samedi 18 août 2012

Sainte HÉLÈNE, impératrice


Invention (trouvaille) miraculeuse de la sainte Croix par sainte Hélène, impératrice, 
mère de Constantin premier empereur romain converti au Christianisme.
« Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne », 1508

Sainte Hélène

Impératrice byzantine ( 329)

Impératrice et mère de l'empereur Constantin

Fille de domestiques et servante d'auberge, elle avait été choisie comme épouse de second rang par le centurion Constance Chlore qui la répudia vingt ans plus tard lorsqu'il devint César. Il la laissa dans un exil doré à Trèves avec son fils, né en Serbie à Nish. Il épousa une princesse impériale, mais se montra toujours bon pour sainte Hélène. Quand ce fils fut porté au trône impérial de Rome par ses légions stationnées en Gaule sous le nom de Constantin, le nouvel empereur ne cessa de combler d'honneurs sa mère et la fit venir à Rome, lui construisant un palais magnifique, lui conférant des monnaies frappées à son effigie, couronnée du diadème royal. Chrétienne, elle se rendit en pèlerinage en Palestine où elle veut recueillir les précieuses reliques de la Passion et où elle lance la construction de trois basiliques pour protéger les Lieux Saints et les 'grottes mystiques' chères aux chrétiens: celle de Bethléem, celle où le Christ fut déposé dans l'attente de la Résurrection, celle des enseignements. Elle meurt à Nicomédie au retour de la Terre Sainte. Elle fut transportée à Rome où l'on voit encore au Vatican le sarcophage de porphyre qui contient ses reliques.




À Rome, sur la voie Labicane, vers 329, sainte Hélène, mère de l’empereur Constantin le Grand. Elle subvenait aux besoins de toute sorte de personnes et, mêlée à la foule, aimait à visiter pieusement les églises. Elle fit le pèlerinage de Jérusalem pour rechercher les lieux de la Nativité, de la Passion et de la Résurrection du Christ et fit construire des basiliques pour honorer la crèche et la croix du Seigneur.

Martyrologe romain



Paolo Veronese, Visione di sant'Elena, vers 1580, 166 X 134, Vatican Museums


Sainte Hélène

Impératrice

(† 328)

Sainte Hélène naquit vers le milieu du IIIe siècle. Voici ce que dit saint Ambroise:

"Hélène, première femme de Constance Chlore, qui ceignit depuis la couronne impériale, était, paraît-il, une humble fille d'étable. Noble fille d'étable, qui sut mettre tant de sollicitude dans la recherche de la Crèche sacrée! Noble fille d'étable, à qui fut réservé de connaître l'Étable de Celui qui guérit les blessures de l'humanité déchue! Noble fille d'étable, qui préféra les abaissements du Christ aux dignités trompeuses du monde! Aussi le Christ l'a-t-Il élevée de l'humilité de l'étable au sommet des grandeurs humaines."

La gloire de sainte Hélène c'est d'avoir été la mère du grand Constantin. "Constantin, dit saint Paulin de Nole, doit plus à la piété de sa mère qu'à la sienne d'avoir été le premier empereur chrétien." Contrairement aux autres empereurs, Constance Chlore reconnaissait le vrai Dieu. Les prêtres chrétiens étaient admis à sa cour et y vivaient en paix. Une telle bienveillance ne peut être attribuée qu'à l'influence de l'impératrice sur le coeur de son époux. Sainte Hélène a donc joué un grand rôle dans la fin des persécutions, puisqu'elle fut l'épouse et la mère des deux hommes qui, sous son influence, protégèrent le christianisme. Qui sait même si les prières d'Hélène ne méritèrent point à Constantin l'apparition miraculeuse de la Croix, par laquelle il remporta la victoire et devint seul maître de l'empire?

Un autre événement remarquable dans la vie de sainte Hélène, c'est la découverte de la vraie Croix du Sauveur, dont l'Église célèbre le souvenir le 3 mai.

Hélène vivait sans étalage de grandeurs. Nourrir les pauvres, donner aux uns de l'argent, aux autres des vêtements, à d'autres une maison ou un coin de terre, c'était son bonheur. Sa bonté s'étendait aux prisonniers, aux exilés, à tous les malheureux. Le peuple ne pouvait voir sans une joie mêlée de larmes son impératrice venir en habits simples et communs prendre sa place à l'église dans les rangs des fidèles: une telle conduite n'a sa source que dans l'Évangile. Hélène eut, avant sa mort, la consolation de voir Constantin, non seulement protecteur de la religion de Jésus-Christ, mais chrétien lui-même.

Abbé L. Jaud, Vie des Saints pour tous les jours de l'année, Tours, Mame, 1950

SOURCE : http://magnificat.ca/cal/fr/saints/sainte_helene.html



Sainte Hélène interrogeant les Juifs sur le lieu ou pouvait se trouver la sainte Croix.

Speculum historiale. V. de Beauvais. XVe.

Sainte Hélène, née vers 248 probablement dans la grande Bretagne, vivait à Drepanum, près de Nicomédie, dans une condition des plus humbles, lorsqu’elle attira l’attention de Constance Chlore, jeune officier de l’armée, qui revenait de son ambassade chez les Perses. Il l’épousa, en eut un fils, Constantin, mais fut obligé de la répudier pour devenir empereur. Lorsque Constantin monta sur le trône (en 306), il fit venir sa mère près de lui et la combla de marques de respect ; elle eut le titre d’Auguste et son nom fut gravé sur les monnaies.

On ne sait à quel moment elle est devenue chrétienne ; peut-être l’était-elle de naissance, peut-être n’abandonna-t-elle le culte des idoles que plus tard. Mais saint Paulin nous apprend qu’elle contribua à la conversion de Constantin. Elle n’intervint qu’assez tard dans les affaires religieuses de l’État.
Constantin, trompé par les fausses accusations de sa femme  Fausta, ayant fait périr son fils Crispus, sainte Hélène en conçut un grand chagrin ; et lorsque l’empereur, dans un mouvement de sauvagerie païenne, eut cru devoir sacrifier Fausta aux mânes de son fils, elle résolut, bien qu’âgée de soixante-dix-neuf ans, d’aller faire aux Lieux saints un pèlerinage d’expiation, avec le secret désir d’y retrouver la vraie Croix.
Munie des pleins pouvoirs de Constantin, elle partit à la fin de l’année 326. Rien n’était triste et désolé comme l’état où la dernière conquête romaine avait laissé Jérusalem : on n’y voyait que des ruines ou des temples païens élevés par Adrien, superbes, mais vides ; la ville ne contenait presque plus de Chrétiens. Lorsque l’impératrice demanda à être conduite au Calvaire, on ne put lui en indiquer l’endroit. Enfin, après de longues recherches, on commença des fouilles et, quelques jours plus tard, on trouva en terre, à côté les unes des autres, trois croix de bois conservées intactes. Celle qui avait porté le Sauveur fut reconnue, ainsi que le rapporte saint Ambroise, à l’inscription placée autrefois par Pilate en trois langues différentes, et que l’on put encore parfaitement distinguer :
« Jésus de Nazareth, Roi des Juifs ».
« À la nouvelle de cette découverte, un cri de joie s’échappa de toutes les familles chrétiennes. Dieu venait de consacrer par un dernier miracle le triomphe déjà merveilleux de Son Église. » Quel spectacle pour tous ces persécutés de la veille « que l’instrument du supplice divin sortant tout d’un coup des entrailles de la terre, et devenant comme un signe de domination et de victoire » !
Sainte Hélène, dont on avait peu parlé jusqu’alors, devint l’héroïne du monde chrétien. On s’entretint partout de ses vertus, on s’aperçut qu’au milieu des honneurs elle avait toujours mené une vie humble et sainte. Constantin mit à sa disposition toutes ses richesses pour bâtir un monument digne de renfermer les reliques sacrées. Après avoir commencé la construction de trois églises, sur le Saint-Sépulcre, à Bethléem et au jardin des Oliviers, elle quitta les Lieux saints et mourut en allant rejoindre l’empereur, qui se trouvait alors en Illyrie. C’était l’an 328, saint Sylvestre Ier étant pape et Constantin empereur.




Jan van Eyck.Ritrovamento della Vera Croce, Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame, 1424,
 28 X 19,  Turin, Museo Civico.


Sainte Hélène et la Vraie Croix

Née vers l’an 250, dans la province romaine de Bithynie, au nord-ouest de l’Asie Mineure, au sein d’une famille modeste, Hélène devient la concubine de l’empereur Flavius Constantius, surnommé Chlore. Elle sera la mère de Constantin qui deviendra empereur à la suite de son père et proclamera le christianisme religion officielle de l’empire romain. Avec Constantin, Hélène devint la puissante protectrice des chrétiens, puisant largement dans le trésor impérial pour construire ou doter de nombreuses églises, tout en secourant les pauvres, protégeant les opprimés et s’efforçant d’améliorer le sort des prisonniers, ce qui la fit vénérer du petit peuple.

