A Brief History
On September 14, 326 A.D., Helena of Constantinople made one of the greatest discoveries in Christian history when she found the Holy Sepulchre (the crypt where Jesus was entombed) and the True Cross in Jerusalem.
Helena, also known as St. Helen, was the mother of Constantine the Great, emperor of Rome. In that capacity, she was awarded the title “Augusta Imperatrix.” She is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, both branches of the Orthodox Church and the Lutheran and Anglican Churches. Her son Constantine became the first Christian emperor of Rome and was the namesake of Constantinople which is now Istanbul.
While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands (then called Syria Palestina), her son sent her on a mission in search of holy relics. Helena had a pagan temple torn down that had been built over the tomb of Jesus, and during excavation, the crypt (the Holy Sepulchre) and 3 crosses were found. To test the authenticity of the crosses, Helena had a dying woman touch them. Touching the first 2 crosses did nothing but upon touching the third cross, the woman began to miraculously recover. Thus, Helena knew she had found the True Cross.
In the name of her son, Helena ordered a church be built over the Holy Sepulchre. She then returned to Rome with the major parts of the True Cross and the nails from the crucifixion of Christ. It is said that she had one of the nails placed in the Constantine’s helmet and another in the bridle of his horse, both for his protection. (The pieces of the True Cross are still in Rome and are tended to by monks.)
Various relics, including purported pieces of the True Cross, recovered by Helena are being kept in churches all around the Mediterranean. Of course, the cross would have been as huge as a forest if all those pieces as well as the slivers of wood that have been sold to Christian pilgrims over the centuries all truly came from it.
Helena died in around 330 A.D., aged about 80 and was buried in the appropriately named Mausoleum of Helena just outside of Rome.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre still stands in Jerusalem and can be visited by pilgrims. You can actually walk down into the tomb of Christ, but you have to pay a long-bearded priest at the top to enter and another one inside. Nearby there is a hole in the ground that is supposed to be where the base of the True Cross had been placed.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did Helena actually find the real Cross of the Crucifixion and the actual crypt where the body of Jesus Christ was laid or did she get tricked by local charlatans looking to make a few shekels? Like all things religious, whether you believe it or not is a matter of faith, and debate will certainly not provide satisfactory resolutions. Still, feel free to express your opinion of these events in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on September 14, please see the History and Headlines article: “Even More Women Famous for Being Naked.”
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For more information, please see…
Wohl, Louis de. Saint Helena and the True Cross. Ignatius Press, 2012.
Wohl, Louis de. The Living Wood: A Novel about Saint Helena and the Emperor Constantine. Ignatius Press, 2008.
The featured image in this article, a painting of Saint Helena with the Cross by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The author died in 1553, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.