Saint Helena (complete name: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta) (ca. 250 – 18 August 330) was the consort of the roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus (293 - 306), and the mother of Emperor Constantine I (306 - 337). She is traditionally credited with the finding the relics of the True Cross, with whom she is invariably represented in all the Christian iconography.
Helena’s birthplace is not known for sure, being supposed either Asia Minor or even Britain. Procopius of Caesarea (6th century) is the first to mention that Helena was born in Drepanum, in Bithynia (Asia Minor). Because Constantine renamed the city as Helenopolis, after her death in 330, that supports the belief of Procopius. Anyway, there were also a Helenopolis in Palestine (modern Daburiyya) and another in Lydia, probably both named after Constantine's mother.
Eusebius of Caesarea (4th century) states that she was about 80 on her return from Palestine (Vita Constantini 3.46), and if the journey is dated to 326–28, it may be calculated that she is born about in 250 AD. She came from a low ancestry, so that Saint Ambrose called her a “ bona” stabularia, a term translated as “good stable-maid” or “hostess”, so he understood such a occupation as a virtue (De obitu Theodosii 42).
It is unknown where she first met Constantius, but is probably as during his service under Emperor Aurelian. The precise legal nature of the relationship between Helena and Constantius is also unknown, different sources and even St. Jerome calling Helena as Constantius’ “wife”, but sometimes, as his “concubine”.
Helena gave birth to the future emperor Constantine I on the 27th of February, about 270/272 in Naissus (Niš, Serbia). Shortly after that, Constantius divorced Helena about in 290, in order to obtain a wife more consonant with his rising status, so he married Theodora, Maximian's daughter. Helena with her son were sent to the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia, where Constantine grew. Helena never remarried and lived for a time in obscurity, close to her only son, who had a deep regard and affection for her.
Constantine was proclaimed Augustus of the Roman Empire in 306 by Constantius’ troops after the latter died, and following to that, St. Helena was brought back to the public life, in 312 at the imperial court. She received the title of Augusta in 325.
Helena and the Holy Places
St. Helena acquired her greatest fame by the finding of the True Cross. After Constantine appointed his mother as Augusta Imperatrix, gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury, in order to locate the relics of the Christian tradition. So, in 326-28 Helena undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. Eusebius of Caesarea records that she was responsible for the construction of two temples, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and the Church on the Mount of Olives, sites of Christ’s birth and ascension. A tradition attributes to Helena also the construction of the Church of the Burning Bush of Mount Sinai.
The legend of Helena’s discovery of the Cross originated in Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole empire. Three versions of the legend came into existence in Late Antiquity: the Helena legend, the Protonike legend and the Judas Kyriakos legend. The Helena legend, which was known in Greek and Latin, is found at many Churchfathers and other writers: Rufinus (Hist. Eccl., 10.7-8), Socrates (Hist. Eccl. 1.17 PG 67, 117ff), Sozomen (Hist., Eccl. 2.1-2) Theodoretus (Hist. Eccl. 1.18), Ambrose (De obitu Theod., 40-49), Paulinus of Nola (Epist., 31.4-5), and Sulpicius Severus (Chron. 2.22-34). According to this version, when Helena came to Jerusalem, the city renamed as Aelia Capitolina was rebuilding from the destruction of Emperor Hadrian after the revolt of Bar Kochba (135 AD). In order to stop the Christian pilgrimages Hadrian also ordered to be built a temple dedicated to Venus over the site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary. According to tradition, Helena ordered the demolition of the temple and chose a site to begin excavating, which led to the recovery of three different crosses. In order to recognize the true Cross, the Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem took all three of them and touched a woman who was already at the point of death. Her condition changed when she touched the third and final cross. After that, St. Helena ordered the building of the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
According to the Protonike legend, which circulated in the Syriac-speaking regions, Helena’s role is taken over by the fictitious first-century empress Protonike. Finally, the Judas Kyriakos legend, originated in Greek, but also known in Latin and Syriac, relates how Helena discovered the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas, who later converted and received the name Kyriakos. It became the most popular version of the three, probably because of its anti-Judaism.