Hélène partit vers la Terre sainte au lendemain du meurtre de son petit-fils Crispus, victime de complots dans la Rome impériale. Elle avait alors près de 80 ans. Quittant Rome avec Constantin pour Milan, elle gagna probablement la Thrace, s’embarqua à Alexandria Troas afin de passer en Asie Mineure, puis suivit la route la plus proche des côtes, pour s’embarquer à nouveau afin de gagner Chypre. Elle a dû y rester tout l’hiver, à attendre un temps plus favorable pour continuer sa route. On suppose que, le printemps venu, elle s’est embarquée pour Tyr, et de là, a atteint Jérusalem où, après avoir fait faire des fouilles sur le lieu du Calvaire, elle découvrit la Sainte Croix.

À part quelques détails secondaires, des auteurs dont l’enfance est contemporaine du voyage de l’Impératrice ou ceux de la génération qui suit, attestent de la découverte de la Sainte Croix par sainte Hélène et de son culte ; ainsi peut-on se référer à saint Cyrille de Jérusalem (mort en 386), à saint Paulin de Nole (mort en 431), à saint Sulpice Sévère (mort en 420), à saint Ambroise de Milan (mort en 397), à saint Jean Chrysostome (mort en 407), à Rufin d’Aquilée (mort en 410), à Théodoret de Cyr ou à l’avocat de Constantinople, Socrate.

Le récit de saint Ambroise

Elle commença par visiter les Lieux saints ; l’Esprit lui souffla de chercher le bois de la croix. Elle s’approcha du Golgotha et dit "Voici le lieu du combat ; où est la victoire ? Je cherche l’étendard du salut et ne le vois pas." Elle creuse donc le sol, en rejette au loin les décombres. Voici qu’elle trouve pêle-mêle trois gibets sur lesquels la ruine s’était abattue et que l’ennemi avait cachés. Mais le triomphe du Christ peut-il rester dans l’oubli ? Troublée, Hélène hésite, elle hésite comme une femme. Mue par l’Esprit-Saint, elle se rappelle alors que deux larrons furent crucifiés avec le Seigneur. Elle cherche donc la croix du milieu. Mais, peut-être, dans la chute, ont-elles été confondues et interverties. Elle revient à la lecture de l’Évangile et voit que la croix du milieu portait l’inscription "Jésus de Nazareth, Roi des Juifs". Par là fut terminée la démonstration de la vérité et, grâce au titre, fut reconnue la croix du salut.

Le récit de Rufin d’Aquilée

Elle apprit, par révélation, que la croix avait été enfouie dans un des caveaux du sépulcre de Notre Seigneur, et les anciens de la ville, qu’elle consulta avec grand soin, lui marquèrent le lieu où ils croyaient, selon la tradition de leurs pères, qu’était ce précieux monument ; elle fit creuser en ce lieu avec tant d’ardeur et de diligence, qu’elle découvrit enfin ce trésor que la divine Providence avait caché dans les entrailles de la terre durant tout le temps des persécutions, afin qu’il ne fût point brûlé par les idolâtres, et que le monde, étant devenu chrétien, lui pût rendre ses adorations.

Dieu récompensa cette sainte impératrice beaucoup plus qu’elle n’eût osé l’espérer : car, outre la Croix, elle trouva encore les autres instruments de la Passion, à savoir les clous dont Notre Seigneur avait été attaché, et le titre qui avait été mis au-dessus de sa tête. Cependant, une chose la mit extrêmement en peine les croix des deux larrons, crucifiés avec Lui, étaient aussi avec la sienne, et l’Impératrice n’avait aucune marque pour distinguer l’une des autres. Mais saint Macaire, alors évêque de Jérusalem, qui l’assistait dans cette action, leva bientôt cette nouvelle difficulté. Ayant fait mettre tout le monde en prière, et demandé à Dieu qu’il lui plût de découvrir à son Église quel était le véritable instrument de sa Rédemption, il le reconnut par le miracle suivant une femme, prête à mourir, ayant été amenée sur le lieu, on lui fit toucher inutilement les deux croix des larrons ; mais dès qu’elle approcha de celle du Sauveur du monde, elle se sentit entièrement guérie, quoique son mal eût résisté jusqu’alors à tous les remèdes humains et qu’elle fût entièrement désespérée des médecins. Le même jour, Macaire rencontra un mort qu’une grande foule accompagnait au cimetière. Il fit arrêter ceux qui le portaient et toucha inutilement le cadavre avec deux des croix ; aussitôt qu’on eut approché celle du Sauveur, le mort ressuscita.

Sainte Hélène, ravie d’avoir trouvé le trésor qu’elle avait tant désiré, remercia Dieu d’une grande ferveur, et fit bâtir au même lieu une église magnifique ; elle y laissa une bonne partie de la Croix, qu’elle fit richement orner ; une autre partie fut donnée à Constantinople ; enfin le reste fut envoyé à Rome, pour l’église que Constantin et sa mère avaient fondée dans le palais Sessorien (demeure de l’Impératrice) près du Latran qui a toujours depuis le nom de Sainte-Croix-de-Jérusalem.

Le récit de la Légende Dorée

Arrivée à Jérusalem, Hélène fit mander devant elle tous les savants juifs de la région. Et ceux-ci, effrayés, se disaient l’un à l’autre : "Pour quel motif la reine peut-elle bien nous avoir convoqués ?"

Alors l’un d’eux, nommé Judas, dit : "Je sais qu’elle veut apprendre de nous où se trouve le bois de la croix sur laquelle a été crucifié Jésus. Or mon aïeul Zachée a dit à mon père Simon, qui me l’a répété en mourant : "Mon fils, quand on t’interrogera sur la croix de Jésus, ne manque pas à révéler où elle se trouve, faute de quoi on te fera subir mille tourments ; et cependant ce jour-là sera la fin du règne des Juifs, et ceux-là règneront désormais qui adoreront la croix, car l’homme qu’on a crucifié était le Fils de Dieu !" Et j’ai dit à mon père : "Mon père, si nos aïeux ont su que Jésus était le fils de Dieu, pourquoi l’ont-ils crucifié ?" Et mon père m’a répondu "Le Seigneur sait que mon père Zachée s’est toujours refusé à approuver leur conduite. Ce sont les Pharisiens qui ont fait crucifier Jésus, parce qu’il dénonçait leurs vices. Et Jésus est ressuscité le troisième jour, et est monté au ciel en présence de ses disciples. Et mon oncle Étienne a cru en lui ; ce pourquoi les Juifs, dans leur folie, l’ont lapidé. Vois donc, mon fils, à ne jamais blasphémer Jésus ni ses disciples."

Ainsi parla Judas ; et les Juifs lui dirent "Jamais nous n’avons entendu rien de pareil." Mais lorsqu’ils se trouvèrent devant la reine, et que celle-ci leur demanda en quel lieu Jésus avait été crucifié, tous refusèrent de la renseigner si bien qu’elle ordonna qu’ils fussent jetés au feu. Alors les Juifs, épouvantés, lui désignèrent Judas, en disant "Princesse, cet homme-ci, fils d’un prophète sait toutes choses mieux que nous, et te révèlera ce que tu veux connaître !"

Alors la reine les congédia tous à l’exception de Judas, à qui elle dit "Choisis entre la vie et la mort ! Si tu veux vivre, indique-moi le lieu qu’on appelle Golgotha, et dis-moi où je pourrai découvrir la croix du Christ !" Judas lui répondit "Comment le saurais-je puisque deux cents ans ses sont écoulés depuis lors, et qu’à ce moment, je n’étais pas né ?" Et la reine "Je te ferai mourir de faim, si tu ne veux pas me dire la vérité !" Sur quoi elle fit jeter Judas dans un puits à sec, et défendit qu’on lui donnât aucune nourriture.

Le septième jour, Judas, épuisé par la faim, demanda à sortir du puits, promettant de révéler où était la croix. Et comme il arrivait à l’endroit où elle était cachée, il sentit dans l’air un merveilleux parfum d’aromates ; de telle sorte que, stupéfait, il s’écria "En vérité, Jésus, tu es le sauveur du monde !"

Or, il y avait en ce lieu un temple de Vénus qu’avait fait construire l’empereur Adrien, de façon que quiconque y viendrait adorer le Christ parût en même temps adorer Vénus. Et, pour ce motif, les chrétiens avaient cessé de fréquenter ce lieu. Mais Hélène fit raser le temple ; après quoi Judas commença lui-même à fouiller le sol et découvrit, à vingt pas sous terre, trois croix qu’il fit aussitôt porter à la reine.

Restait seulement à connaître celle de ces croix où avait été attaché le Christ. On les posa toutes trois sur une grande place, et Judas, voyant passer le cadavre d’un jeune homme qu’on allait enterrer, arrêta le cortège, et mit sur le cadavre l’une des croix, puis une autre. Le cadavre restait toujours immobile. Alors Judas mit sur lui la troisième croix ; et aussitôt le mort revint à la vie.

D’autres historiens racontent que c’est Macaire, évêque de Jérusalem, qui reconnut la vraie croix, en ravivant par elle une femme déjà presque morte. Et saint Ambroise affirme que Macaire reconnut la croix à l’inscription placée jadis par Pilate au-dessus d’elle.

