Saint Helena Equal-to-the Apostles (the second half of the 3rd century – second half of the 4th century) was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious tolerance of Christianity throughout the empire. She converted to Christianity and made a pilgrimage to Palestine where she visited the places associated with the earthly life of Jesus Christ and, according to legend, miraculously found the Cross on which the Savior had been crucified.
Few accounts of Helena’s life are contained in the work Life of Constantine by her contemporary, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, written in 337 AD after the death of Emperor Constantine the Great. Some evidence of her life is found in later works by church historian of the 4th -8th centuries.
According to Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Helena was a native of Drepanum in Asia Minor (not far away from today’s village of Hersek in the province of Yalov, Turkey) later renamed Helenopolis by Constantine. She is believed to have been born between 248 and 257 AD. Saint Helena was of humble birth, Saint Ambrose called her the mistress of a xenodochium. She was a civil wife of the Roman general Constancius, subsequently Emperor Flavius Valerius Constancius (Constantius I Chlore). Their son Constantine was born between 270 and 275 AD. Whether she had other children and what happened with them is not known.
Constancius who took in active part in military actions under the command of Emperor Maximian left Helena and married Maximian’s stepdaughter Theodora. In 293 AD he was appointed Caesar and in 305 became August. After the death of Constancius his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor. By this time Constantine had introduced his mother to the royal court. In 324 AD she received the title of Augusta and was now named Flavia Julia Helena Augusta.
According to Eusebius, Helena accepted Christianity under the influence of Emperor Constantine. At an old age she went on a journey to the Holy Land. Some historians date her trip to the Holy Land to 327–328 AD. Emperor Constantine ordered to demolish a pagan temple built over the Savior’s burial site. “Immediately after the transactions I have recorded, the emperor sent forth injunctions which breathed a truly pious spirit, at the same time granting ample supplies of money, and commanding that a house of prayer worthy of the worship of God should be erected near the Saviour’s tomb on a scale of rich and royal greatness.” St. Helena supervised the excavations and the building of the Holy Sepulcher. Later sources tell about Helena’s discovery of the holy relics such as the Holy Cross, plaques and nails from the Cross but Eusebius does not mention them in his work.
Apart from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, St. Helena built the Basilica of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem and the Church of the Ascension of the Lord on the Mount of Olives. On the Holy Land St. Helena “heaped numerous favors… on citizens” helping all those in need.
Saint Helena died in ca. 330 AD in the city of Nicomedia (today’s city of Izmit, Turkey) in Asia Minor at the age of eighty. Some historians suggest that the Empress’s body was transferred by Emperor Constantine to Rome.
The earliest depictions of St. Helena survived on coins and medals of the first quarter of the 4th century on which the Empress is shown in profile with big eyes and a big curved nose.
In Byzantine and medieval Russian art the saint is shown wearing a ceremonial imperial dress with a stemma (crown) upon her head. In some icons Sts. Constantine and Helena are shown on either side of the Holy Cross such as on a 12th century steatite icon from the Polotsk art gallery collection. In a similar fashion St. Helena is represented on the earliest medieval depictions such as on the 1040s frescoes at the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev and late 11th – early 12th wall-paintings on the Martirievsk porch of St. Sophia Cathedral in Veliky Novgorod. In iconography Saint Helena is commonly depicted together with Emperor Constantine or among selected saints such as on a 15th century icon from the State Russian Museum collections. Individual depictions of the saint are quite rare.
St. Helena Equal-to-the Apostles is commemorated on June 3 (May 21, O.S.).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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