falls back seems to regurgitate the cross from his very mouth.

The Execution of Chosroes

At the far right, the cross forms part of the blasphemous Trinitarian tabernacle that Chosroes had set up. He called himself God, mounting the cross on his right as the Son, and a cock on a column on his left as the Holy Spirit. Having refused baptism, Chosroes leaves his throne empty and kneels awaiting the executioner’s sword. Around him are his judges, in the guise of members of the Bacci family, the fifteenth-century patrons of the chapel. By showing Chosroes with the same features as God-the-Father (Who appears around the corner in the Annunciation scene), Piero defines visually his criminal blasphemy.