Judas se fit ensuite baptiser, prit le nom de Cyriaque, et, à la mort de Macaire, fut ordonné évêque de Jérusalem. Or sainte Hélène, désirant avoir les clous qui avaient transpercé Jésus, demanda à l’évêque de les rechercher. Cyriaque se rendit de nouveau sur le Golgotha, et se mit en prière ; et aussitôt, étincelants comme de l’or, se montrèrent les clous, qu’il s’empressa de porter à la reine. Et celle-ci, s’agenouillant et baissant la tête, les adora pieusement.

Jacques de Voragine - La Légende Dorée

[La Légende dorée rédigée en latin au XIIIe siècle par le dominicain italien Jacques de Voragine, fut, après la Bible, le texte le plus largement diffusé au Moyen Âge. Cette ’légende des saints’ (son titre originel) constitue en fait une encyclopédie de la vie chrétienne - le terme ’légende’ devant être compris comme ’ce qui doit être lu’ (par les prédicateurs, dans les écoles ou pendant les repas dans les monastères). Néanmoins, le merveilleux s’y fait très présent, selon la tradition des apocryphes chrétiens, friands de fantastique et de miraculeux. Outre les vies des saints, l’ouvrage s’attache à expliciter le sens des grandes fêtes chrétiennes.

L’ouvrage doit son titre actuel à son succès, les tranches dorées étant précisément réservées, au Moyen Âge, aux livres les plus importants.

Les bénédictins de Port-Valais ont mis en ligne une traduction française de la Légende dorée.

SOURCE : http://www.villemagne.net/site_fr/jerusalem-sainte-helene.php


Andrea Bolgi (1605–1656). Statue de sainte Hélèn,  basilique Saint-Pierre, Vatican

L'INVENTION DE LA SAINTE CROIX

Cette fête est appelée l’Invention de la Sainte Croix, parce qu'on rapporte que la sainte croix fut trouvée à pareil jour. Mais auparavant, elle avait été trouvée par Seth, fils d'Adam, dans le paradis. terrestre, comme il est raconté plus bas; par Salomon, sur le Liban ; par la reine de Saba, dans le temple, de Salomon ; par les Juifs, dans l’eau de la piscine ; et en ce Jour par sainte Hélène, sur le mont du Calvaire.

L'Invention de la Sainte Croix eut lieu plus de deux cents ans après la résurrection de J.-C. On lit dans l’évangile de Nicodème (ch. XIX) qu'Adam étant devenu malade, Seth, son fils, alla à la porte du paradis et demanda de l’huile du bois de la miséricorde pour oindre le corps de son père afin qu'il recouvrât la santé. L'archange Michel lui apparut et lui dit : « Ne pleure pas et ne te mets point en peine d'obtenir de l’huile du bois de la miséricorde, car il te sera absolument impossible d'en obtenir, avant que cinq mille cinq cents ans soient révolus. Cependant on croit, que d'Adam jusqu'à la passion du Seigneur il s'écoula seulement 5099 ans. On lit encore ailleurs que l’ange lui offrit un, petit rameau et lui ordonna de le planter sur le mont Liban. Mais ou lit, dans une histoire apocryphe des Grecs, que l’ange lui donna du bois de l’arbre par le fruit duquel Adam avait péché, en l’informant que sole père serait guéri. quand ce bois porterait du fruit. A son retour, Seth trouva son père mort et il planta ce rameau sur sa tombe. Cette branche plantée devint en croissant un grand arbre qui subsista jusqu'au, temps de Salomon. (Mais il faut laisser au lecteur à juger si ces choses sont vraies, puisqu'on n'en fait mention dans aucune chronique, ni dans aucune histoire authentique.) Or, Salomon considérant la beauté de cet arbre le fit couper et mettre dans la maison du Bois (1).

Cependant, ainsi que le dit Jean Beleth. (ch. CLI), On ne pouvait le mettre nulle part, et il n'y avait pas moyen de lui trouver un endroit où il pût être employé convenablement : car il était tantôt trop long, tantôt trop court : si on l’avait raccourci dans les proportions qu'exigeait la place où on le voulait employer, il paraissait si court qu'on ne le regardait plus comme bon à rien. En conséquence, les ouvriers, de dépit, le rejetèrent et le mirent sur une pièce d'eau pour qu'il servît de pont aux passants. Or, quand la reine de Saba vint entendre la Sagesse de Salomon, et voulut passer sur cette pièce, elle vit en esprit que le Sauveur du monde devait être suspendu à ce bois, et pour cela elle ne voulut point passer dessus, mais aussitôt elle l’adora. Cependant dans l’Histoire scholastique (liv. III Rois, c. XXVI), on lit que la reine de Saba vit cette pièce dans la maison du Bois, et en revenant à son palais elle communiqua à Salomon que sur ce bois devait être suspendu celui dont la mort devrait être la cause de la destruction du royaume des Juifs. C'est pourquoi Salomon le fit ôter du lieu où il était, et enterrer dans les entrailles les plus profondes de la terre. Dans la suite on y établit la Piscine Probatique où les Nathinéens (2) lavaient les victimes, et ce n'est pas seulement à la descente de l’ange, mais

encore à la vertu de ce. bois que l’on attribue que l’eau en était troublée et que les infirmes y étaient guéris. Or, quand approcha le temps de la passion de J.-C., on rapporte que cette pièce surnagea, et les Juifs, en la voyant, la prirent pour en fabriquer la croix du Seigneur. On dit encore que cette croix fut faite de quatre essences de bois, savoir de palmier, de cyprès, d'olivier et de cèdre. De là ce vers :

Ligna Crucis palma, cedrus, cupressus, oliva.

Car dans la croix, il y avait le bois qui servait de montant droit, la traverse,la tablette de dessus, et le tronc où était fixée la croix, ou bien, selon Grégoire de Tours (3), la tablette qui servait de support, sous les pieds de J.-C. Par là on, peut voir que chacune des pièces pouvait être d'une de ces essences de bois dont on vient de parler. Or, l’apôtre paraît avoir eu en vue ces différentes sortes de bois quand il dit : « Afin que vous puissiez comprendre avec tous. les saints quelle est la largeur, la longueur, la hauteur et la profondeur » (Ep. aux Ephés., c. II, 18). Ces paroles sont expliquées comme il suit par l’illustre docteur saint Augustin : « La largeur de la croix du Seigneur, dit-il, c'est la traverse, sur laquelle on a étendu ses mains sa longueur allait depuis la terre jusqu'à cette traverse en largeur sur quoi tout le corps de J.-C. fut attaché, moins les mains; sa hauteur, c'est à partir de cette largeur jusqu'à l’endroit de dessus où se trouvait la tête; sa profondeur, c'était la partie cachée et enfoncée dans la terre. Dans la croix on trouve décrites toutes les actions d'un homme chrétien, qui sont de faire de bonnes oeuvres en J.-C., de lui être persévéramment attaché, d'espérer les biens célestes, et ne pas profaner les sacrements.

Ce bois précieux de la croix resta caché sous terre deux cents ans et plus : mais il fut découvert ainsi qu'il suit par Hélène, mère de l’empereur Constantin. En ce temps-là, sur les rives du Danube, se rassembla une multitude innombrable de barbares voulant passer le fleuve, et soumettre à leur domination tous les pays jusqu'à l’occident. Dès que l’empereur Constantin le sut, il décampa et vint se placer avec son. armée sur le Danube. Mais la multitude des barbares s'augmentant, et passant déjà le fleuve, Constantin fut, frappé d'une grande terreur, en considérant qu'il aurait à livrer bataille le lendemain. Or, la nuit suivante, il est réveillé par un ange qui l’avertit de regarder en l’air. Il tourne les veux vers le ciel et voit le signe de la croix formée par une lumière fort resplendissante, et portant écrite en lettres d'or cette inscription : « In hoc signo vinces, par ce signe tu vaincras. » Réconforté par cette vision céleste, il fit faire une croix semblable qu'il ordonna de porter à la tête de son armée: se précipitant alors sur les ennemis, il les mit en fuite et en tua une multitude immense. Après quoi Constantin convoqua tous les pontifes des temples et s'informa avec beaucoup de soin de quel Dieu c'était le signe. Sur leur réponse qu'ils l’ignoraient, vinrent plusieurs chrétiens qui lui firent connaître le mystère de la sainte croix et la foi de la Trinité. Constantin crut alors parfaitement en J.-C. et reçut le saint baptême des mains d'Eusèbe, pape, ou selon quelques livres, évêque de Césarée. Mais dans ce récit, il y a beaucoup de points contredits par l’Histoire tripartite et par l’Ecclésiastique, par la Vie de saint Silvestre et les Gestes des pontifes romains. D'après certains auteurs, ce ne fut pas ce Constantin que le pape Silvestre baptisa après sa conversion à la foi, comme paraissent l’insinuer plusieurs histoires, mais ce fut Constantin, le père de ce Constantin, ainsi qu'on le voit dans des historiens. En effet ce Constantin reçut la foi d'une autre manière rapportée dans la légende de saint Silvestre, et ce n'est pas Eusèbe de Césarée qui le baptisa, mais bien saint Silvestre. Après la mort de son père, Constantin, qui n'avait pas perdu le souvenir de la victoire remportée par la vertu de la sainte croix, fit passer Hélène, sa mère, à Jérusalem pour trouver cette croix, ainsi que nous le dirons plus bas.

