Donald Attwater, editor, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (New York: Penguin Books, 1983):
The Catholic Encyclopedia:
on the Archeology of the Cross and the Crucifix
on Constantine the Great
on Saint Agnes
on Saint Helena
on Saint Lucian of Antioch
on Saint Macarius
Stephan Borgehammer, How the Holly Cross was Found: From Event to Medieval Legend (Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell International, 1991).
Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: the mother of Constantine the Great and the legend of her finding the true cross (New York: E.J. Brill, 1992):
on Trier's palace to cathedral transformation
Mgr. Louis Duchesne, Early Church History from its foundation to the end of the fifth century (New York: Longman, Green and Company, 1920):
on St. Helen and St. Lucian and Drepanum
Agnes B. C. Dunbar, A Dictionary of Saintly Women (London: George Bell & Sons, 1904):
on St. Helen:
The following text adheres to the now dismissed tradition of Helena having been a native of Britian, and overall this entry reflects the many factual and legendary attributes attached to Helena over the centuries.
St. Helen, empress, Aug. 18, May 21, 248-326 or 328. Mother of Constantine. Represented wearing a crown, and holding a large cross, sometimes also a nail.
FLAVIA JULIA HELENA AUGUSTA, also called HELENA STABULARIA, ELENA, ELLEN, is supposed to have been native of Britain, and tradition makes her the daughter of King Coel, or Coilus, who gave his name to Colchester, which he fortified and enlarged. Drepanum, in Bithynia, also claims the honour of being her birthplace. She has been called a Jewess of Palestine, and it has been conjectured that her parents were Christians. Some say she was the daughter of an innkeeper or stable-keeper, and the mistress rather than the wife of Constantius, and that her famous son Constantine was illegitimate. On the whole the evidence is in favour of her having been "a woman well reputed," and born in England, either at York or Colchester.
As for the rank of her father, there were probably in the 3rd century more kings than innkeepers in Britian. She may have been the daughter of some officer whose duties related to the horses and stables of the Romans. On the other hand, it is said that the surname of STABULARIA was given to her long afterwards by the clergy in compliment to her eagerness to visit the place of our Saviour's birth, and discover the very manger where He was laid.
Flavius Valerius Constantius, surnamed, from his paleness, Chlorus, the husband of Helen, is much praised by contemporary writers, both heathen and Christian. He believed in one God, and protected the Christians, placing some of them in offices of trust under him. In 292, Diocletian raised him to the rank of Caesar, and gave him for his province Gaul, Spain, and Britian, on condition that he should repudiate his wife, and marry Flavia Maximiana Theodora, the step-daughter of Maximian Hercules.
Constantius died in 306, and his son Constantine assumed the purple. He was one of five claimants for the imperial throne, and seventeen years elapsed before he became sole emperor.
His conversion to Christianity occurred about 312. We do not know with certainty when St. Helen became a Christian, nor where or how she spent the years between her divorce and her son's accession, although it is supposed that she lived at Tricassium (Troyes, in Champagne). One of Constantine's first acts of power was to declare her Augusta, to recall her to court, and to have medals struck in honour of her; some of these still exist. Her portrait bears a strong resemblance to that of her son. She is called on these medals Flavia Julia Helena. He gave her estates in various parts of the empire, and revenues befitting her station and bounty.
She was now openly declared a Christian. A strong affection existed between the mother and son. It is supposed to have been in some measure owing to Helen's capable and tactful management that Constantine's half-brothers never were in a position to dispute the empire with him; and to her grief and anger is attributed the repentance of Constantine and the punishment of Faustina for the judicial murder of his promising son Crispus -- a tragedy that can be read in all the histories of the period.
In 325, Constantine convoked the first general council of the Christian Church, at Nice, in Bithynia. The following year, the twentieth of his reign, was celebrated with great rejoicing throughout the empire, and he resolved to sanctify and commemorate the occasion by building a church at Jerusalem on the site of the Holy Sepulchre. Helen eagerly interested herself in the project, and, though now nearly eighty, set out on a journey to Palestine to share in the pious undertaking and visit the scene of the Saviour's life and death.
