Helena Augusta

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HELENA AUGUSTA (c. 255–329 c.e.), mother of the Emperor Constantine and a pious convert to Christianity. In the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–1154) she is described as the daughter of the British King Coel of Colchester ("Old King Cole"), but this seems highly unlikely. Having originated from a modest background, serving for a while in Diocletian's court at Nicomedia, Helena was later at Constantine's side at the imperial court in Trier and was accorded great honor there. In the aftermath of Constantine's defeat of Licinius in September 324 c.e., Helena, who was about 80 years of age, made a journey to the Holy Land (between c. 325 and 327) to offer prayers at the holy places (described in Eusebius' Vita Constantini), and is said to have founded churches on the Mount of Olives (the Eleona Church) and at Bethlehem. Although not mentioned by Eusebius as having played any part in the building operations next to the Tomb of Jesus at Golgotha, it is difficult to make a sharp division between churches ascribed to Constantine and those attributed to his mother. Helena is also credited with the discovery of the true cross (lignum crucis) on which Jesus was crucified in a cistern not far from the place of his tomb, but scholars have questioned the authenticity of this tradition. Indeed, Eusebius does not mention the discovery at all and his absolute silence on this matter is quite telling (20 or so years later the first references appear mentioning the relics of the cross, e.g. Cyril of Jerusalem in 350 c.e.). Ambrose of Milan, however, in c. 395 c.e., is the first to mention Helena as the discoverer of the cross (De Ob. Theod. 46–48). According to Ambrose, Helena "…opened up the earth, scattered the dust, and discovered three crosses in disarray (confusa)." The holy cross still retained the inscription (titulus) and nails were also found. Thereafter, various embellished versions of the story exist, with faith rapidly ousting the facts from the tradition. Some versions refer to the holy cross being found lying between two crosses with an inscription (John Chrysostom, Hom. In Joh. 75:1, pg 59, 461) and others to the authenticity of the cross being verified by its ability to cure a sick woman (e.g., Rufinus, Hist. Eccles. 10:7–8). None of these early sources provide information regarding the exact find-spot of the cross. Recent archaeological researches show that the traditional place where the cross was supposed to have been found, at the Cave of the Invention of the Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was a subterranean cavity that was converted into a cistern no earlier than the 11th century. Helena died soon after her return to court. In the fifth and sixth centuries c.e. Helena was highly praised by Church historians and pilgrims for her discovery of the true cross and for her part in the Christian rebuilding of Jerusalem. In later tradition Helena was said to have been responsible for the foundation of most of the important churches in the Holy Land, notwithstanding the fact that some were built centuries after her death.


E.D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire ad 312460 (1984); S. Borgehammar, How the Holy Cross was Found: From Event to Medieval Legend (1991); J.W. Drijvers, Helena Augusta: the Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding the True Cross (1991); J.E. Taylor, "Helena and the Finding of the Cross," in: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, 12 (1992–93), 52–60; C.P. Thiede and M. D'Ancona, The Quest for the True Cross (2000); "On the 'Cave of the Invention of the Cross,'" in: S. Gibson and J.E. Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. The Archaeology and Early History of Traditional Golgotha (1994), 83–84.

[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]

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Helena Augusta

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