Voici maintenant un récit tout différent de cette victoire, d'après l’Histoire Ecclésiastique (ch. IX). Elle rapporte donc que Maxence ayant envahi l’empire romain, l’empereur Constantin. vint lui présenter la bataille vis-à-vis le pont Albin. Comme il était dans une grande anxiété, et qu'il levait souvent les yeux au ciel pour implorer son secours, il vit en songe, du côté de l’orient dans le ciel, briller une croix, couleur. de feu : des anges se présentèrent devant lui et lui dirent : « Constantin, par cela tu vaincras. » Et, selon le témoignage de l’Histoire tripartite (4), tandis que Constantin s'étonnait de ce prodige, la nuit suivante, J.-C. lui apparut avec le signe vu dans le ciel; il lui ordonna de faire des images pareilles qui lui, porteraient bonheur dans les combats. Alors Constantin fut rendu à la joie et assuré de la victoire ; il se marqua le front du signe qu'il avait vu dans le ciel, fit transformer les enseignes militaires sur le modèle de la croix et prit à la main droite une croix d'or. Après quoi il sollicita du Seigneur que cette droite, qu'il avait munie du signe salutaire de la croix, ne fût ni ensanglantée, ni souillée du sang romain, mais qu'il remportât la victoire sur le tyran sans effusion de sang. Quant à Maxence, dans l’intention de tendre un piège, il fit disposer des vaisseaux, fit couvrir le fleuve de faux ponts. Or, Constantin s'étant approché du fleuve, Maxence accourut à sa rencontre avec peu de monde, après avoir donné ordre aux autres corps de le suivre; mais il oublia lui-même qu'il avait fait construire un faux pont, et s'y engagea avec une poignée de soldats. Il fut pris au piège qu'il avait tendu lui-même, car il tomba dans le fleuve qui était profond; alors Constantin fut acclamé empereur à l’unanimité. D'après ce qu'on lit dans une chronique assez authentique, Constantin ne crut pas parfaitement d'ès ce moment; il n'aurait même pas alors reçu le baptême; mais peu de temps après, il eut une vision de saint Pierre et de saint Paul; et quand il eut reçu la vie nouvelle du baptême et obtenu la guérison de sa lèpre, il crut parfaitement dans la suite en J.-C. Ce fut alors qu'il envoya sa mère Hélène à Jérusalem pour chercher la croix du Seigneur. Cependant saint Ambroise; dans la lettre où il rapporte la mort de Théodose, et l’Histoire tripartite (5), disent que Constantin reçut le baptême seulement dans ses derniers moments; s'il le différa jusque-là, ce fut pour pouvoir le recevoir dans le fleuve du Jourdain. Saint Jérôme en dit autant dans sa chronique. Or, il est certain qu'il fut fait chrétien sous le pape saint Silvestre, quant à savoir s'il différa son baptême, c'est douteux ; ce qui fait qu'en la légende de saint Silvestre, il y a là-dessus, comme en d'autres points, bien peu de certitude. Or, l’histoire de l’Invention de la sainte croix, telle qu'on la lit dans les histoires ecclésiastiques conformes en cela aux chroniques, paraît plus authentique de beaucoup que celle qu'on récite dans les églises. Il est en effet constant qu'il s'y trouve des endroits peu' conformes à la vérité, si ce n'est qu'on veuille dire, comme ci-dessus, que ce ne fut pas Constantin, mais son père qui portait le même nom : ce qui du reste né paraît pas très plausible, quoique ce soit le récit de certaines histoires d'outre-mer.

Hélène arrivée à Jérusalem fit réunir autour d'elle les savants qu'on trouva dans toute la contrée. Or, cette Hélène était d'abord restée dans une hôtellerie (6), mais épris de sa beauté, Constantin se l’attacha, selon que saint Ambroise l’avance en disant : « On assure qu'elle fut hôtelière, mais elle fut unie à Constantin l’ancien qui, dans la suite, posséda l’empire. Bonne hôtelière, qui chercha avec tant de soin la crèche du Seigneur! Bonne hôtelière, qui connut cet hôtelier dont les soins guérirent cet homme blessé parles brigands (7) ! Bonne hôtelière, qui a regardé toutes choses comme des ordures afin de gagner J.-C. (8) ! Et pour cela Dieu l’a tirée de l’ordure pour l’élever sur un trône » (saint Ambroise). D'autres affirment, et c'est l’opinion émise dans une chronique assez authentique, que cette Hélène. était fille de Clohel, roi des Bretons ;Constantin en venant dans la Bretagne la prit pour femme, parce qu'elle était fille unique. Delà vient qui• l’île de Bretagne échut à Constantin après la mort clé Clohel. Les Bretons eux-mêmes (attestent; on lit pourtant ailleurs qu'elle était de Trèves. Or, les Juifs, remplis de crainte, se disaient les uns aux autres : « Pour quel motif pensez-vous que la Reine nous ait convoqués auprès d'elle? » L'un d'eux nommé Judas, dit : « Je sais, moi, qu'elle veut apprendre de nous. l’endroit oit se trouve le bois de la croix sur lequel le Christ a été crucifié. Gardez-vous bien d'être assez présomptueux pour le lui découvrir. Sinon tenez pour très certain que notre loi sera détruite et que toutes les traditions de nos pères seront totalement. abolies : car Zachée mon aïeul l’a prédit à mon père Siméon et mon père  m’a dit avant de mourir : « Fais attention, mon fils, à l’époque où l’on cherchera la croix du Christ : dis où elle se trouve, avant d'être mis à la torture; car à dater de cet instant le pouvoir des Juifs, à Jamais aboli, passera entre les mains de ceux qui adorent le crucifié, parce que ce Christ était le fils de Dieu.» Alors j'ai répondu : «Mon père, si vraiment nos ancêtres ont su que ce Christ était le fils de Dieu, pourquoi l’ont-ils attaché au gibet de la croix? » « Le Seigneur est témoin, répondit-il, que je n'ai jamais fait partie de leur conseil; mais que souvent je me suis opposé à leurs projets : or, c'est parce que le Christ reprochait les vices des Pharisiens qu'ils le firent crucifier : mais il est ressuscité le troisième jour et il a monté au ciel à la vue de ses disciples. Mon frère Etienne, que les Juifs en démence ont lapidé, a cru en lui. Prends garde donc, mon fils, de n'oser jamais blasphémer le Christ ni ses disciples. » — « Il ne paraît cependant pas, très probable que le père de ce Judas ait existé au temps de la Passion de J.-C., puisque de la passion jusqu'au temps d'Hélène, sous laquelle vécut Judas, il s'écoula plus de 270 ans; à moins qu'on ne veuille dire qu'alors les hommes vivaient plus longtemps qu'à présent. » Cependant les Juifs dirent à Judas : « Nous n'avons jamais entendu dire choses semblables. Quoi. qu'il. en soit, si: la Reine t'interroge, aie soin de ne lui faire aucun aveu.» Lors donc qu'ils furent en présence, de la Reine, et qu'elle leur eut demandé le lieu où le Seigneur avait été crucifié, pas un d'eux ne consentit à le lui indiquer alors elle les condamna tous à être brûlés. Ils furent saisis d'effroi et signalèrent Judas, en disant : « Princesse, voici le fils d'un juste et d'un prophète qui a connu parfaitement la loi ; demandez-lui tout ce que vous voulez, il vous l’indiquera. » Alors elle les congédia tous à l’exception de Judas qu'elle retint et auquel elle dit : « Je te propose la vie ou la mort; choisis ce que tu préfères. Montre-moi donc le lieu qui s'appelle Golgotha, où le Seigneur a été crucifié, afin que je puisse trouver sa croix. » Judas répondit « Comment puis-je le savoir, puisque deux cents ans et plus se sont écoulés et que je n'étais pas né à cette époque ? » La Reine lui dit : « Par le crucifié, je te ferai mourir de faim, si tu ne me dis la vérité. » Elle ordonna donc qu'il fût jeté dans tin puits desséché pour y endurer les horreurs de la faim. Or, après y être resté six jours sans nourriture, le septième il demanda à sortir, en promettant de découvrir la croix. On le retira. Quand il fut arrivé à l’endroit, après avoir fait une prière, tout à coup la terre tremble, il se répandit une fumée d'aromates d'une admirable odeur; Judas lui-même, plein d'admiration, applaudissait des deux mains et disait : « En vérité, ô Christ, vous êtes le Sauveur du monde ! » Or, d'après l’Histoire ecclésiastique, il y avait, en ce lieu, un temple de Vénus construit, autrefois par l’empereur Hadrien, afin que si quelque chrétien eût voulu y adresser ses adorations, il parût adorer Vénus : et, pour ce motif, ce lieu avait cessé d'être fréquenté et était presque entièrement délaissé, mais la Reine fit détruire ce temple jusque dans ses fondements et en fit labourer la place. Après quoi Judas se ceignit et se mit à creuser avec courage. Quand il eut atteint à la profondeur de vingt pas, il trouva trois croix enterrées, qu'il porta incontinent à la reine. Or, comme l’on ne savait pas (63) distinguer celle de J.-C. d'avec celles des larrons; on les plaça au milieu de la ville pour attendre que la gloire de Dieu se manifestât. Sur la onzième heure, passa le corps d'un jeune homme qu'on portait en terre : Judas arrêta le cercueil, mit une première et nue seconde croix sur le cadavre du défunt, qui ne ressuscita pas, alors on approcha la troisième croix dit corps et à l’instant il revint à la vie.