She traveled with great state and magnificence, as became the emperor's mother, but her charity and liberality far outshone her royal splendour. In passing through the provinces of the Eastern Empire, she took care to ascertain the condition and wants of the people, and made them known to the emperor. She showed special kindness to soldiers for the sake of her husband and son. She freed many slaves and debtors, and relieved numerous cases of distress.
Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed by Titus in 70, and half a century afterwards, the city of Aelia Capitolina had been built in its stead, and as the church of Jerusalem had been dispersed and driven away, it was difficult to ascertain the exact site of the garden and cave where the Lord had lain. It was understood that a temple of Venus, since fallen to ruin, had been built on the spot, partly to desecrate it. The remains of the temple were discovered and cleared away, and then the diggers came upon the rock.
St. Helen and her companions satisfied themselves and Constantine that this was the right place, and a church was built there, although it was not finished and dedicated till 336, after the death of Helen, and there the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands to this day.
The empress visited all the Churches in and around Jerusalem, and not in royal robes or sitting in a place of state, but in the simplest attire, kneeling humbly amongst the other women.
The great ecclesiastical event with which her name is connected id the discovery of the Cross of Christ. Being at Jerusalem, and much interested in the identification of the holy places, she conceived a great desire to find the very cross on which the Lord was "lifted up." There was no tradition regarding it, but she was informed that it would probably be found near the sepulchre, as it had been usual among the Jews to bury near the grave of a criminal the instruments of his punishment as unclean things; therefore, when they had discovered the site of the Holy Sepulchre, they dug to a great depth, and found three crosses buried in one hole. This discovery filled the empress with pious exultation, but it seemed impossible to distinguish the cross of the Saviour from those of the two thieves, until St. Macarius, the bishop of Jerusalem, ascertained that one of the crosses would perform miraculous cures and the others would not.
The aged saint then provided a costly shrine for part of the cross, and placed it in the new church in April or May, 326; she took another part to Constantinople, and presented it to her son, who received it with great veneration; and the rest she carried with her to Rome in the course of the same year, and gave it to be placed in her new church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where it remains to this day. The nails, the crown of thorns, the title, the sponge, the lance, each has its own history. It is said that three nails were brought home by the empress, and in after times minute pieces of these were enclosed in new nails made in imitation of them, other copies being merely touched with one of the true nails, and in some cases a church having one of these secondary nails boasted of the possession of one of the original three.
St. Paulinus, in his twelfth epistle to Severus, relates that, although small pieces of wood of the cross were cut off daily, and given to devote persons, the sacred wood suffered no diminution.
Many of the most trusted historians mention the finding of the sepulchre. The strongest doubt that is thrown upon the finding of the cross arises from Eusebius's silence concerning it. He mentions the building of the church, but does not describe the discovery and identification of the cross.
One great church, or rather two joined together, bore the name of the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Part of it was on the site of the Crucifixion, and the other part, called the Church of the Resurrection, was on the site of the sepulchre. The piece of the cross kept in the church was annually shown to the people at Easter with great solemnity.
The "Invention of the Cross" is celebrated May 3. This day is called, in Adam King's Calendar, "The halie rude Day or finding of ye halie croce at jerusalem be Helene Mother of constantine ye greit." It is called in some parts of England "St. Helen's day in Spring," and was the appointed day for certain rural and agricultural proceedings. (This festival had been observed in the Latin Church since the 5th or 6th century.)
Adam King has, on May 7, "The apparitione of ye starnes in forme of ye croce at ierusalem vnder Constantine." And on May 21, "S. Helene mother to constantine ye greit quha fand ye halie rude vnder hir sone."
Sept. 14 is the Exaltation of the Cross, the day on which the piece of the cross was put in place in the newly dedicated church, ten years after the foundation of the one and discovery of the other.
