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Women who built Jerusalem: Saint Helena

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

I'll tell you the story of Empress Helena (Saint Helena). The second of the "Women who built Jerusalem" series was a Roman girl of Greek descent. Born c. 246 CE – c. 330. CE story of rags to riches, from slave girl to empress and finally - to saint. The greater part of the story takes place far away from here. Helena arrived in the Holy Land only as an elderly lady, but two of the Magnificent buildings, whose construction she initiated, are so important, that they had changed history. To an extent, because of them this land becomes the Holy Land, not only for the Jews, but also for the Christians, and ultimately, also, for Muslims, who also venerate Jesus as a prophet.

Her full Name: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta. In Greek: Ἁγία Ἑλένη, (Hagía Helénē) in Russian: Елена Равноапостольная (Helena, Equal to the Apostles) Helénē was a stable girl, of humble origins, when she , quite by chance, met a Roman general named Constantius Chlorus (the pale) who fell in love with her. Although socially his inferior, he took her as his concubine and stood by her and their son - Constantine. However, as Constantius Sr. was promoted to the rank of Caesar, he divorced Helena to marry the daughter of one of his imperial partners. She remained with her son in the court of Emperor Diocletian. We know the young Constantine loved her dearly and stayed in touch with her, but she pretty much disappeared for fifteen years. Was she of Christian origins or did she convert at that period?

As the boy matured, Constantine joined his father's army in England. With the retirement of Diocletian and his father's death in 306 AD, Constantine was elected Augustus by his father's troops and began his way, at the head of his army, to seize power in Rome. After several military battles and victories, he finally came to power in 312. In 330, he built a new capital for the Roman Empire on the banks of the Bosporus, in the city of Byzantium, and named it Constantinople, present day Istanbul.

Helena was invited to Rome, where Constantine appointed her as Augusta and Empress. About a year later, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, possibly under the influence of his mother. He authorized her to go on a long and arduous journey, by sailboat and on mule back, to Syria and the land of Jesus, to discover his relics. The journey took about two years, from 326 to 328 AD and according to the testimony of historians such as Socrates Scholasticus, she returned to Rome when she was about eighty.

We have no real idea what St Helena looked like, therefore many artists tried to imagine her. She's always recognizable in Christian art by her attribute, which is the True Cross she allegedly found. Often she is presented in an idealist formalized image, often not relating to her advanced age when she found the cross. Here is an example by Cima da Conegliano 1495. A more realistic figure of Saint Helena, by Altobello Melone, which clearly shows her advanced age. (c) The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. In Greek orthodox iconography, Helena is often presented with her son Emperor Constantine, both dressed in Imperial attire. This icon is placed outside a small, ancient chapel on the roof of Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher called after them: Chapel of Helena and Constantine.

Saint Helena's voyage to Jerusalem in search of the Cross, by Altobello Melone. She arrives at a house with a scene of the Last Supper, symbolizing Jerusalem.

Helena came to Palestine and began her research. She discovered four locations, which would turn out to be constituent for Christianity in the Holy Land and initiated construction, with the support of her Emperor Son, of the first four churches in the Holy Land. A. At the location of Christ's Nativity. B. The tomb of Jesus - the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. C. The Church of the Olive Grove (Ελαιώνα, Eleona) on the top of the Mount of Olives. D. Mamre Church in Hebron. Of the latter two only a few ruins remain, but the first two have become the focus of Christian pilgrimage, the epicenter of the crusades, and a pretext for wars between Christians and Muslims to this day. Until recently, they were a major source of revenue in the tourism of both Israel and Palestine, with millions of pilgrims coming to worship from the four corners of the Earth.

The story is semi-legendary, and describes how Helena found Jesus' grave from which he was resurrected. According to the Bible, Jesus was crucified on Friday morning, and, being Jewish, his burial was hastened, so it would not violate the Sabbath. He was temporarily interred in a cave, in an abandoned quarry, which was apparently outside the city walls of those days. Soldiers were posted to guard the sealed cave and on Sunday morning, when his disciples came to find the body - he was no longer in the grave, because he was resurrected.

Roman historians Glacius of Caesarea as well as Rufinus say that according to the testimony of Jews whom the Empress had interrogated and even tortured (well… can't find a good story without a dash of antisemitism ...) she was told that Golgotha hill, the skull-shaped hill on which Jesus was crucified and the cave in which he was buried, were to be found under the temple of Venus and Jupiter. These shrines were built by Emperor Hadrian, after he destroyed and leveled Jewish Jerusalem at the time the Jews had rebelled, in 132 AD.

Helena ordered the demolition of the Roman Temple, and beneath it she found the remains of the tomb. In addition, it is said that she looked through a hole, into a dark and flooded quarry and low and behold: three crosses. Were they those of Jesus and the two thieves? She tried to verify it "scientifically"! She ordered an old and dying woman to be brought before her, then let her touch the first two crosses, and nothing happened. By the time she reached the third cross, a miracle! The old woman had recovered. Thus, Helena verified the True Cross that became a sacred treasure and held in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The large cross would become her attribute in Christianity. She also found the crown of thorns, the nails with which Jesus was crucified, as well as his sash. The Cross was taken captive by the Persians, in 614, returned in 628 by the Byzantine emperor Heraclitus, the taken by the Crusaders as a relic to lead their armies into the Battle of Hattin in 1186, where it was captured by Saladin, who burned it.