On lit cependant, dans les histoires ecclésiastiques (9), qu'une femme des premiers rangs de la ville gisait demi-morte, quand Macaire, évêque de Jérusalem, prit la première et la deuxième croix, ce qui ne produisit aucun résultat : mais quand il posa sur elle la troisième,, cette femme rouvrit les yeux et fut guérie à l’instant. Saint Ambroise dit, de son côté, que Macaire distingua la croix du Seigneur, par le titre qu'avait fait mettre Pilate, et dont l’évêque lut l’inscription qu'on trouva aussi. Alors le diable se mit à vociférer en l’air : « O Judas, disait-il, pourquoi as-tu fait cela? Le Judas qui est le mien a fait tout le contraire : car celui-ci, poussé par moi, fit la trahison, et toi, en me reniant, tu as trouvé la croix de Jésus. Par lui, j'ai Bagué les âmes d'un grand nombre; par toi, je parais perdre celles que j'ai gagnées : par lui, je régnais sar le peuple; par toi, je suis chassé de mon royaume. Toutefois je te rendrai la pareille, et je susciterai contre toi un autre roi qui, abandonnant la foi dit crucifié, te fera renier dans les tourments le crucifié. »

Ceci paraît se rapporter à l’empereur Julien : celui-ci, lorsque Judas fut devenu évêque de Jérusalem, l’accabla de nombreux tourments et le fit mourir martyr de J.-C. En entendant les vociférations du diable, Judas ne craignit rien, mais il ne cessa de maudire le diable en disant : « Que le Christ te damne dans l’abîme du feu éternel! » Après quoi Judas est baptisé, reçoit le nom de Cyriaque, puis est ordonné évêque de Jérusalem, quand le titulaire fut mort. (Belette, c. XXV). Mais comme la bienheureuse Hélène ne possédait pas les clous du Seigneur, elle pria l’évêque Cyriaque d'aller au Golgotha et de les chercher. Il y vint et aussitôt après avoir adressé des prières à Dieu, les clous apparurent brillants dans la terre, comme de l’or. Il les prit et les porta à la reine. Or, celle-ci se mit à genoux par terre et, après avoir incliné la tête, elle les adora avec grande révérence. Hélène porta une partie de la croix à son fils, et renferma l’autre dans des châsses d'argent qu'elle laissa à Jérusalem ; quant aux clous avec lesquels le corps du Seigneur avait été attaché, elle les porta à son fils. Au rapport d'Eusèbe de Césarée, elle en fit deux freins dont Constantin se servait dans les batailles, et elle mit les autres à son casque en guise d'armure. Quelques auteurs, comme Grégoire de Tours(10), assurent que le corps du Seigneur fut attaché avec quatre clous Hélène en mit deux au frein du cheval de l’empereur, le troisième à la statue de Constantin qui domine la ville de Rome, et elle jeta le quatrième dans la mer Adriatique qui jusque-là avait été un gouffre pour les navigateurs. Elle ordonna que cette fête de l’Invention de la sainte croix fût célébrée chaque année solennellement. Voici ce que dit saint Ambroise (11)  : « Hélène chercha les clous du Seigneur et les trouva. De l’un elle fit faire des freins ; elle incrusta l’autre dans le diadème : belle place que la tête pour ce clou ; c'est une couronne sur le front, c'est une bride à la main : c'est l’emblème de la prééminence du sentiment, de la lumière de la foi, et de la puissance impériale. » Quant à l’évêque saint Cyriaque, Julien l’apostat le fit mourir plus tard, pour avoir trouvé la sainte croix dont partout il prenait à tâche de détruire le signe. Avant de partir contre les Perses, il fit inviter Cyriaque à sacrifier aux idoles : sur le refus du saint, Julien lui fit couper le bras en disant : « Avec cette main il a écrit beaucoup de lettres qui ont détourné bien du monde de sacrifier aux dieux. » Cyriaque lui répondit : « Chien insensé, tu  m’as bien rendu service ; car avant de croire à J.-C., trop souvent j'ai écrit des lettres que j'adressais aux synagogues des Juifs afin que personne ne crût en J.-C. et voilà que tu viens de retrancher de mon corps ce qui en avait été le scandale. » Alors Julien fit fondre du plomb qu'il ordonna de lui verser dans la bouche ; ensuite il fit apporter un lit en fer sur lequel Cyriaque fut étendu et au-dessous on mit des charbons ardents et. de la graisse. Comme Cyriaque restait immobile, Julien lui dit : « Si tu ne veux pas sacrifier aux idoles, dis au moins que tu n'es pas chrétien. » L'évêque s'y refusa avec horreur. Julien fit creuser une fosse profonde qu'on fit remplir de serpents venimeux. Cyriaque y fut jeté, mais les serpents moururent aussitôt. Julien ordonna alors que Cyriaque fût jeté dans une chaudière pleine d'huile bouillante. Or, comme le saint voulait y entrer spontanément, il se signa, et pria le Seigneur de le baptiser une seconde fois dans l’eau du martyre, mais Julien furieux lui fit percer la poitrine avec une épée. Ce fut ainsi que saint Cyriaque mérita de consommer son martyre dans le Seigneur.

La grandeur de la vertu de la Croix est manifeste dans ce notaire fidèle, trompé par un magicien qui le conduisit en un lieu où il avait fait venir des démons, en lui promettant des richesses immenses. Il vit un Ethiopien de haute stature, assis sur un trône élevé, et entouré d'autres Ethiopiens- debout, armés de lances et de bâtons. Alors l’Ethiopien demanda à ce magicien : « Quel est cet enfant ? » Le magicien répondit: « Seigneur, c'est votre serviteur. » Le démon dit au notaire : « Si tu veux  m’adorer, être mon serviteur, et renier ton Christ, je te ferai asseoir à ma droite. » Mais le notaire se hâta de faire le signe de la croix et s'écria qu'il était de toute son âme le serviteur du Sauveur J.-C. Il n'eut pas plutôt fait le signe de la croix que toute cette multitude de démons disparut. Peu de temps après, ce même notaire entra un jour avec son maître dans le temple de Sainte-Sophie; se trouvant ensemble devant une image du Sauveur, le maître remarqua que cette image avait les yeux fixés sur le notaire qu'elle regardait attentivement (67). Plein de surprise, le maître fit passer le jeune homme à droite et vit que l’image avait encore tourné les veux de ce côté, en les dirigeant sur le notaire. I1 le fit de nouveau revenir à gauche, et voici que l’image tourna encore les yeux et se mit à regarder le notaire comme auparavant. Alors le maître le conjura de lui dire ce qu'il avait fait à Dieu pour mériter que l’image le regardât, ainsi. Il répondit qu'il n'avait la conscience d'aucune bonne action, si ce n'est qu'il n'avait pas voulu renier le Sauveur devant le diable.

(1) Au IIIe livre des Rois, ch. VII, il est question de cette maison qui. fut construite par Salomon. Elle reçut le nom de maison du Bois, saltus, à cause de la quantité de cèdres qui entra dans sa construction.

(2)  C'étaient des Gabaonites qui étaient attachés au service du temple depuis Josué. Cf. Paralipomènes, IX, 2; Sigonius, De Repub. Hebraeor., liv. IX, ch. VII.

(3) Miracul., liv. I, c. VI.

(4) Liv. IX, c. IX.

(5)  Liv. III, ch. XII.

(6),  Le mot latin stabularia voudrait dire servante de cour. Saint Ambroise paraît l’indiquer quelques lignes plus loin. Nous avons mieux aimé donner un féminin au mot, hôtelier, hôtelière est un mot qui a vieilli.

(7)  Allusion à la parabole du Samaritain de l’Evangile.

(8) Expression de saint Paul dans l’Epître aux Philippiens, c. III, 8.

(9) Sozomène. — Hist. eccl., l. II, c. I ; — Nicéph. cal., l. XVII, c. XIV, XV ; — Evagr., IV, 26.

(10) Miracul., lib. I, ch. VI.

(11) De obitu Theod., nos 47-48.