According to Mant's Prayer-book, this festival began to be kept about 615, on this wise: CosroŽs, king of Persia, having plundered Jerusalem, took away a great piece of the cross which St. Helen had left there, and in terms of mirth made sport with it. The Emperor Heraclius fought and defeated him, and recovered the holy relic. He brought it back in triumph to Jerusalem, but found himself unable to enter the gate. He then acknowledged that it did not become him, a sinner, to enter the holy city on horseback and in pride and state, where the King of kings had entered meek and lowly, and riding on an ass. He wept for his sins, and entered the city barefooted and carrying the holy wood reverently in his hands; after which, the anniversary of the Exaltation, also called Holy Rood Day, was observed as a holy day.
Besides a nunnery in Jerusalem, a church in Bethlehem, one on the Mount of Olives, and several in Europe, St. Helen is said by immemorial tradition, and with every appearance of truth, to be the founder of certain extremely ancient and curious Coptic monasteries (still to be seen in Egypt), notably the Dair al Bakarah or Convent of the Pulley, and the Dair el Abiad or White Monastery at the foot of the Libyan Hills (Butler, Coptic Churches).
Helen died on Aug. 18, 326, either almost immediately after her return from Palestine or nearly two years later. She is generally said to have died at Rome; but it is also said that she died at Nicomedia or Constantinople, and was carried to Rome. She was laid in a porphyry urn -- one of the largest and handsomest in the world -- and placed in a great mausoleum, the ruins of which are now called Torre Pignattara, near the road from Rome to Palestrina.
Constantine had a statue of her and one of himself placed on either side of a large cross in the principle square of his beautiful new city, Constantinople. he outlived his mother almost ten years, and was baptized a few days before his death.
Next to the B. V. Mary, St. Helen has more dedications in England than any other saint. R. M. AA.SS. Tillemont. Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Robert of Gloucester gives some curious particulars of her supposed father, King Cole, and the history of Britain in his time, full of amusing anachronisms.
Elene, of the Finding of the Cross, is the subject of one of the poems of Cynewulf, a minstrel at the court of the Northumbrian kings in the 8th century.
Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine.
Part III, chapters/paragraphs 25-48 deal directly with Helena and the initial church building within the Holy Land.
Stefan Grundmann, editor, The Architecture of Rome (Stuttgart: Edition Axel Menges, 1998).
Richard Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: Le basiliche cristiane antichi di Roma (sec. IV-IX) (Cittá del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937-):
on the chronology of San Giovanni in Laterano
on the chronology of San Pietro in Vaticano
on the chronology of Santa Agnese fuori le Mura
on the chronology of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
on the chronology of Santes Marcellino et Pietro
Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965).
Rodolfo Lanciani, Forma Urbis Romae (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1989).
Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893):
on the Mausoleo di Santa Elene
Earnest Nash, Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome (New York: Fredrick A. Praeger, 1961).
An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors:
on Constantia (half-sister of Constantine I)
on Constantina (daughter of Constantine I)
on Constantius I Chlorus
on Crispus Caesar
on Helena Augusta
Samuel Ball Platner, The Topography and Monumants of Ancient Rome (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1904):
on the palatium Sessorium and thermae Helenae
Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine (New York: Routledge, 1996):
on Trier's palace to cathedral transformation
Eva Margareta Steinby, editor, Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 1993).
Herbert Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater, editors, Butler's Lives of the Saints (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1956):
March 10: St Macarius (c. A.D. 335)
Preserved in the pages of the historian Eusebius is the letter which Constantine wrote to Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, entrusting him with the construction of a church on the spot where the Empress Helen had discovered the site of Christ's
sepulchre, and giving him practically a free hand in its design and in the choice of workmen and materials. He lived to complete the basilica he had undertaken. We know from the testimony of St Athanasius that Macarius was a sincere and upright man, filled with the true apostolic spirit. He succeeded Bishop Hermon in 314 at the time when the Arian heresy was beginning seriously to menace the Church, and we know from the testimony of St Athanasius that he proved himself a valiant champion of the true faith. At the Council of Nicaca his name appears first of the Palestinian bishops in the list of the signatories.
