Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saint Helena and The Establishment of Christianity

Helena of Constantinople (c. 250-c. 330, saint's day 21 May)


A recent New York Times story reported on the "risk of collapse" at the site of what many believe to be the tomb of Jesus, in Jerusalem's Old City.

St. Helena, with the Holy Cross,
portrait by Lucas Cranach,
the elder, 1525
The shared fear over the shrine's survival has calmed long, frequently violent, rivalries among the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic "guards" who stand watch over it and worshippers who make their pilgrimages to pray there. (There is some dispute about the site of  Jesus's tomb, however--most Protestant Christians prefer the Garden Tomb, outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, "discovered" in the nineteenth century.)

I am not interested in weighing in on which of these sites may be the "real" site of Jesus's tomb--but this story about the the tomb's precarious state provides the occasion for a post on Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, who is generally credited with having helped to transform the Roman empire from pagan to Christian.

She was divorced by the Emperor Constantius Chloris in 294, forced out of Rome, and lived in obscurity for the remainder of his reign. She returned to Rome and the imperial court in 312, after her son became emperor. As a Christian, she may have influenced her son's promulgation of the edict of Milan, allowing Christians to practice their faith without persecution. Her son awarded her the honorific title Augusta imperatrix in 325--along with the mandate to find remnants of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.

In the years 326 to 328, Helena traveled to Jerusalem. In his Life of Constantine, the Roman historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, credits Helena with commissioning the construction of a basilica on the site of Jesus's birth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and of commissioning another basilica on the Mount of Olives, a site where, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went to pray (in the book of Acts, the Mount of Olives is said to be the site of Christ's ascension.)

She also ordered the construction of the Chapel of the Burning Bush (known also, today, as St. Helen's Chapel), at the site where Moses was believed to have seen the burning bush. She is said to have constructed dozens of churches during her time in the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem, Helena's search for relics of the Holy Cross led her to the temple of Aphrodite--according to Eusebius, the temple had been constructed by the Emperor Hadrian (in the second century) in order to make the site of Jesus's burial inaccessible. Eusebius links the destruction of the temple, the excavation of the tomb, and the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Constantine--but tradition holds that it was Helena, in search of the relics of the Cross, who learned that it had been buried in a site covered by the Temple of Venus. She arranged for the the temple to be demolished and, after praying, ordered the excavation of the site, revealing the tomb of Jesus. 
The aedicule, or shrine, a 206-year-old structure,
now held together with an iron cage,
constructed over what is said to be
the tomb of Jesus

Helena also found not one but three crosses at the time of the excavation--each one was used to touch the body of a dead man (or woman--accounts differ). Obviously the cross that brought the dead man/woman back to life was the True Cross. 

Helena also found four nails in the tomb--she took them, along with part of the Holy Cross, back with her to Rome. Her private chapel, where she ultimately preserved these relics, later became the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (tradition says that the floor was spread with earth brought back from Jerusalem--thus the name of Helena's chapel, indicating that part of Jerusalem had been transported to Rome).

My favorite story about St. Helena (her status as saint recognized after her death) is that she is responsible for having 1,000 cats from Egypt and Palestine brought to Cyprus, where she left them in order to clear a terrible infestation of snakes from a monastery then under construction. Today there are lots of cats at the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats in Akrotiri, Cyprus.

Helena died about the year 330 and was buried in a mausoleum on the via Casilina. The red sarcophagus holding her remains was moved in the eleventh century to the Lateran Palace, but it is now in the Vatican Museum.

Helena's feast day is celebrated on 21 May in the Orthodox tradition (but 18 August in the Catholic calendar).

The Mausoleum of Helena