The Saintly Patronessing of Women Architects
For without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Saviour's birth; the other on the mount of his ascension. For he who was "God with us" had submitted to be born even in a cave of the earth, and the place of his nativity was called Bethlehem by the Hebrews. Accordingly the pious empress honored with rare memorials the scene of her travail who bore this heavenly child, and beautified the sacred cave with all possible splendor. The emperor himself soon after testified his reverence for the spot by princely offerings, and added to his mother's magnificence by costly presents of silver and gold, and embroidered hangings. And farther, the mother of the emperor raised a stately structure on the Mount of Olives also, in memory of his ascent to heaven who is the Saviour of mankind, erecting a sacred church and temple on the very summit of the mount. And indeed authentic history informs us that in this very cave the Saviour imparted his secret revelations to his disciples. And here also the emperor testified his reverence for the King of kings, by diverse and costly offerings. Thus did Helena Augusta, the pious mother of a pious emperor, erect over the two mystic caverns these two noble and beautiful monuments of devotion, worthy of everlasting remembrance, to the honor of God her Saviour, and as proofs of her holy zeal, receiving from her son the aid of his imperial power.
These words come from the third book of the Vita Constantini, the life of Constantine written shortly after Constantine's death by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea. Helena made her holy and imperial "pilgrimage" to Palestine and the eastern provinces between the years 326 and 328, and Eusebius is the only contemporary author to record her journey. Of course, Eusebius does not name Helena as architect of the Nativity and Ascension churches, but his text nonetheless links Helena directly with the erection of these two buildings. Moreover, the two holy sites chosen by Helena, that where Christ came into this world and that where Christ left this world, signify a well designed intention.
Even without naming Helena as architect, the testimony of Eusebius is powerfully valuable for its rare attribution of monumental building construction to a woman.
Eusebius also relates how Helena interacted with other churchs throughout the eastern provinces:
While, however, her character derived luster from such deeds as I have described, she was far from neglecting personal piety toward God. She might be seen continually frequenting his Church, while at the same time she adorned the houses of prayer with splendid offerings, not overlooking the churches of the smallest cities. In short, this admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.
It is important to note that Helena was over seventy-five years old as she moved through and transformed Palestine and its surrounding region. By this point in her life, Helena already bore witness to a multitude of places, things, and events far above the norm.
Helena began her life, circa 248, as the daughter of innkeepers in Drepanum, a small town along the Sea of Marmara's south coast across the water from today's Istanbul. By her early twenties, Helena met General Constantius Chlorus and became what in twentieth-century terms is called a common-law wife. Helena and Constantius never married, as was the custom for high ranking Roman generals who utilized formal marriage primarily as a politically advantageous and arranged affair. Nonetheless, Helena, early in the relationship, bore Constantius his first son, Constantine, who ultimately became Constantine the Great. Moreover, Helena was with Constantius' when he was provincial governor of Dalmatia, the Adriatic region of today's Croatia and Constantius' native home. In 293, after more than twenty years of partnership, Helena and Constantius separate because Constantius marries Theodora, the daughter of Maximianus Herculius (Augustus Maximian). Concomitant with this separation process, Constantius becomes Caesar under Augustus Maximian and moves to his new capital at Trier, while Helena temporarily moves into historical obscurity.
Although unrecorded, it is not especially difficult to reconstruct Helena's life after her relationship with Constantius. By 293, Helena is forty-five years old with a twenty-one year old son already holding a high position within the Nicomedian court of senior Augustus Diocletian. Drepanum and Nicomedia are within mere miles of each other, and it is therefore most likely that Helena returned to Drepanum to be near her remaining family and her son. If Helena lived in or near Drepanum between 293 and 307, she was then witness to Diocletian's great persecution of the Christian's that began in 303 and subsequently practiced throughout the eastern empire. For example, Diocletian had the Christian Church of Nicomedia torn down, and regardless of where Helena was, she was assuredly well aware of this news.