Return of the True cross to Jerusalem in 628 CE by Heraclitus and a symbolic Helena riding at his side.

Bits of the original cross are still found in many churches all over the world, also in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (see photo in this album) Even the church fathers have already mocked this cult. In 348, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the "whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ, by means of those who in faith take portions from it."

Today's Holy Sepulcher is no longer the same church Helena built. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since. Old Helena returned on her long journey home, to Rome, where she died two years later in 330 AD. She will ever be remembered in Jerusalem as one who has built the holiest shrine in the Christianity.

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. One of the four Helena had built in the Holy Land. It is here that Helena found the manger where Jesus was born. This is the church today, with all the additional buildings constructed during the 1700 years of its existence, since Helena.

Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. That is what it looks like today, with the two gray domes. It was damaged in quite a few earthquakes, destroyed a few times by man and fire.

This is what the original Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher probably looked like. Its Façade came up to the Cardo, the main North to South thoroughfare. Today it is in the path of our contemporary Souq al-Zeyt, the main market in the Old City. The original basilica was much larger than the present one, which was built in the time of the Crusaders, eight hundred years after Helena's time.

The Holy Sepulcher, built by Constantine and Helena from the West. On the right - the nearby Roman Forum, inside it, you can see Hadrian's Triumphal Arch, the remains of which can be seen today in the Russian Alexander Nevsky Church. Beyond the church - the two main roads - the main cardo and the second one in the Tyropoeon valley, meaning "the valley of the cheese makers". Beyond it, to the east - the ruins of the Jewish Temple and the Mount of Olives. The Christians destroyed the pagan temples that Hadrian built over the destroyed Jewish temple, leaving the place desolate and abandoned. This was how things were until the arrival of the Muslims, who rescued Temple Mount from its ruins.

Model of Byzantine Jerusalem at the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, near Mount Zion. Although this shows Jerusalem in the sixth century AD, The Holy Sepulcher still stands, as built by Helena and Constantine, and stands at the center of the model, adjacent to the Cardo, The main north-south thoroughfare. It emanates from Damascus Gate, (Pillar Gate, as it is known in Arabic to this present day) in a basic layout which exists today: it splits in two: to the left it goes down Al-Wad street, and straight on the high-ground as the Cardo (Souq al-Zeit, nowadays). Further down is the Nea Church built by Justinian in the 6th century, the ruins of which are to the south of the Jewish Quarter.

Here is one incredible Jerusalem story: of Helena and Constantine's Holy Sepulcher, hardly anything remains. It was demolished by the Persians in 614 and then again by the Fatimid Khalifa Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1009. The entrance to the church was adjacent to the Cardo, The main north-south thoroughfare, which today is the Souq al Zeit Market. One sole relic remained of that church! The lintel of the church narthex! Amazingly, it is still there, in the back room of the Zalatimo bakery, which had closed a few years ago. Until then, the disgruntled baker allowed visitors into his pantry for 10 NIS. When I was there last and took these photos – I shared the space with a BBC crew, filming a documentary. Here is the lintel with some additional Crusader period columns. (1150)

Finding of the True Cross

The tradition of the finding of the True Cross is what earned Helena the attribute of Jesus's cross and is at the center of quite a few devotions, especially Catholic. The myth has been portrayed by many artists, yet one of the most famous is the "Leggenda della Vera Croce", a series of frescoes covering the entire apse walls of the church of Saint Francis in Arezzo, Tuscany. The Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca describes the detail of the Legend of the Cross staring with the death of Adam through the Visit of the Queen of Sheba, The crucifixion, Constantine's Victory at the Milvian Bridge, the finding of the cross by Helena, Its capture by the Persians and retrieval by Emperor Heraclius and return to Jerusalem in 628 CE. The central panel is the one depicting the finding of the crosses and healing of the old lady.

The second famous presentation of the Legend of the True Cross is in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, dating back to 1380. It also recounts the full story, from Adam to Heraclius. In this panel – St. Helena finding the True Cross and curing the old lady.

First photo from L. Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. View from the rock of Golgotha (Calvary) towards the entrance to the Rotunda, where the tomb lies. Directly underneath is the Stone of Unction, where Jesus was given the Jewish burial rites. In Helena's original church there was an open cloister here. Second photo Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher under the Armenian chapel of St. Helena. Her Bronze statue is inside the old quarry, and was donated in 1865 by archduke Maximilian of Habsburg. Third photo the exact spot the cross was found, according to tradition.

A relic of the True Cross in the treasure of the Holy Sepulcher. Traditionally, the small cross is the holy relic. The figures of Helena and her son Constantine flanking the cross.

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