The Empress Helena and the Finding of the True Cross

September 14th marks the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and with that it seemed like a good day to give some consideration to St. Helena, Empress and mother of Constantine, as well as to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome.  The former because it is to her that tradition attaches the finding of the Cross and Santa Croce in Rome because it is there where we find the impressive relics of the Passion attributed to her discovery found on display. 

Left: "Helena of Constantinople" by Cima da Conegliano, 1495. Right: The red porphyry sarcophagus of St. Helena now found in the Museo Pio-Clementino in Rome. 

St. Helena was, as already noted, the Emperor Constantine's mother, and in the later years of her life she made pilgrimage to the Holy Land and it was during this period where she was said to have discovered the actual cross that Christ was crucified upon.  Eusebius attributes to her the building of two churches in the region, that of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and that of Eleona at the Mount of Olives, the site of the Ascension. In Jerusalem, the Emperor Hadrian had, two centuries early, built a Roman temple to Venus on the spot where it was it was thought Christ was crucified. As such, Helena ordered that the temple be torn down and excavations undertaken and it is here that tradition says she found three crosses. Eusibius, in his Vita Constantini, relates the discovery in a letter purportedly sent by Constantine to the then Bishop of Jerusalem:

Such is our Saviour's grace, that no power of language seems adequate to describe the wondrous circumstance to which I am about to refer. For, that the monument of his most holy Passion, so long ago buried beneath the ground, should have remained unknown for so long a series of years, until its reappearance to his servants now set free through the removal of him who was the common enemy of all, is a fact which truly surpasses all admiration. I have no greater care than how I may best adorn with a splendid structure that sacred spot, which, under Divine direction, I have disencumbered as it were of the heavy weight of foul idol worship; a spot which has been accounted holy from the beginning in God’s judgment, but which now appears holier still, since it has brought to light a clear assurance of our Saviour’s passion.
Statue of St. Helena, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Turning back from Jerusalem to Rome, we come to the basilica of Santa Croce. The basilica, whose name translates as "Holy Cross in Jerusalem" is one of the traditional seven pilgrim churches of Rome and was said to have been consecrated in A.D. 325 specifically to house the relics of the Passion of Christ brought from the Holy Land by St. Helena.  The floor of the basilica was, in fact, covered by her with soil that was brought from Jerusalem itself.

Originally this basilica was said to have been the chosen place of residence for the Empress Helena and the hall of the palace was transformed by her into a Christian basilica.  Originally the basilica had a covered roof, with twenty windows -- five per side -- and was decorated by various ornamental marbles. Like every other Roman church, it underwent various restorations over the course of its long history,  especially during the twelfth century when a cosmatesque floor was added and other Romanesque details as well. On the exterior, only the Romanesque bell-tower from this period still remains visible as a late baroque facade was eventually added.

The original facade can still be seen, however, in this engraving of St. Helena from the late 1500's or early 1600's. 

Interior of the basilica today looking toward the high altar

This basilica was particularly popular because of the relics of the Passion that it housed and during the middle ages popes are said to have walked barefoot from the Lateran to Santa Croce on Good Friday as a sign of penance where he would then venerate the relic of the True Cross -- something we can still see mimicked in the Roman liturgy down to our very own day.

These relics of the Passion are kept within the "Cappella delle Reliquie" and include large pieces of the Cross as well as the "titulus" (sign) which hung upon it. 

According to some legends, St. Helena was given her inspiration about the finding and location of the Cross in a dream; something that has been depicted in various works of art down the centuries, but perhaps none so beautiful as in The Vision of St. Helena painted by Paolo Veronese in 1580. It is found within the Vatican Museums. 

The Vision of St. Helena, Paolo Veronese, 1580.

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