August 18 – Helena, mother of Constantine

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

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Helena, mother of Constantine, faithful servant

Flavia Iulia Helena (c.248-c.328) was probably born in Drepanum in Bithynia – later renamed Helenopolis in her honor – in humble circumstances. She was of low social origin and worked as a maid in an inn when she met Constantius. Out of their concubinage the later emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) was born in Naissus (modern Niš) c. 272/3. Constantius left her when he became member of the tetrarchy in 293. Constantine’s rise to power in 306 brought Helena to the imperial court where she gradually gained a prominent position. Coins and inscriptions mention her as Nobilissima Femina and from 324 until her death she held the title of Augusta, indicating that she was considered an important member of the imperial family. She may have lived at Constantine’s court in Trier until 312. After Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), Helena probably came to live in Rome.

The fundus Laurentus in the south-east corner of Rome, which included the Palatium Sessorianum, a circus and public baths (later called Thermae Helenae), came into her possession. Several inscriptions (e.g. CIL, 6.1134, 1135, 1136) found in the area, are evidence for a close connection between Helena and the fundus Laurentus. So is her interest in the newly found basilica Ss. Marcellino e Pietro which was built in the area that belonged to the estate (Lib. Pont. I, 183); she was buried in a mausoleum attached to this basilica. Part of the Palatium Sessorianum was possibly shortly after her death transformed into a chapel, now known as the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme.

Although it has been suggested that she was sympathetic towards the Christian faith from her childhood on, Helena most probably converted to Christianity following Constantine who after 312 began to protect and favour the Christian church.

At the end of her life she journeyed through the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. This journey, which took place ca. 326-327, is elaborately described by the church father Eusebius in his Life of Constantine (VC 3.41-47). Because of Eusebius’ description – he is mainly concerned with her visit to Palestine, he describes her religious enthusiasm, her desire to pray at places where Christ had been, her care for the poor and needy – her journey is generally considered a pilgrimage. However, it is more likely that she travelled through the East for political purposes having to do with problems within the Constantinian family. Eusebius ascribes the foundation of the Constantinian churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives to her. He also connects her with the construction of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Shortly after her visit to the East she died at the age of about 80 in the presence of her son (Eus. VC 3.46) either late in 328 or the beginning of 329. Her porphyry sarcophagus is now in the Vatican Museums.

Her greatest fame Helena acquired by her alleged discovery of the True Cross. Her presence in Jerusalem and the description Eusebius presented of her stay in Palestine led ultimately to connecting Helena with the discovery of the Cross. The connection between the Cross, relics of which were present and venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since at least the 340s, is only first attested in the sources at the end of the fourth century. The legend of Helena’s discovery of the Cross most probably originated in Jerusalem in the last quarter of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the whole Roman Empire. The story is told by prominent late antique Christian authors such as Ambrose, Paulinus of Nola, and the church historians Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret. The legend is known in various versions of which the best known is the Judas Kyriakos legend. According to this version Helena found the Cross with the help of the Jew Judas who afterwards converted to Christianity and became bishop of Jerusalem. This version, known in particular from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (13th century), was wide-spread in the Middle Ages; it was translated into vernacular languages and a favorite subject for iconographic representation, of which Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in Arezzo are the most famous.

Apart from Rome, Trier and Hautvillers, which claims to possess her remains, have a lively Helena folklore. So does Britain: according to a medieval tradition she was a native of England; it gave rise to various British Helena legends. She is often venerated together with her son Constantine, in particular in the Eastern Church. Her feast day in the Eastern Church is 21 May and in the Roman Catholic Church 18 August.

Jan Willem Drijvers