La Légende dorée de Jacques de Voragine nouvellement traduite en français avec introduction, notices, notes et recherches sur les sources par l'abbé J.-B. M. Roze, chanoine honoraire de la Cathédrale d'Amiens, Édouard Rouveyre, éditeur, 76, rue de Seine, 76, Paris mdcccci





St. Helena


Empress mother of Constantine the Great. She was a native of Bithynia, who married the then Roman general Constantius I Chlorus about 270. Constantine was born soon after, and in 293, Constantius was made Caesar, or junior emperor.
He divorced Helena to marry co Emperor Maximian’s stepdaughter. Constantine became emperor in 312 after the fateful victory at Milvian Bridge, and Helena was named Augusta, or empress.
She converted to Christianity and performed many acts of charity, including building churches in Rome and in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity. On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Helena discovered the True Cross. She is believed to have died in Nicomedia. Her porphyry sarcophagus is in the Vatican Museum. In liturgical art Helena is depicted as an empress, holding a cross.

SOURCE : http://www.ucatholic.com/saints/saint-helena/



St. Helena

The mother of Constantine the Great, born about the middle of the third century, possibly in Drepanum (later known as Helenopolis) on the Nicomedian Gulf; died about 330. She was of humble parentage; St. Ambrose, in his "Oratio de obitu Theodosii", 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 Naissus in Upper Moesia, in the year 274. The statement made by English chroniclers of the Middle Ages, according to which Helena was supposed to have been the daughter of a British prince, is entirely without historical foundation. It may arise from the misinterpretation of a term used in the fourth chapter of the panegyric on Constantine's marriage with Fausta, that Constantine, oriendo (i.e., "by his beginnings," "from the outset") had honoured Britain, which was taken as an allusion to his birth, whereas the reference was really to the beginning of his reign.

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 step-daughter of Emperor Maximinianus Herculius, his patron, and well-wisher. 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 honour 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 (Vita Constantini, III, xlvii): "She (his mother) became under his (Constantine's) 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". It is also clear from the declaration of the contemporary historian of the Church that Helena, from the time of her conversion had an earnestly Christian life and by her influence and liberality favoured the wider spread of Christianity. 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, and there is no reason for rejecting this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. 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. It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius (loc. cit., xlii), that she had resolved to bring to God, the King of kings, the homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds, she "explored it 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 Saviour", 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. This sojourn in Jerusalem proved the starting-point of the legend first recorded by Rufinus as to the discovery of the Cross of Christ.

Her princely munificence was such that, according to Eusebius, she assisted not only individuals but entire communities. The poor and destitute were the special objects of her charity. She visited the churches everywhere with pious zeal and made them rich donations. It was thus that, in fulfilment of the Saviour's precept, she brought forth abundant fruit in word and deed. If Helena conducted herself in this manner while in the Holy Land, which is indeed testified to by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, we should not doubt that she manifested the same piety and benevolence in those other cities of the empire in which she resided after her conversion. Her memory in Rome is chiefly identified with the church of S. Croce in Gerusalemme. On the present location of this church formerly stood the Palatium Sessorianum, and near by were the Thermae Helenianae, which baths derived their name from the empress. Here two inscriptions were found composed in honour of Helena. The Sessorium, which was near the site of the Lateran, probably served as Helena's residence when she stayed in Rome; so that it is quite possible for a Christian basilica to have been erected on this spot by Constantine, at her suggestion and in honour of the true Cross.

Helena was still living in the year 326, when Constantine ordered the execution of his son Crispus. When, according to Socrates' account (Church History I.17), the emperor in 327 improved Drepanum, his mother's native town, and decreed that it should be called Helenopolis, it is probable that the latter returned from Palestine to her son who was then residing in the Orient. Constantine was with her when she died, at the advanced age of eighty years or thereabouts (Eusebius, Life of Constantine III.46). This must have been about the year 330, for the last coins which are known to have been stamped with her name bore this date. Her body was brought to Constantinople and laid to rest in the imperial vault of the church of the Apostles. It is presumed that her remains were transferred in 849 to the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the French Archdiocese of Reims, as recorded by the monk Altmann in his "Translatio". She was revered as a saint, and the veneration spread, early in the ninth century, even to Western countries. Her feast falls on 18 August. Regarding the finding of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, see CROSS AND CRUCIFIX.


Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Helena." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 18 Aug. 2015 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07202b.htm>.


Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.


Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.


SOURCE : http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07202b.htm


Sarcophage de Sainte Hélène (mère de l'empereur Constantin Ier, dit Saint Constantin), vers 340. 
Anciennement érigé dans l’ archibasilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran à Rome 
et exposé maintenant dans le Museo Pio-Clementino au Vatican
( photographie de Jean-Pol Grandmont, 2011)

Helena, Widow (RM)

Born Drepanum, Bithynia, c. 250 (range 248-255); died in Nicomedia, c. 330.



Saint Helena knew the heights of exultation and the depths of humiliation, yet she remained ever constant. The daughter of an lowly innkeeper, she married the Roman general Constantius Chlorus and bore him a son, Constantine, about 274, in Naissus (Nish), Serbia. Some of the older stories claimed that she was the daughter of an English prince; however, this legend was disproved long ago.
In 293, Constantius was proclaimed caesar under Emperor Maximian, one of the persecutors of Christians. For obvious political reasons, renounced Helena and married Maximian's stepdaughter, Theodora. While her husband ruled the empire for 14 years, Helena bided her time. When Maximian died at York, England, in 306, Constantine's troops proclaimed him caesar although he did not win clear title immediately. Finally defeating his enemies at the Milvian Bridge on October 12, 312, Constantine entered Rome and seized the title. He then conferred the title "augusta" on his mother, ordered that she be honored as the mother of a sovereign, had coins struck bearing her image, and changed the name of the town where she was born to Helenopolis.

In 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan, which declared Christianity a religion to be tolerated and released all religious prisoners.

According to the church historian Eusebius, Helena was baptized a Christian at the age of 63. In 324, the year that Constantine finally defeated Licinius to become the sole ruler of both East and West and moved his capital to Constantinople, Helena made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Emperor Hadrian had built a Temple to Venus over Golgotha and the Holy Sepulchre. Helena ordered its removal, and there she supervised the building of a new church at her son's expense.

It is uncertain whether Helena took an active part in the discovery of the three crosses in a rock cistern to the east of Calvary on May 3. The story of her finding the True Cross was the subject of Cynewulf's most celebrated poem, the 9th-century Elene.

In 395, 65 years after Helena had died, Saint Ambrose of Milan preached in a sermon that Helena had actually found the Holy Cross on which Jesus had hung. She worshipped, said Ambrose, "not the wood, but the King who hung on that wood. She burned with an ardent desire of touching the guarantee of immortality." Helena's discovery of the True Cross is also testified by Rufinus and Sulpicius Severus in the 4th century. Part of this cross was kept at Jerusalem; some sent to Rome; and fragments distributed to a large number of churches. This indicated that Helena understood that it was the property of the whole Church.

But Helena is not a saint simply because she found the Cross of Christ. She built churches. She loved the poor, and went about dressed humbly and modestly. Helena spent her last years in Palestine. Eusebius wrote that she "continually worshipped in church in the sight of all, humbly dressed among the women praying there. In addition, she beautified the churches with ornaments and decorations, not forgetting the chapels of the least significant towns and villages." She built basilicas on the Mount of Olives (the Eleona) and in Bethlehem, travelled throughout Palestine, and was known for her kindness to soldiers, the poor, and prisoners.

When she died her body was solemnly taken back to Rome. The Atlantic island of Saint Helena's was given its name because Spanish sailors found it on her feast day (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Walsh, White).

In art, Saint Helena is dress in royal or imperial regalia and holds a large cross [Cima da Conegliano and Giambattista Conegliano]. She may also be portrayed (1) as the location of the True Cross is revealed to her in a dream [Paolo Caliari Veronese]; (2) as she organizes and superintends the search for the True Cross [Piero della Francesca]; (3) crowned, giving a letter to a messenger; (4) as a medieval lady with a small cross and book; (5) with a cross and nails; or (6) with her son Constantine [icon, Byzantine mosaic at Hagia Sophia, Greek mosaic, Russian mosaic] (Roeder). Helena is the patroness of dyers, nailsmiths, and needle- makers. She is invoked against fire and thunder (Roeder).

SOURCE : http://www.saintpatrickdc.org/ss/0818.shtml

Saint Helena

Also known as
  • Elene
  • Helen
  • Flavia Julia Helena Augusta
Profile

Converted to Christianity late in life. Married Constantius Chlorus, co-regent of the western Roman empire. Mother of Constantine the Great. Her husband put her aside for a second marriage with better political connections. On his death, her son ascended to the throne, brought her home, and treated her as royalty. She used her high position and wealth in the service of her religious enthusiasm, and helped build churches throughout the empire.

In her late 70’s she led a group to the Holy Land to search for the True Cross. She and her group unearthed three crosses in 326. At the suggestion of Saint Macarius of Jerusalem, she took them to a woman afflicated with an incurable disease, and had her touch each one. One of them immediately cured her, and it was pronounced the True Cross. She built a church on the spot where the cross was found, and sent pieces to Rome and Constantinople; the Feast of the Holy Cross on 14 September celebrates the event. Thus in art, she is usually depicted holding a wooden cross.