Of course, we will never know with absolute certainty where Helena was after her life with Constantius, however, the uncanny fact that Helena, by 307, had witnessed a complete reenactment of her own "married" life through the married life of her son Constantine is indisputable. In 305, Constantine was bore a son named Crispus through his "common-law wife" Minervina, in 306 Constantine moves to Trier, and in 307 Constantine separates from Mivervina because he marries Fausta, the fourteen year old daughter of Augustus Maximian and half-sister to Constantine's stepmother Theodora. No doubt, Helena more than anyone fully grasped every detail and implication of this almost unnatural repetition of events, and, therefore, it is reasonable to place Helena, almost sixty years old by this time, at Trier circa 306 fulfilling the imperial household role of wise and protecting mother and grandmother.
It is at also at Trier where Helena's life and architecture come together.
During his Gallic wars (58-51 BC), Julius Caesar subjugated the Treveri, near whose shrine the Romans founded a town. When Augustus was in Gaul (between 16 and 13 BC) this town received the name Augusta Treverorum. . . Trier's most brilliant period began when Diocletian divided the administration of the Roman Empire among four emperors [in 293]. Trier, then called Treveris, became the seat of the emperor responsible for Gaul and Britain: it was thus at one time or another the residence of the emperors Constantius, Constantine the Great, Crispus Caesar, Constantine II, Constans, Valentinian I, Gratian, and Valentinian II.
Wilhelm C. Bracht, "Trier" in Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1969) v.22, p. 229.
There is no indisputable evidence that Helena ever lived at Trier, however, Helena remains closely associated with the city of Trier to this day. Helena is the patron saint of Trier's Bishopric and Helena's head is among Trier's holy relics. Additionally, legend credits Helena for bestowing Trier with the Holy Vestments, the robes Christ wore on his way the Calvary, after she discovered them in the Holy Land. Of course, none of these facts proves Helena's residency at Trier, yet they do confirm a spiritual presence if one is inclined to acknowledge such an existence.
Besides Helena, there are a number of other contemporary historical figures who very likely at one time or another lived in Trier, but, as in Helena's case, their residency at Trier remains open to question. Thus to reconstruct Helena's life in Trier is to cross the threshold of a context aggregated with certainty and uncertainty, and, for better or worse, it is exactly the mixture of knowns and unknowns that penetrates as well as shrouds Helena's entire [architectural] life.
Albeit indirectly, Trier became a part of Helena's life around the year 293. It was at that time when Constantius Chlorus, Helena's husband of over twenty years, became the western caesar of Diocletian's tetrarchy. As the new ruler of Gaul and Britain, Constantius Chlorus moved from his native Dalmatia to a new administrative capital at Trier--the other members of the tetrarchy, Diocletian, Maximian, and Galerius, ruled from Nicomedia, Milan, and Thessalonike respectively. Strengthening the bond between (western) Augustus Maximian and his new caesar by order, Constantius marries Maximian's step-daughter, the less than twenty year old Theodora, and in the process abandons Helena. On 1 March 293, when Constantius and Theodora marry, the forty-five year old Helena is the midst of what is probably the saddest time of her life--not only has she lost her husband (to a much younger woman), but she is also deprived of sharing in his new glory. Given the political and emotional circumstances, it seems unlikely that Helena followed Constantius to Trier. What is more likely is Helena's following her and Constantius' only child, Constantine, who by this time was around twenty years old and residing at Diocletian's court in Nicomedia. Relative to Trier, Nicomedia is at the other (eastern) extreme of the Roman Empire, however, Nicomedia is very close to Drepanum, Helena's hometown. Regardless of where Helena spent her years of abandonment, it seems safe to assume that she more than once imagined living in Trier.