According to the popular legend, Macarius was not only present at the finding of Christ's cross, but was also actually the means of identifying it. When the necessary excavations had been made three crosses were discovered, and it was at first doubtful which of the three was that on which our Lord had suffered. If we may trust the account which Rufinus gives in his Ecclesiastical History: "It happened that in the city there was a woman lying ill, nigh unto death. Macarius was bishop of that church at the time. When he saw the queen and the rest standing by, he said, "Bring hither all the crosses that have been found, and God will show which it was that bore the Lord". Then having entered with the queen and the others into the house of the woman who was ill, he knelt down and prayed thus "O God, who through thine only-begotten Son hast inspired the heart of thine handmaid to seek the holy wood upon which our salvation depends, show plainly which cross was identified with the glory of the Lord and which served for the punishment of slaves. Grant that as soon as the health-giving wood touches this woman who is lying half-dead, she may be recalled to life from the gates of death." When he had spoken these words, he touched her with one of the crosses -- and thing happened. Then he applied the second -- equally without effect. As soon, however, as he touched her with the third cross, she started up open-eyed and, with her strength fully restored, began to glorify God and to run about the house with greater agility than before her illness. The queen, having obtained her desire sough such a clear indication, erected with royal pomp a marvellous temple on the spot where she had found the cross."
Constantine's great basilica was consecrated on September 13, 335, the year which is generally considered to have been that of the death of its supervisor and builder Macarius.
May 3: The Finding of the Holy Cross (c. A.D. 326)
The feast of the Inventio, that is to say the discovery, of the Holy Cross, which is kept on May 3 with the rite of a double of the second class, would seem to take precedence of the September feast, the "Exaltation", which is only observed as a greater double. There is, however, a good deal of evidence which suggests that the September feast is the more primitive celebration, and that a certain confusion has arisen between the two incidents in the history of the Holy Cross which these festivals purport to commemorate. Strictly speaking, neither of them seems at first to have been directly connected with the discovery of the cross. The September feast took its rise from the solemn dedication in A.D. 335 of the churches which Constantine, encouraged by his mother, St Helen, had caused to be built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre. We cannot be sure that the dedication was carried out precisely on September 14. The month, however, was September, and seeing that in the time of the pilgrim Etheria, fifty years later, the annual commemoration of this inaugurating ceremony lasted for a week, there is clearly no reason to be particular to a day or two. In any case, Etheria herself tells us: "The dedication of these holy churches is therefore celebrated with the highest honour, and also because the cross of our Lord was found on this same day. And it was so ordained that, when the holy churches above mentioned were consecrated, that should also be the day when the cross of our Lord had been found, in order that the whole celebration should be made together, with all rejoicing, on the self-same day." From this it would follow that the discovery of the cross was honoured at Jerusalem in September, and the pilgrim Theodosius, about A.D. 530, speaking expressly of the inventio crucis, bears witness to the same fact.
But at present we commemorate in September an entirely different event, to wit, the recovery in 629 by the Emperor Heraclius of the relics of the cross which some years before had been carried off from Jerusalem by Chosroes II, King of Persia. The Roman Martyrology and the lessons of the Breviary are explicit on the point. There is, however, reason to think that under the style "Exaltation of the Cross" we have reference to the physical act of the lifting of the sacred relic when it was exhibited for the veneration of the people, and it is also probable that this designation was used in connection with the feast before the time of Heraclius.