Born
  • c.328 in Nicomedia of natural causes




St. Helen, Empress

From Eusebius’s life of Constantine, Baronius and Alford’s Annals, Jacutius, O. S. Ben. Syntagm. de Hist. Constantini M. Romæ, 1755. Ledarchius, Diss. de Basillisis SS. Marcellini et Petri. Aringhi, Rom. subter. l. 4, c. 9; Pinius, t. 3, Aug. p. 548.

A.D. 328.

WE are assured by the unanimous tradition of our English historians, that this holy empress was a native of our island. 1 William of Malmesbury, the principal historian of the ancient state of our country after Bede, 2 and before him, the Saxon author of the life of St. Helen, in 970, quoted by Usher, expressly say that Constantine was a Briton by birth; but an authority which is certainly decisive, is that of the anonymous, elegant, and learned panegyrist, who, haranguing Maximian and Constantine upon the marriage of the latter to Fausta, said to Constantine: “He (Constantius) had freed the provinces of Britain from slavery; you ennobled them by your origin. 3 Leland, the most diligent searcher of our antiquities, says, 4 Helen was the only daughter of king Coilus, who lived in constant amity with the Romans, and held of them his sovereignty. The Glastenbury historian says the same. Henry of Huntington tells us, that this was the King Coël who first built walls round the city of Colchester, and beautified it so much, that it derives from him its name. That town has for several ages boasted that it gave birth to this great empress; and the inhabitants, to testify their veneration for her memory, take for the arms of the town, in remembrance of the cross which she discovered, a knotty cross between four crowns, as Camden takes notice. Though Mr. Drake will have it that she was rather born at York, as the English orators in the councils of Constance and Basil affirmed; to which opinion he thinks the anonymous panegyrist of Constantine evidently favourable. Constantius, at that time only a private officer in the army, had the happiness to make her his first wife, and had by her Constantine his eldest son, who, as all agree, had his first education under her watchful eye.

To understand the sequel of this history, it is necessary to take a view of the state of the empire at that time. The two brothers, Carinus in the West, and Numerianus in the East, the sons, colleagues, and successors of Carus, being become detestable to all their subjects by their infamous vices, the supreme dignity was devolved upon Diocles, commonly called Dioclesian on the 17th of September, 284, whence the epoch of his reign, or of the martyrs, as it is called, and which continued long in use, was dated. He was a Dalmatian of very low birth, had been made free by the senator Anullinus, and was at the head of an army in the East, when Numerianus was slain by a conspiracy. To oppose Carinus in the West, he declared Maximian (who took the surname of Herculeus) Cæsar, on the 20th of November, in the same year, 284, and after the death of Carinus, who was cut off by his own men in Upper Mysia, near the Danube, he saluted him emperor, and his colleague, on the 1st of April, 286. Maximian was a native of Sirmium, of the meanest parentage, savage in his manners, countenance, and temper, but a bold and experienced officer. He brutally indulged all his passions, was faithless, and so great a debauchee that he frequently offered violence to ladies of the first quality, and so covetous that he put many senators to death to seize their estates, and plundered all the West which he governed. Dioclesian was a soldier and a politician, but oppressed the provinces with most exorbitant taxes, maintained four times more soldiers than any of his predecessors had done before him, and was passionately fond of building; and when he had finished a palace at an expense which ruined a whole province, he would find some fault with it, and pull it down to raise it after a different manner; nor was the second building secured from a new caprice, upon which it was sometimes again levelled with the ground. So madly expensive was he, that he took it into his head to make Nicomedia, where he usually resided, equal to Rome, and made it desolate of inhabitants to fill it with magnificent palaces, hippodromes, arsenals, and what not. He was no less foolishly vain in his dress, equipage, and furniture. Yet he was so insatiably covetous, that he would always keep his exchequer full from the spoils of families and all the provinces. 5 In this the two emperors were not unlike, and they reigned together twenty years. The better to secure themselves, and carry on their wars, they associated to themselves, in 293, two other emperors of an inferior rank, under the name of Cæsars. Dioclesian chose Galerius Maximian, surnamed Armentarius, a native of Dacia, one of the most furious and profligate of men; him he compelled to divorce his wife, and marry his daughter, Valeria. Maximian Herculeus pitched upon Constantius Chlorus, a prince never charged with any vice, a good soldier, and nobly born, being descended from the emperor Claudius II. and from Vespasian, from whom his family bore the prænomen Flavius. Herculeus reserved to himself the rich provinces of Italy, Spain, and Africa; Constantius had the countries on this side the Alps, namely Gaul and Britain; Galerius had Illyricum and the places adjacent to the Euxine sea, and Dioclesian the East. Constantius, by the articles of this association, was obliged to divorce Helen, and to marry Theodora, the daughter-in-law of Maximian. The Christians enjoyed a kind of peace, except that in the West some martyrs suffered, chiefly in the army, or by the natural cruelty of Maximian, who delighted in blood; but in the beginning of the year 302, Galerius at Nicomedia prevailed upon Dioclesian to form a project utterly to extirpate the Christian name. 6

Constantine, from his first accession to the throne, by his edicts, forbade the Christians to be molested on account of their religion. Fluctuating what deity to invoke before his battle with Maxentius, he was at length inspired to address himself to the true God, and encouraged by miraculous visions. From that time he published frequent edicts in favour of the Christian faith, built stately churches, munificently adorned altars, and delighted much in the conversation of bishops, whom he often admitted to his table, notwithstanding the meanness of their outward appearance. Baronius says, that the same year in which he vanquished Maxentius, he gave to the bishop of Rome the imperial Lateran palace. In the following year, 313, Pope Melchiades held in it a synod, in the apartment of Fausta, the wife of Constantine; and accordingly we find the popes in possession of it in the fourth century. We may judge of this emperor’s liberality to the bishops for the use of the church and poor, from his letter to Cæcilian, bishop of Carthage, in which he sent him an order to receive from his chief treasurer of Africa three thousand purses, 7 which amounted to above twenty thousand pounds sterling; adding, that if he found any thing more wanting, he should without difficulty demand it of his treasurer, who had from him an order to give him without delay whatever sum he should require. He distributed alms abundantly among the poor of all kinds, even among the Pagans. Those who were fallen from a better condition he assisted after a more generous manner, giving land to some, and places to others; he was particularly careful of orphans and widows; and gave portions to virgins.

It appears from Eusebius, that St. Helen was not converted to the faith with her son, till after his miraculous victory; but so perfect was her conversion, that she embraced all the heroic practices of Christian perfection, especially the virtues of piety and almsdeeds, in which she doubtless was a great spur to the emperor. Her dutiful son always honoured and respected her, forgetting in her regard that he was emperor of the world, unless to employ his power in serving her. He caused her to be proclaimed Augusta or empress in his armies, and through all the provinces of his empire; and medals to be struck in her honour, in which she is called Flavia Julia Helena. She was advanced in years before she knew Christ; but her fervour and zeal were such as to make her retrieve the time lost in ignorance; and God prolonged her life yet many years to edify, by her example, the church which her son laboured to exalt by his authority. Rufinus calls her faith and holy zeal incomparable; and she kindled the same fire in the hearts of the Romans, as St. Gregory the Great assures us. 8 Forgetting her dignity, she assisted in the churches amidst the people in modest and plain attire; and to attend at the divine office was her greatest delight. Though mistress of the treasures of the empire, she only made use of them in liberalities and alms; she distributed her charities with profusion wherever she came, and was the common mother of the indigent and distressed. She built churches, and enriched them with precious vessels and ornaments.

Licinius in the East became jealous of Constantine’s prosperity, and attacked him by various hostilities. The Christian emperor defeated him in battle near Cibalis in Pannonia, in 314, and generously granted him peace. His restless ambition could not lie long dormant; he repeated new injuries, and out of aversion to Constantine, began to persecute the Christians in 316, whom he had till then protected; and he put to death many bishops, the Forty Martyrs, and others. He also instigated the Sarmatians to invade the Roman territories; and made himself odious by his covetousness, licentiousness, and cruelty to his own subjects. Constantine, at length, finding all other means ineffectual declared war; and vast preparations were made on both sides. The armies of Licinius were more numerous, and he threatened that if his gods gave him victory, as his soothsayers and magicians pretended unanimously to foretell him, he would exterminate their enemies. Constantine prepared himself before the days of each battle by prayer, fasting, and retirement; and caused the ensign called the imperial Labarum, in which was the effigy of the cross, to be carried before his army. In battle, victory every where followed this chief standard so visibly, that Licinius, making a second stand near Chalcedon, ordered his soldiers to make no attacks on the side where the great standard of the cross was, nor to look towards it, confessing that it was fatal to him. 9 He was first vanquished near Adrianople, where he left almost thirty-four thousand dead upon the spot, in July, 324; and in a second battle near Chalcedon, in which, out of one hundred and thirty thousand men, scarcely three thousand escaped. Licinius fell into the hands of the conqueror, who spared his life, and sent him to Thessalonica, where, upon information that he was attempting to raise new disturbances, he ordered him to be strangled the year following.