Constantius ruled from Trier for thirteen years, from 293 to 306, and during that time Theodora bore him six children: Flavius Dalmatius, Julius Constantius, Hannibalianus, Constantia, Anastasis, and Eutropia. On 1 May 305, upon the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius Chlorus becomes (western) Augustus--the Second Tetrachy also includes Augustus Galerius in Nicomedia, Caesar Maximinus Daia in Thessalonike, and Caesar Severus in Milan. Within the following year, Constantine, who is now in his early thirties, leaves the eastern empire to join his father. Constantine meets Constantius at Gesoriacum (Boulogne), and by the early summer of 306, both are in Britain facing incursions by the Picts (the people beyond Hadrian's Wall in modern-day Scotland). On 25 July 306 Constantius dies at Eburacum (York) with Constantine at his side. The soldiers immediately proclaim Constantine their Augustus, doing what Roman armies had done so often in the past. Although this transition of power was somewhat illegitimate--the title of Augustus should have rightly succeeded to Severus in Milan--Constantine was now nonetheless an integral part of the empire's ruling tetrachy, and in his new capacity Constantine took up residence in Trier.
[The] gap in our knowledge about Helena's life lasts at least until 306, when the troops in York proclaimed Constantine the successor of his father. It is generally assumed that from this time on Helena joined Constantine's court.
Jan Willem Drivjvers, Helena Augusta: the mother of Constantine the Great and the legend of her finding the true cross (New York: E.J. Brill, 1992), p. 21.
At Trier, too, Constantine was joined by his mother Helena, for whom it was at last safe to emerge from the obsurity which had been her lot since her separation from Constantius.
Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 17.
With her son now as Augustus, it is indeed believable that Helena took on a more public and prominant persona. Believable too is the notion that Helena joined Constantine's imperial household at Trier, after all, Helena very probably spent the prior thirteen years often wondering exactly what life within the imperial household at Trier was like.
Given Constantius' sudden and untimely death, plus the marginally usurpative nature of Constantine's accession to power, life within the imperial household at Trier during the early years of Constantine's reign embodied multiple complications. There is first the question of Theodora's presence. Did she remain in Trier, or did she go elsewhere? Did the now fifty-eight year old Helena and the approximately thirty year old Theodora meet after Constantius' death, and, if so, did they come to like or dislike each other? One only has to think of the many twists of fate that life so often delivers to then imagine that many things are possible within this particular scenerio. Secondly, did the six children of Constantius and Theodora, ranging anywhere in age from twelve to one, remain within the court of their half-brother Constantine? If the fact that Constantine, in late 311 or early 312, betrothed his half-sister Constantia to the then (eastern) Augustus Licinius offers a positive indication, then all of Constantius' and Theodora's children may well have spent their childhood and youth in Trier. Finally, there is the question how Constantine's wife Minervina and their son Crispus fit into Trier's new imperial household. Minervina and Constantine, like Helena and Constantius, were not legally married, however, Minervina was the mother of Constantine's first child, Crispus, who was born between the years 303 and 305 somewhere in the eastern empire. Considering the fact that Helena and Minervina shared an uncanny sameness regarding their respective "marital" relationships, it is then quite possible that they also possessed a special bond, and, thus, Minervina, the infant-child Crispus, and Helena may have together left the East after being summoned to Trier.
1 Maximian was the father-in-law to both Constantius and Constantine. Theodora and Fausta were half-sisters, and both were teen-agers when they married. Constantius and Constantine both had previous wives that were abandoned when they officially married into the imperial family. Constantius and Constantine both had a single child, a son, by their first wives when they married their official wives.
2 Minervina's fate after Constantine's marriage to Fausta will in all likelihood remain obscure, however, there is nonetheless a remote possibility that Minervina stayed at Trier after 307. Because Crispus was still a very young child, and because Helena may not have wished to see Minervina go through the same "divorce" that she herself went through when Constantius married Theodora, Helena may have requested that Minervina be allowed to stay at court. Since Fausta was only fourteen years old at the time, and therefore not likely to be in a position to forcibly object, Constantine himself, for reasons of continued sexual companionship, may have actually welcomed Minervina's staying. Of course, the one person that would have most strongly objected to Minervina's staying at Trier was Maximian.