As for the actual finding, with which we are here concerned, there is a distressing absence of early information. The Pilgram of Bordeaux, in 333, says nothing of the cross. Eusebius, the historian, from whom, as a contemporary, we should have expected to learn much, makes no reference to the discovery, though he seems to know about the three separate places of worship within the Holy Sepulchre precincts. Thus, in stating that Constantine "adorned a shrine sacred to the salutary emblem", he may well be supposed to refer to that chapel, "Golgotha", in which as Etheria tells us, the relics of the cross were preserved. St Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lectures which were delivered, about the vear 346, on the very site where our Saviour was crucified, refers more than once to the wood of the cross. "It has been distributed", he declares, "fragment by fragment, from this spot and has already nearly filled the world." Furthermore, in his letter to Constantius [II], he expressly states that "the saving wood of the cross was found at Jerusalem in the time of Constantine". In all this there is no mention of St Helen, who died in 330. The first, perhaps, to ascribe the discovery to her active interventions is St Ambrose, in his sermon De Obitu Theodosii, preached in 395; but about that date or a little later we find many others, John Chrysostom, Rufinus, Paulinus of Nola, and Cassiodorus, together with the church historians Socrates, Sozoinen and Theodoret -- but notably not St Jerome, who lived on the spot -- all repeating similar stories of the recovery of the cross in which St Helen plays a principal part. Unfortunately, the details of these accounts are by no means always in agreement. St Ambrose and St John Chrysostom inform us that in the cxcavations which were undertaken at the instance of St Helen, three crosses were discovered. They add that to the one in the middle the "title" was still attached, and that in this way our Saviour's cross was clearly identified. On the other hand, Rufinus, who is followed in this by Socrates, reports that in accordance with a special inspiration St Helen directed that excavations should be made in a certain place, that three crosses were found and an inscription, but there was no way of deciding to which of the three the inscription belonged. The bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, thereupon had a dying woman brought to the spot. She was made to touch the three crosses, and at the contact of the third she was healed, so that it was made plain to all that this was the cross of our Saviour. There are other divergences, at about the same date, regarding the miracle of healing by which the true cross was identified, the finding and disposal of the nails, etc. On the whole, it seems probable that the statements made more than sixty years after the event by writers bent mainly on edification were a good deal influenced by certain apocryphal documents which must already have been in circulation.
The most notable of these is the tractate De inventione crucis dominicae which is mentioned (c. 550) in the pseudo-Gelasian decree De recipiendis et non recipiendis libris as a writing to be regarded with mistrust. There can be no doubt that this little tractate was widely read. The compiler of the first redaction of the Liber Pontificalis (c. A.D. 532) must have had it in his hands, and he quotes from it in the account he gives of Pope Eusebius. It must also have been known to those who blunderingly revised the Hieronymianum at Auxerre early in the seventh century. Neglecting the anachronisms in which the narrative abounds, the story in brief runs thus. The Emperor Constantine, in conflict with hordes of barbarians on the Danube, was in grave danger of defeat. There appeared to him, however, a vision of a brilliant cross in the sky, with the legend "In this sign thou shalt conquer". He was thereupon victorious, was instructed and baptized by Pope Eusebius in Rome, and out of gratitude despatched his mother, St Helen, to Jerusalem, to search for the relics of the holy cross. All the inhabitants professed ignorance of its whereabouts, but at last, by dint of threats she prevailed upon a learned Jew named Judas to reveal what he knew. They dug twenty fathoms deep and discovered three crosses. The identity of the true cross is determined by its raising a dead man to life. Judas is thereupon converted, and, as the bishop of Jerusalem happened just then to die, St Helen selects this new convert, who is henceforth called Cyriacus, or Quiriacus, to govern that see in his place. Pope Eusebius is summoned from Rome to Jerusalem to consecrate him bishop, and shortly afterwards, through the miraculous appearance of a brilliant light, the hiding-place of the holy nails is also revealed. St Helen, having made generous donations to the holy places and the poor of Jerusalem, happened to die not long afterwards, charging all faithful Christians as her last behest to hold festival every year on May 3 (quinto nonas Maii), the day on which the cross was found. Before the year 450, Sozomen (bk. ii, ch. i) seems to have been acquainted with this story of the Jew who revealed the hiding-place of the cross. He does not denounce it as a fabrication, but quietly passes it by as less probable.
