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Heck of a Helena

If you’ve visited this site even once, you already know I’m an archeology nerd. This is a good season for archeology nerds. Archaeology magazine’s cover story heralds a new golden age in the field, and I’m willing to believe it. Even the mainstream media have picked up on it, with intense reportage on the Gospel of Judas this year.

My particular nerdiness (as you can guess from the title of the blog) hovers around archeological sites related to the patristic era. These don’t attract the media the way classical and biblical digs do. So I’ve got to do my own digging to find the news for you — like the astonishing recent discovery of third-century Christian inscriptions in the Basque region, and the Coptic apocrypha found in an ancient trash heap in Egypt.

Well, today gives me (and my ilk) yet another reason to celebrate with chocolate. It’s the memorial of St. Helena, the patroness and perhaps the foundress of the field of archeology. A few months back, I reviewed Evelyn Waugh’s novel on her life, Helena, a book by turns touching and hilarious. Waugh makes full use of his artistic license, as there are big blank spots in the historical record of Helena’s life.

We probably have a good idea of what she looked like, from coins honoring her. The face on the coin at Wikipedia fits the confident, determined, wry woman we meet in the pages of Waugh’s novel. Waugh manages to make her sexy, too, which gives Helena perhaps a unique status in the lists of novelistic treatments of the canonized. Pious authors usually have these subjects embalmed, or miraculously incorrupt anyway, by page five.

Here’s a summary of what our friend the Catholic Encyclopedia has to say about Helena:

The mother of Constantine the Great, born about the middle of the third century, died about 330. She was of humble parentage; St. Ambrose referred to her as a stabularia, or inn-keeper. Nevertheless, she became the lawful wife of Constantius Chlorus. Her first and only son, Constantine, was born in 274.

In the year 292 Constantius, having become co-Regent of the West, gave himself up to considerations of a political nature and forsook Helena in order to marry Theodora, the stepdaughter of Emperor Maximianus Herculius, his patron. But her son remained faithful and loyal to her. On the death of Constantius Chlorus, in 308, Constantine, who succeeded him, summoned his mother to the imperial court, conferred on her the title of Augusta, ordered that all honor should be paid her as the mother of the sovereign, and had coins struck bearing her effigy. Her son’s influence caused her to embrace Christianity after his victory over Maxentius. This is directly attested by Eusebius: “She became under his influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.”

Tradition links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West, where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier. Despite her advanced age she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman Empire, subsequently, therefore, to the year 324. She explored Palestine with remarkable discernment and “visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself.” Then, when she “had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Savior,” she had two churches erected for the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. She also embellished the sacred grotto with rich ornaments. It is Rufinus who first relates the story that she directed the excavation of the True Cross and Jesus’ tomb.

Her memory in Rome is chiefly identified with the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem), which was built on soil imported from the Holy Land (thus the name “in Jerusalem”). Pilgrims to this church receive the indulgence assigned to a pilgrimage to the sacred sites.

Constantine was with his mother when she died, at eighty or so, around 330 (the date on the last coins known to have been stamped with her name). Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. Her remains were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese of Reims.

One thought on “Heck of a Helena

  1. Thanks for your article about St Helena.
    Maybe she is a mentor of mine because I have her name, I have a worked with housing and valuation and undertook a history degree for four years.
    have not yet been to Rome – but maybe some day if my finances improve I will see a bit more of Helena’s legacy

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