What happened to the cross of Christ? Just ask Helena, Constantine the Great’s mum.

To this day, Constantine I (AD 272-337) is a polarizing figure. He is hailed by some as a savior of the Christian faith – a saint among saints. Others portray him as a villain in the Christian story, and question whether or not he ever truly had an authentic conversion experience with Christ. In either case, he clearly earned the renowned title: Constantine the Great.

But behind every great man is a great woman.

In the case of Constantine, his “better half” was maternal. Just as Rebekah finagled success for her son Jacob and Bathsheba politicked for her son Solomon, Constantine’s mother was his most ardent supporter.

Helena Augusta (AD 248-330) is considered one of the most meritorious women in church history. She was most likely named after the most famous Helen known to history – Helen of Troy – who was the most beautiful of all women in Greek literature and legend. Thus, Helena was a very popular name. She is best known as St. Helena, from whom we get the contemporary name for Mt. St. Helens (named after the British Baron St. Helens in the late eighteenth century). St. Helena is also the name of prominent cities, hospitals, and cathedrals all over the world. Helena was born in Asia Minor at a time when the imperial seat was quite volatile. There were several emperors in power at the same time, and she and her husband Constantius, who was Emperor of the Western Empire from AD 293-305 alongside Maximian, had big plans for their son Constantine.

It is hard to say whether or not Helena became a follower of Christ before or after her son Constantine professed, in hoc signo vinces, which in Latin means “in this sign conquer,” resulting in the Christian cross becoming the symbol for Roman arms and conquest. Some historians, including Constantine’s biographer Eusebius, argue that Constantine influenced his mother towards the Christian faith. It is more likely that Constantine was already very familiar with the Christian faith because he had seen it in the life of his mother. Helena is remembered for living out her faith among the poor and for strengthening the ministry of the eastern churches. She appears to have been much more involved in the day-to-day life of the church and its ministries than did her son the Emperor.

The most famous legend associated with Helena, however, is that she discovered the actual wood of the cross of Christ in Jerusalem. The story of her miraculous, proto-archeological discovery, has been told all over the world for nearly 1700 years. While the story is founded in a worldview which believed that holy relics connected to the first century had miraculous power (which many people and cultures around the world still believe), it is nevertheless an intriguing account.

Is it true?

That’s a matter of opinion.

Is it a beautiful piece of literary history?

Absolutely.

This famous painting of Helena and the Cross comes from the Italian Renaissance painter Cima da Conegliano (c. AD 1460 –1520)

THE STORY

When by command of the emperor the place was excavated deeply, the cave whence our Lord arose from the dead was discovered; and at no great distance, three crosses were found and another separate piece of wood, on which were inscribed in white letters in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin, the following words: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” These words, as the sacred book of the gospels relates, were placed by command of Pilate, governor of Judea, over the head of Christ.

There yet, however, remained a difficulty in distinguishing the Divine cross from the others; for the inscription had been wrenched from it and thrown aside, and the cross itself had been cast aside with the others, without any distinction, when the bodies of the crucified were taken down . . .

. . . There was a certain lady of rank in Jerusalem who was afflicted with a most grievous and incurable disease; Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, accompanied by the mother of the emperor and her attendants, went to her bedside. After engaging in prayer, Macarius signified by signs to the spectators that the Divine cross would be the one which, on being brought in contact with the invalid, should remove the disease. He approached her in turn with each of the crosses; but when two of the crosses were laid on her, it seemed but folly and mockery to her for she was at the gates of death. When, however, the third cross was in like manner brought to her, she suddenly opened her eyes, regained her strength, and immediately sprang from her bed, well. It is said that a dead person was, in the same way, restored to life. The venerated wood having been thus identified. . .

From Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History (c. AD 443), 2.1 (NPNF, 2.2, Schaff)

The Statue and Shrine to St. Helena at St. Peter's in Rome

MORE ABOUT ST. HELENA

St. Helena was born Flavia Lulia Helena, and it was traditionally believed that she was born in the city of Procopius , also known as Drepanum,  in Bithynia (Asia Minor). Near the time of Helena’s death, Constantine renamed this city Helenopolis.

Helena was no passive mother to the Emperor. On the contrary, many Romans viewed her roles of authority to be on the same level as those of Constantine. She was heavily involved in political, social, and economic affairs. According to Sozomen, “She was proclaimed Augusta; her image was stamped on golden coins, and she was invested by her son with authority over the imperial treasury.”

These coins depicting Helena were probably only minted until her death, leaving one to believe that the image on the coin is probably a very accurate representation. If you look at Constantine's bust below, the similarities are prominent.

Helena’s earliest biographers are nearly all panegyric because of her imperial status and saintly tradition. She is remembered for being a woman who cared for the poor, instructed ascetics, build temples, and strengthened churches.

This is, however, a darker side to Helena’s history – and it also involves Constantine. While Helena was still alive, Constantine ordered the execution of his wife, the Empress Fausta, and his son Crispus, whose mother was Minervina. Apparently, there was a rumor of an illicit relationship between the two. Helena was likely in favor of and perhaps influential in Constantine’s decisions to execute his own wife and son – especially in the case of the former. These events took place in AD 326.

It was just a few years after Constantine renamed the city Procopius to Helenopolis that Helena died. The year was AD 330 and she was around the age of 80. She died with her beloved son, the Emperor, by her side and was laid to rest in the catacombs of the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.

MORE ABOUT CONSTANTINE I

Bust of Constantine I from the Met in NYC - this statue is a good representation of his image as it appears in many statues and on many coins from the Constantinian era

Constantine I (ruled AD 306-337) has to be one of the most puzzling personalities of Christian history. He was co-Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and Emperor of the entire empire from AD 306-337 and came to be known as Constantine the Great. He is best known for his roles in the Edict of Toleration (AD 311) which ended the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the Edict of Milan (AD 313) which made Christianity legal throughout the empire, and the Council of Nicea (AD 325) which helped establish a consistent Christology that has stood the test of time. Though he is often credited with making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, that dubious distinction should probably be given to Emperor Theodosius I (ruled AD 379-395).

Constantine took advantage of the growing influence of Christianity and garnered support for his cause in the more remote parts of the Empire. Early historians also recorded Constantine’s belief that allegiance to Christ would help to guarantee political and military victories. As a result, the cross and the initials of Christ (chi rho) would become synonymous with the Constantinian regime.

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7 responses to “What happened to the cross of Christ? Just ask Helena, Constantine the Great’s mum.

  1. The fourth century made Christianity as we know it-whether that’s good, bad, or indifferent is hard to say. That century’s list of celebratory saints-Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, Constantine-is impressive. Brown’s “Cult of the Saints” is a great intro to that era. The second century established Christianity, the third tested it from the outside, the fourth from the inside.
    We should not forget these things.

    Good job, Eric-as usual!

  2. I enjoyed this article very much. I love the mystery that surrounds Constantine and Christianity. I did not know that much about his mother, excellent information.

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