Another apocryphal story which bears, though less directly, on the finding of the cross, is introduced, somewhat as a digression, into the document known as The Doctrine of Addai, of Syrian origin. What we are told here is that Protonike, the wife of the Emperor Claudius Caesar, less than ten years after our Lord's ascension, went to the Holy Land, compelled the Jews to reveal where the crosses were hidden, and distinguished that of our Saviour by a miracle wrought upon her own daughter. It is contended that this legend has suggested the story of St Helen and the discovery of the cross in the time of Constantine. Mgr Duchesne believed that the Doctrine of Addai was earlier in date than the De inventions crucis dominicae, but there are strong arguments for the contrary opinion.
In view of all this very unsatisfactory evidence, the most probable suggestion seems to be that the holy cross with the title was found during the excavations rendered necessary by the construction of Constantine's basilica on Mount Calvary. Such a discovery, which may well have involved some period of doubt and inquiry while the authenticity of the find was being discussed, is likely to have given rise to multifarious conjectures and rumours which before long took written shape in the De inventions tractate. It is probable that St Helen's share in the transaction actually amounted to no more than what we should gather from Etheria's statement when she speaks of "the building which Constantine, under his mother's auspices (sub praesentia matris suae) embellished with gold and mosaics and precious marbles". The credit of a victory is often given to a sovereign, though it is his generals and troops who have done all the fighting. What is certain in the whole matter is that from the middle of the fourth century reputed relics of the true cross spread through the world. This we know not only from St Cyril's reiterated statement, but also from dated inscriptions in Africa and elsewhere. Still more convincing is the evidence that before the end of the same century the stem of the cross and the title were both venerated in Jerusalem with intense devotion. Etheria's account of the ceremony is the description of an eye-witness about the year 385; but only a dozen years or so later we have in the Life of St Porphyrius of Gaza another testimony to the veneration with which the relic was regarded by its custodians. And again, after nearly two centuries, the pilgrim, commonly, if incorrectly, known as Antoninus of Piacenza, tells us how "we adored (adoravimus) and kissed" the wood of the cross and handled its title.
August 18: St Helena (c. A.D. 330)
St Helen was born, so far as can be ascertained, at Drepanum in Bithynia, perhaps the daughter of an inn-keeper. Somewhere about 270 the Roman general Constantius Chlorus met her there and, in spite of her humble birth, married her; but when he was made caesar, he was persuaded to divorce her and marry Theodora, the stepdaughter of the Emperor Maximian. Some years earlier Helen had given birth at Naissus (Nish in Serbia) to Constantine the Great, who had a deep regard and affection for his mother, and afterwards conferred on her the title of "Nobilissima Femina", changing the name of her birth-place to Helenopolis. "We a reassured", says Alban Butler, "by the unanimous tradition of our English historians that this holy empress was a native of our island." This is so; but the oft-repeated statement of medieval chroniclers that Constantius married Helen, "daughter of Coel of Caercolvin" (Colchester), is without historical foundation. Supported by misunderstood passages in certain panegyrics of Constantine, the legend arose probably from confusion with another Constantine and Helen, namely the British Helen who married Magnus Clemens Maximus, who was emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain from 383 to 388 (the Maxen Wledig of Welsh romance); they had several sons, one of whom was called Constantine (Custennin). This lady received the epithet Luyddog ("of the hosts"), later transferred to the other Helen, and already in the tenth century there is a statement that Constantine was the "son of Constrantius [sic] and Helen Luicdauc, who went out of Britain to seek the Cross so far as Jerusalem, and brought it thence to Constantinople". It has been suggested that the churches dedicated in honour of St Helen in Wales, Cornwall and Devon refer to Helen Luyddog, as the name of the ancient Welsh road, Sarn Elen, perhaps does. There is in another part of the dominions of Maximus another and equally erroneous tradition of St Helen: namely, that she was born at Trier.
