Saint Helena

Santa Elena

Feast day: August 18

Patron of Converts and the Divorced

Essay by Paris Bowers

Saint Helen, also known as Helena and Ellen, was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine with her husband Constantius Chlorus. Constantine is often referred to as the first emperor to declare Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Helen was born, possibly in Drepana, Bithynia, in Asia Minor, from a humble background sometime within the third century, and it is belief that she died around 330. Constantias abandoned Helen to marry Theodora, stepdaughter of Emperor Maximinanus Heraclius, who Constantias would succeed. Constantine became emperor after the death of his father in 308 and reinstated his mother Helen with title of Augusta.

According to history, Constantine helped Helena embrace Christianity, and from there on, she would help spread it; Saint Helen became a Christian in the year 312 when she was already at the age of 60. Constantine sanctioned a journey to Palestine in 324 with the purpose of Helen finding the True Cross during her journey. There are differing accounts on how she arrived at the location, however, she discovered three crosses and believed one of them to be the True Cross of Christ. To test the crosses, they found a Leper and asked him to touch each of the crosses. Nothing happened with the first and second crosses, however, when he touched the True Cross, he was instantly cured. She erected several churches in Palestine, one in Bethlehem and the other on Mount of Ascension. This generosity has led many to believe that she erected many other churches, especially within the area of the Roman Empire. Saint Helen died while she was in Palestine at the age of 80, but her body was taken back to Rome and placed in a tomb.

Figure 1 depicts the half-length figure of Saint Helen with clouds edging the bottom of the composition. Golden light and stars emanate from behind her head representing her divinity. She wears a red cape with fur trimming over her blue dress. She holds a golden scepter and wears a crown with jewels symbolizing her place as an empress in her life. In Figure 2, the composition is very similar, making it clear that the tradition of painting Saint Helen was generally constant. The only slight difference between them is some of the color and the overall style. Another difference is in the background. On both compositions, the True Cross is placed on a altar to her right as one of her symbols.

Figure 1.  Saint Helen / Santa Elena

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1968.4.38.

Figure 2. Saint Helen / Santa Elena

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1968.4.60.

Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidich.

References

Catholic Online. “St. Helena – Saints & Angels.” Catholic Online. Accessed April 03, 2019.

https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=123.

Herbermann, Charles G., Ward A. Pace, Thomas J. Shahan, Conde B. Pallen, and John J.

Wynne, eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Falcon, Michelle. “StMU History Media.” StMU History Media – Featuring Historical Research,

Writing, and Media at St. Mary’s University. January 17, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2019.

https://www.stmuhistorymedia.org/the-legend-of-the-true-cross/ . McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Saints. New York, NY: Harpercolins Publishers Inc, 2001.