St. Helena also found the nails of the crucifixion, and placed one of them in Constantine’s helmet, and another in the bridle of his horse, in order to protect him im the battles.
Helena left Jerusalem and the eastern provinces in 327 to return to Rome, bringing with her parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were stored in her palace’s private chapel, where they can be still seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. According to one tradition, Helena acquired the Holy Tunic on her trip to Jerusalem and sent it to Trier, where supposedly there is the relics with the head of Helena.
Finally, another tradition states that St. Helena found also the relics of the Three Magi, which was firstly in the possession of the imperial family, and later given as gift to the bishop Eustorgius. After a while they were in Milano, from where the German Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa took them to the Dome in Cologne.
During her entire life, she gave many presents to the poor, released prisoners and mingled with the ordinary worshippers in modest attire.
Saint Helena died in 330, shortly after her journey to the East, in the presence of her son Constantine (Euseb., Vita Const., 3.46). She was buried in the Mausoleum of Helena, outside Rome on the Via Labicana. The porphyry sarcophagus, which contained her remains, is now in the Pio-Clementine Vatican Museum.
St. Helena was honoured immediately after her death. Eusebius of Nicomedia, the Imperial Chancellor called it “worthy of eternal memory”, St. Ambrose, “a great lady” and St. Paulinus of Nola praises her great faith in his poems.
In the Western tradition, St. Helena is the patron saint of the cities Frankfurt and Basel, of the English towns Abingdon and Colchester, and the dioceses of Trier, Ascoli, Bamberg, Pesaro, Frankfurt. She is the protector of dyers and of the manufacturers of needles and nails, but also the patron saint of new discoveries, because of the campaign in Palestine. In the Eastern tradition, she is often considered the one who helps the peasants for good and abundant crops.
To St Helena are dedicated many churches, monasteries and other sacred places. In the Great Britain (where a later legend, mentioned by Henry of Huntingdon, claimed that Helena was a daughter of the British King Cole of Camulodunum) at least twenty-five holy wells are dedicated to Saint Helena. In Poland, the most common place associated with the Holy Cross, but also with Helen, is a monastery and church of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate on the mountain Łysa Góra. In the Eastern Christianity there are very many monasteries and churches dedicated commonly to the Emperors Constantine and Helena. The patriarchal cathedral of Bucharest has the holy Emperors as its Patron Saints.
In the Orthodox Calendar, St. Helena is celebrated together with her son on 21 May (3 June, after the julian calendar), this day being called “the Feast of the Holy Great Emperors Constantine and Helen, Equals to the Apostles”. Likewise, the Anglican churches and some Lutheran churches keep the Eastern date. Her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church falls on 18 August. In the Coptic Orthodox Church the Feast is on 9 Pashons.
In the iconography of the East, St. Helena is put on the imperial costume, with crown on her head, clothed in rich eastern clothing, having a white kerchief on her head. Always she is accompanied by a cross, often held together with her son Constantine. Also she is one of the main characters depicted in the icon of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (eastern Feast on 14th September), together with the Archbishop Makarios of Jerusalem.
In the sacred art of Western Christianity, St. Helena is associated always with the cross, the three nails and a model of the church. She is represented as a old woman also in an imperial costume.
Eastern Troparion (Hymn) of St. Constantine and Helena
(matter fact about Constantine)
“Beholding the image of Thy Cross in the sky,/ and like Paul receiving a call not from men,/ The apostle among kings placed the imperial city in Thy hands, O Lord./ Do Thou save it ever in peace, through the prayers of the Theotokos,// O Thou Who alone lovest mankind”
Kontakion on 21st May
“Today Constantine and Helena, his mother, expose to our veneration the Cross, the awesome Cross of Christ, a sign of salvation and a standard of victory: a great symbol of conquest and triumph”.