Chapter XVII.—Helena 395 , Mother of the Emperor Constantine.—Her zeal in the Erection of the Holy Church.
The bearer of these letters was no less illustrious a personage than the mother of the emperor, even she who was glorious in her offspring, whose piety was celebrated by all; she who brought forth that great luminary and nurtured him in piety. She did not shrink from the fatigue of the journey on account of her extreme old age, but undertook it a little before her death, which occurred in her eightieth year 396 .
p. 55 When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected 397 , to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lords sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.
The mother of the emperor, on learning the accomplishment of her desire, gave orders that a portion of the nails should be inserted in the royal helmet, in order that the head of her son might be preserved from the darts of his enemies 398 . The other portion of the nails she ordered to be formed into the bridle of his horse, not only to ensure the safety of the emperor, but also to fulfil an ancient prophecy; for long before Zechariah, the prophet, had predicted that “There shall be upon the bridles of the horses Holiness unto the Lord Almighty 399 .”
She had part of the cross of our Saviour conveyed to the palace 400 . The rest was enclosed in a covering of silver, and committed to the care of the bishop of the city, whom she exhorted to preserve it carefully, in order that it might be transmitted uninjured to posterity 401 . She then sent everywhere for workmen and for materials, and caused the most spacious and most magnificent churches to be erected. It is unnecessary to describe their beauty and grandeur; for all the pious, if I may so speak, hasten thither and behold the magnificence of the buildings 402 .
This celebrated and admirable empress performed another action worthy of being remembered. She assembled all the women who had vowed perpetual virginity, and placing them on couches, she herself fulfilled the duties of a handmaid, serving them with food and handing them cups and pouring out wine, and bringing a basin and pitcher, and pouring out water to wash their hands.
After performing these and other laudable actions, the empress returned to her son, and not long after, she joyfully entered upon the other and a better life, after having given her son much pious advice and her fervent parting blessing. After her death, those honours were rendered to her memory which her stedfast and zealous service to God deserved 403 .
Flavia Julia Helena, the first wife of Constantius Chlorus, born of obscure parents in Bithynia, †a.d. 328. “Stabulariam hanc primo fuisse adserunt, sic cognitam Constantio seniori.” (Ambr. de obitu Theod. §42, p. 295.) The story of her being the daughter of a British Prince, and born at York or Colchester, is part of the belief current since William of Malmesbury concerning Constantines British Origin, which is probably due to two passages of uncertain interpretation in the Panegyrici: (a) Max. et Const. iv., “liberavit ille (Constantius) Britannias servitute, tu etiam nobiles, illic oriendo, fecisti.” (b) Eum. Pan. Const. ix., “O fortunata et nunc omnibus beatior terris Britannia, quæ Constantinum Cæsarem prima vidisti.” But is this said of birth or accession? Cf. Gibbon, chap. xiv.54:396
Crispus and Fausta were put to death in 326. “If it was not in order to seek expiation for her sons crimes, and consolation for her own sorrows, that Helen made her famous journey to the Holy Land, it was immediately consequent upon them.” Stanley, Eastern Church, p. 211.55:397
i.e. of Venus, said to have been erected by Hadrian to pollute a spot hallowed by Christians.55:398
The traditional which identifies the nail in Constantines helmet with the iron band in the famous crown of Queen Theodolinda at Monza dates from the sixteenth century.55:399
Zech. xiv. 20 ἔσται τὸ ἐπὶ τὸν χαλινὸν τοῦ ἵππου ῞Λγιον τῷ Κυρί& 251· τῷ παντοκράτορι. lxx.55:400
This portion Socrates says (i. 17) was enclosed by Constantine in a statue placed on a column of porphyry in his forum at Constantinople.55:401
Carried away from Jerusalem by Chosroes II. in 614, it was recovered, says the legend, by Heraclius in 628. The feast of the “Exaltation of the Cross” on Sept. 14th, combines the Commemoration of the Vision of Constantine, the exaltation of the relic at Jerusalem, and its triumphal entry after its exile under Chosroes. In later years it was, as is well known, supposed to have a miraculous power of self-multiplication, and such names as St. Cross at Winchester, Santa Croce at Florence, and Vera Cruz in Mexico illustrate its cultus. Paulinus of Nola, at the beginning of the fifth century, sending a piece to Sulpicius Severus, says that though bits were frequently taken from it, it grew no smaller (Ep. xxxi.).55:402
May 3rd has been kept since the end of the eighth century in honour of the “Invention of the Cross” and the Commemoration of the ancient “Ellinmas” was retained in the reformed Anglican Calendar.55:403
Tillemont puts her death in 328. Eusebius (V. Const. iii. 47), says she was carried ἐπὶ τὴν βασιλεύουσαν πόλιν, by which he generally means Rome, but Socrates (i. 17) writes, εἰς τὴν βασιλεύουσαν νέαν Ρώμην, i.e. Constantinople. There is a chapel in her honour in the church of the Ara Cœli at Rome, but her traditional burial-place is a mile and a half beyond the Porta Maggiore, on the Via Labicana, and thence came the porphyry sarcophagus called St. Helenas, which was placed by Pius VI. in the Hall of the Greek Cross in the Vatican.