Helena (d. c. 330)

A 9th-century Manuscript Illustration

This illustration depicts Helena’s discovery of the True Cross, from a Latin manuscript created in Northern Italy c. 825.

A 9th-century Arabic Account

This passage describes Helena’s discovery of the True Cross and the start of her building program. It comes from a ninth-century Christian text written in Arabic and preserved in the monastery on Mount Sinai.

Then the emperor [Constantine] sent his mother, whose name was Helena, from Rome with a large group. She arrived in Jerusalem, which is the Holy House. Then she inquired about the nobles and the prominent figures among the Jews, and those who are descendants of their forefathers, until she reached the family of that house which knew about the Cross. At that time, she severely tortured whom she was able to find, and said to them, “If you love your lives and want to live, bring out the Cross of Christ to me!” When the turn of the man from the family of that evil house came around, he denied <that he knew it> and blasphemed, so the queen commanded that he be tortured. He was put in a cistern for three days, without having any food. Then when he believed that bad things <would happen to him> and <felt> fear of death, the soldiers, who were guarding him, reported the noble queen: “If she lets me out of here, then I will show her what she is asking for.” When they brought him out, he showed them the place and said to them, “Dig up and you shall find what you want.”

Then the queen commanded that <they do so>, and they dug up the place. While they were digging up, thick smoke with good smell came to them. When they dug up deep, three pieces of wood appeared to them. They were taken out, but they looked similar to one another to the queen; and she did not know which one among them was the wooden Cross of Christ. At that moment, there were people coming out of the city carrying a coffin. Then the queen ordered <to put pieces of wood upon the dead>. One of the three pieces of wood be placed upon the dead, but he did not move. Then the second piece of wood was also placed upon the dead, but he did not move. When the third piece of wood was placed upon him, the dead one rose up.

There is no mistake or [. . . .] about it. Many among the rest of the Jews, who were present at that time, when they saw it, they believed in Christ and trusted him. As for the man who showed the wooden Cross, he believed in him and became a bishop of Jerusalem until his death. Then the queen built at the place of the grave and Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, a great, beautiful building, along with other churches; she paid for one third of the cost. And she left a small part of the Cross in Jerusalem, and carried the wooden Cross to her son in Constantinople.

An 11th-Century Icon

This mosaic is from a church called Hosios Loukas in modern Greece. It was made in the 11th century and shows Constantine and Helena.