3 It is also worth noting that Fausta did not begin bearing children to Constantine until 316.
4 Although [Maximian] was treated [at Trier] with all of the respect due a former emperor, he still desired to be more than a figurehead. He decided to seize the purple from Constantine when his son-in-law least expected it. His opportunity came in the summer of 310 when the Franks revolted. When Constantine had taken a small part of his army into enemy territory, Maximianus proclaimed himself again emperor and paid the soldiers under his command a donative to secure their loyalty. As soon as Constantaine received news about Maximianus' revolt in July 310, he went south and reached Arelate [Arles] before his father-in-law could mount a defense of the city. Although Maximianus fled to Massilia [Milan], his son-in-law seized the city and took Maximianus prisoner. Although he was deprived of the purple, he was granted pardon for his crimes. Unable to endure the humiliation of his defeat, he attempted to have Constantine murdered in his bed. The plot failed because he tried to get his daughter Fausta's help in the matter; she chose to reveal the matter to her husband. Because of this attempt on his son-in-law's life Maximianus was dead by the end of July either by his own hand or on the orders of his intended victim.
Michael DiMario, Jr. "Maximianus Herculius" in An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors.
5 With the exception of some building-related inscriptions found around Helena's palace in Rome and the passages within Eusebius' Vita Constantini regarding Helena's building activity in the Holy Land, there is no other historical documentation that links Helena with architectural construction. The supposition here that Helena "practiced" architecture is based on a design analysis of the major buildings erected within the cities and times of Helena's various residencies during Constantine's reign as emperor: Trier, 306-312; Rome, 312-326; Jerusalem and Palestine, 327-329. Of course, it is very doubtful that Helena actually studied architecture in the sense of receiving a formal architectural education. This does not preclude the possibility, however, that Helena may well have possessed an innate talent for architectural design. Ultimately, the following succession of building analyses aim to demonstrate that Helena fulfilled the role of Christianity's first master architect, meaning that it was Helena who possessed the vision, the wherewithal, the power, and, above all, the presence to make sure each of Christianity's first monumental churches was done right.
6 The notion that Helena administered building construction at Trier is pure conjecture. There is the possibility, however, that Constantine trusted Helena above anyone else at his court, therefore, it may have fallen to Helena to "rule" over domestic affairs. Additionally, the building zeal Helena exhibited as she toured the Holy Land in 326-28 may be a demonstration of her general character, and at Trier she may have finally been able to realize some of her life-long dreams.
Only three months after the death of Constantius and the accession of Constantine, the Empire's ruling tetrarchy is again upset. On 28 October 306 the Senate and Praetorian Guard in Rome proclaim Maxentius, the son of retired Augustus Maximian and half-brother of Theodora, as emperor princeps. This turn of events brings Maximian out of his retirement in Sicily, first to support his son, but, within a year and because of a falling out with his son, Maximian seeks and finds refuge in Constantine's court at Trier. Maxentius' usurpation of power in Rome essentially manifested a civil war and brought with it all the political uncertainty that comes with such an occurrence. Keeping in mind that Maxentius' father Maximian is now at Trier on Constantine's side, Constantine, in September 307 and probably to reinforce and protect his own political position from further jeopardy, marries Fausta, the fourteen year old daughter of Maximian and the younger sister of Maxentius. Aside from the political implications of Constantine's marriage, the new position of Fausta within Constantine's court also held dire consequences for Minervina who was very likely put aside at this time. Moreover, the fact that the marriage of Constantine and Fausta is an exact reenactment 1 of the marriage of Constantius and Theodora surely did not escape Helena's notice. Thus Helena, having seen it all before, more than anyone understood ever detail and implication underlying the body[s] of Constantine's new court.