Constantius Chlorus lived for fourteen years after the repudiation of St Helen, and when he died in 306 their son Constantine was proclaimed caesar by his troops at York, and eighteen months later emperor. He entered Rome after the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, and by the Edict of Milan early in the following year Christianity was tolerated throughout the empire. It appears from Eusebius that St Helen was converted only at this time, when she was about sixty-three years old (Constantine himself was a catechumen until his death-bed): "She became such a devout servant of God under [her son's] influence that one might believe her to have been a disciple of the Saviour of mankind from her very childhood." Though she was so advanced in years before she knew Christ, her fervour and zeal were such as to make her retrieve the time lost in ignorance; and God prolonged her life many years to edify by her example the Church which her son laboured to exalt by his authority. Rufinus calls her faith and zeal incomparable, and she kindled the same fire in the hearts of the Romans; she assisted in the churches amidst the people in modest and plain attire, and to attend at the divine offices was her greatest delight. She made use of the treasures of the empire in liberal alms, and was the mother of the indigent and distressed. She built numerous churches, and when after his victory over Licinius in 324 Constantine became master of the East, the noble lady went to Palestine to venerate the places made sacred by the Holy presence of our Lord.
After Golgotha and the holy sepulchre had been laid bare by the removal of the terrace and temple of Venus with which the Emperor Hadrian had over-built them, Constantine wrote to St Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, ordering a church to be built, "worthy of the most marvellous place in the world". St Helen, then fourscore years of age, took the charge on herself to see this work executed, desiring at the same time to discover the sacred cross on which our Redeemer died. Eusebius mentions no other motive for her journey but to give thanks to God for His mercies to her family, and to pray for His continued protection; but other writers attribute it to visions and to admonitions in her steep, anti St Paulinus of Nola says that one of its definite objects was to find the holy places. Constantine in his letter to Macarius commissions him to make search for the cross on Mount Calvary. The finding of three crosses in a rock-cistern just to the east of Calvary, and the difficulty in deciding which was the cross of Christ, has been related herein under May 3, on which date the Western church celebrates this discovery, and under St Macarius (March 10). On May 3, too, reference is made to the absence of early information about the finding of the cross and of evidence that directly connects its discovery with the name of St Helen. The first known ascription of it to her is in a sermon of St Ambrose, preached in 395, who remarks that St Helen, when she had discovered the holy cross, "worshipped not the wood, but the King, who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the guarantee of immortality." Several other writers about the same time mention her as playing a principal part in the recovery of the cross, but it is noteworthy that St Jerome, who lived near by at Bethlehem, was not among them.
Whether or not she actually took an active part in the finding of the cross, it is beyond dispute that Helen's last days were spent in Palistine and, says Eusebius "In the sight of all she continually resorted to church, appearing humbly dressed among the praying women; and she adorned the sacred buildings with rich ornaments and decorations, not passing by the chapels of the meanest towns." He reports that she built two basilicas, the Eleona on the Mount of Olives and one at Bethlehem. She was kind and charitable to all, but especially to religious persons; to these she showed such respect as to serve them at table and hold them water to wash their hands; "though empress of the world and mistress of the empire she looked upon herself as servant of the handmaids of Christ". Whilst she travelled over the East she heaped all kinds of favours both on cities and persons, particularly on soldiers, the poor, and those who were condemned to the mines, freeing many from oppression, chains and banishment. The latest coins which, by order of her son, bore her name, Flavia Julia Helena, were minted in 330, which presumably was the year of her death. This took place apparently somewhere in the East, and her body was taken to Rome. St Helen is named in the Roman Martyrology on August 18, on which day her feast is kept in the dioceses of Liverpool, Salford and Brentwood; it is observed universally in the East, but on May 21, with that rather equivocal person, her son Constantine: tile Byzantines refer to them as "the holy, illustrious and great emperors, crowned by God and equal with the Apostles".
J.B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977):
on the Aula Palatina
J.B. Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture (New York: Penguin Books, 1981):
on the Porta Nigra
J.B. Ward-Perkins, Studies in Roman and Early Christian Architecture (London: The Pindar Press, 1994).
Evelyn Waugh, Helena: A Novel (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950).