By the end of 307, the dynamic of Constantine's court at Trier was surely elaborate, if not also somewhat perplexing. Indeed, the arrival of Fausta, as wife of the emperor Constantine, does more to establish Maximian's dynastic domain rather than Constantine's own. In simple terms, there were more of Maximian's progeny within the imperial court at Trier in 308, then there was of Constantine's own flesh and blood. Assuming that Minervina is no longer at Trier2, Maximian, (probably) his wife Eutropia, his daughters Theodora and Fausta, plus Maximian's six grandchildren, the offspring of Constanius and Theodora, greatly outnumber Constantine, Crispus, and Helena. As a result of this situation, is it actually the position of Crispus that becomes the most vulnerable, precisely because he, as a child and presumed imperial heir, is foremost among the obstacles preventing the continuation of Maximian's "dynasty". For this reason, it would not be remiss to suppose that Constantine and Helena formed a strong and tight partnership with regard to running the imperial household, especially to protect Crispus from Maximian's side of the "family". Given that Fausta was only fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, it is hard to believe that she had any real authority at court.3 The biggest threat at Trier, as shall be seen, was Maximian himself, and since Helena and Maximian, both close to the age of sixty, were the oldest members of the court, it is they, albeit for different reasons, who kept a vigilant eye over everything. Helena held two advantages over Maximian, however. First, as mother and partner of Constantine, she was directly linked to the real power at hand, and, second, Helena probably paid more attention to Maximian than Maximian paid the Helena.
Using Trier as his base of operations, [Constantine] campaigned successfully against the Franks in 306-7 and against Bructeri (north of the Ruhr) in 307-8. Two Frankish kings captured in the course of the former campaign he fed to the beasts in the amphitheatre of Trier; in the course of the latter campaign he constructed a bridge across the Rhine at Colonia Agrippina (Cologne). He was campaigning against the Franks and Alamanni in 310 when he received word of Maximian's usurpation [at Arles]. 4 He also found time for two visits to Britain, one in 307, the other probably in 310.
Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 17.
Judging from the dates of Constantine's various military compaigns out of Trier, it appears that 309 (and possibly including several months both before and after) was the only "peaceful" year of his Treverian reign. This is perhaps all the more reason to believe that Constantine relied solidly on Helena to maintain more continually the composure and operations of [home]court.
Today any visitor, even one with only a minimal knowledge of or interest in Roman history can still see the evidence of the city's former imperial splendor. Trier's most famous landmark, the Porta Nigra, dates from the second century, as do the Roman bridge across the Mosel and the Baths of St Barbara; the amphitheatre was constructed even earlier, at the end of the first century. But the Imperial Baths, impressive even in their ruinous state, and the so-called basilica, actually the reception hall (aula palatina) of the imperial palace, are both to be associated with Constantine.
Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 17.
Despite the fact that Constantine was often away from Trier between 306 and 312, and even amidst the ever present intrigue inside the imperial court, there was nonetheless a fair amount of new building activity throughout the northern capital. What remains today of the Constantinian building program are the Imperial Baths and the Aula Palatina, and it through these buildings that the "reconstruction" of Helena's architectural practice begins.5
Upon arriving at Trier in 306, Helena passed through the Porta Nigra or one of the other three similar gates providing entrance to the walled city. This impressive structure, though grandiloquent in its ornamentation, is nonetheless a truly defensive gateway. There is no use in speculating what Helena may have thought about the Porta Nigra, except to say that she may have already seem similar gates in other parts of the Empire, for in many respects Roman architecture, no matter where the location throughout the Empire incorporated a fairly homogeneous use of typology and style. For example, Trier already contained a large thermal bath complex and public amphitheater.
Construction of a new thermal bath complex at Trier begun under the reign of Constantine around 310. Referred to today as the Imperial Baths, they were indeed grand in scale, becoming the largest Roman baths north of the Alps, and comparable in general size and style to the Baths of Diocletian built in Rome approximately ten years earlier. Besides the fact that Helena resided at Trier during the bath construction, there are two indirect connections between Helena and the Imperial Baths. First, we know that when she began living in Rome sometime after 312, Helena rebuilt the fire-damaged baths next to her Palatium Sessorianum palace. It may be that after witnessing, or perhaps even administrating6 the bath construction at Trier, Helena found no difficulty initiating her own bath project in Rome. The second connection between Helena and the Imperial Baths is purely accidental, but nonetheless it is worth mentioning the uncanny resemblance between the ruins of the Imperial Baths at Trier and the ruins of the Torre Pignattara in Rome. The Torre Pignattara is what remains of Helena's mausoleum.