Constantine being, by this victory, become master of the East, concurred in assembling the council of Nice, in 325; and, in 326, wrote to Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, concerning the building of a most magnificent church upon Mount Calvary. St. Helen, though then four score years of age, took the charge on herself to see this pious work executed, desiring at the same time, to discover the sacred cross on which our Redeemer died. Eusebius, in his life of Constantine, 10 mentions no other motive of her journey but her desire of adorning the churches and oratories in the holy places, and of relieving the poor in those parts, doubtless out of devotion to the mysteries of our divine Redeemer’s sufferings; but Rufin 11 attributes it to visions; Socrates 12 to admonitions in her sleep; Theophanes to divine warnings; 13 St. Paulinus 14 to her piety; saying that she undertook this journey to find the cross amongst other motives of devotion. And Constantine, in his letter to Macarius the bishop of Jerusalem, commissioned him to make search for it on Mount Golgotha of Calvary. 15 The heap of earth which had been thrown by the Pagans on the spot was removed, and the statue of Venus cast down, as St. Paulinus and St. Ambrose relate.

Another perplexing difficulty occurred in distinguishing the cross of Christ amongst the three that were found; for the nails found with it were no sufficient proof. The title which lay near it, and doubtless the marks of the nails which had fixed it, furnished an indication, as St. Chrysostom 16 and St. Ambrose 17 mention. Yet some doubt remained, to remove which, the most wise and divine Bishop Macarius, as he is called by Theodoret, who was one of the prelates who had condemned the impiety of Arius at Nice the year before, suggested that a miraculous proof should be asked of God. The pious empress therefore went, attended by the bishop and others, to the house of a lady of quality who lay very sick in the city. The empress having made a prayer aloud, recorded by Rufin, 18 the bishop applied the crosses, and the sick person was restored instantly at the touch of the true cross, as all these historians relate. Sozomen, St. Paulinus, and Sulpicius Severus 19 add, that a person dead was by the like touch raised to life; but this deserves little notice, being only related upon report, as Sozomen expresses it. St. Helen, when she had discovered the holy cross, “adored not the wood, but the King, Him who hung on the wood. She burned with an earnest desire of touching the remedy of immortality.” These are the words of St. Ambrose. Part of the cross she recommended to the care of the Bishop Macarius, and covered it with a rich silver case, of which the Bishop of Jerusalem was the guardian, and which he every year exposed to the adoration of the people, says St. Paulinus; and oftener according to the devotion of pilgrims. 20 She built a most sumptuous church on the spot to receive this precious relic. The other part of the cross she sent to her son the emperor at Constantinople, where it was covered and exposed to the veneration of the people with the greatest solemnity. Of the nails, one she put in a bridle, another in a diadem for her son, says St. Ambrose. A third she threw into the Adriatic gulf in a storm; on which account the sailors entered on that sea as sanctified, with fastings, prayer, and singing hymns to this day, says St. Gregory of Tours. 21 Eusebius, intent on the actions of the son Constantine in his life, speaks not directly of the discovery of the cross, yet mentions it indirectly in the letter of Constantine to Macarius about building the church, 22 and describes the two magnificent churches which the empress built, one on Mount Calvary, the other on Mount Olivet. 23 The same historian says: 24 “In the sight of all she continually resorted to the church, adorned the sacred buildings with the richest ornaments and embellishments, not passing by the chapels of the meanest towns, appearing amidst the women at prayer in a most humble garment.” Suidas adds: “She was affable, kind, and charitable to all ranks, but especially to religious persons.” To these, says Rufin, 25 she showed such respect as to serve them at table as if she had been a servant, set the dishes before them, pour them out drink, hold them water to wash their hands; “though empress of the world and mistress of the empire, she looked upon herself as servant of the hand-maids of Christ.” She built a convent for holy virgins at Jerusalem, mentioned by Suidas. Eusebius adds, that whilst she travelled over all the East with royal pomp and magnificence, she heaped all kind of favours both on cities and private persons, particularly on soldiers, the poor, the naked, and those who were condemned to the mines; distributing money, garments, &c.; freeing many from oppression, chains, banishment, &c. 26 She beautified and adorned the city of Drepanum, in Bithynia, in honour of St. Lucian, martyr, so that Constantine caused that city to be called from her Helenopolis. At last, this pious princess returned to Rome, 27 and perceiving her last hour to approach, gave her son excellent instructions how to govern his empire according to the holy law of God. Then bidding him and her grandchildren a moving farewell, she expired in their presence in the month of August, 328, or, according to some, in 326, which year was the twentieth of her son’s reign, who on that occasion gave magnificent feasts at Rome during three months. Constantine ordered her to be interred with the utmost pomp with a stately mausoleum, and a porphyry urn, the largest and richest in the world, which is now shown in a gallery belonging to the cloister of the Lateran basilic. 28 He erected a statue to her memory, together with his own, and a large cross, in the middle of a great square in Constantinople; he also erected her statue at Daphne, near Antioch. Her name occurs in the Roman Martyrology on the 18th of August, the day of her death.

Notker, abbot of Hautvilliers, in the diocess of Rheims, in 1095, wrote a history of the translation of the relics of St. Helen from Rome to that abbey, which was performed with pomp in 849. The author gives an authentic account of several miracles wrought through the intercession of this saint. He testifies that he had been eyewitness to many of them, and had learned the rest from the very persons on whom they had been performed. Part of this work, which is well written, was published by the Messieurs of Ste-Marthe, 29 and by Mabillon, 30 and almost the whole is inserted by the Bollandists, 31 in their great work. The entire manuscript is preserved at Hautvilliers, with an appendix written by the same author, containing an account of two other miracles performed by the relics of this saint. 32

This holy empress, and the great prince her son, paid all possible honour to bishops and pastors of the church. He who truly loves and honours God and religion, has a great esteem for whatever belongs to it; consequently respects its ministers. The first zealous Christian princes were thoroughly sensible that it is impossible to inspire the people with a just value and awful reverence for religion itself, and its immediate object, without a reasonable respect for its sacred ministers. Upon this principle were immunities granted to the church. Even Numa, and other heathen legislators, observe this maxim, to impress upon men’s minds religious sentiments, though towards a false worship. Scandals in pastors, when notorious, are most execrable sacrileges; and circumspection is necessary, that we be not drawn aside or imposed upon by any, because, like Alcimus, they are of the seed of Aaron; but a propensity to censure rashly, and detract from those persons who are invested with a sacred character, is inconsistent with a religious mind, and leads to a revolt. True pastors indeed, in the spirit of the apostles, far from ever resenting, or so much as thinking of any slights that may be put upon their persons, or desiring, much less seeking, any kind of respect, rejoice and please themselves rather in contempt, which in their hearts they sincerely acknowledge to be only their due. Humility is the ornament and the ensign of the sacred order which they hold in the Church of Christ.

Note 1. Several modern French historians pretend she was an inn-holder (Stabularia) in Bithynia when Constantius married her. Their mistake is founded on Procopius and Julius Firmicus. This latter, who is an unknown Christian writer, who lived soon after the death of Constantius, in his book On the Error of profane Religions, says Constantine was born and received his first education under his mother at Tarsus, some others say at Naissus, near the Dardanelles; but this, as Camden shows, is spoken of Constantius. Procopius (l. 5, De ædific. Justiniani) affirms that Constantine beautified and fortified Drepanum in Bithynia, and gave it the name of Helenopolis, because his mother was born there; but that this circumstance is a mistake is clear from the acts of St. Lucian, by which we are informed that St. Helen had a particular regard for that city, and adorned it for the sake of that martyr. This then was the reason why it was called by her name. Sozomen informs us, that Constantine, to honour her, gave the name of Helenopolis also to a city in Palestine. Zosimus and Julian the Apostate call her Constantius’s concubine, but mean a wife of inferior rank to the daughter of Maximian; for it is certain she was married to him. The Jews and Pagans called her, out of contempt, Stabularia, as appears from St. Ambrose. Baronius thinks she was so called, because Constantius lodged at the house of her father in Britain. Camden imagines the only reason to have been, because she founded a church where the stable stood in which Christ was born; which the enemies of the Christian name turned into ridicule. St. Ambrose writes thus of her, (Or. de obitu Theodos.) “They say she was first a Stabularia, or one who entertained strangers, and so became known to Constantius, who afterwards arrived at the empire. A good Stabularia, who sought so diligently the crib of the Lord; who chose to be reputed as dung, that she might gain Christ.” [back]

Note 2. L. 1, de Reg. Ang. [back]

Note 3. “Nobiles illic oriendo fecisti.” (Incerti Paneg. 5, c. 4, p. 208.) This passage cannot be understood with Livineius and Lipsius, of his being first created Cæsar, but of his birth in Britain, as Pignarol observes with the general opinion of commentators on the ancient panegyrists; and as the learned Mr. Drake demonstrates from other passages and allusions. (Antiquities of York, p. 46.) Eumenius, the favourite orator of Constantius and Constantine, speaks of his assumption to the imperial dignity, when, in his panegyric to Constantine, he says, (l. 9, p. 330,) “O fortunate Britain, now more happy than all other countries of the earth, in having first beheld Constantine Cæsar! Justly hath nature enriched thee with all the blessings of the heavenly climate and of the soil; in which neither are the heats of summer, nor the cold of winter painful to bear; in which so abundant is the produce of corn, that it suffices for all the uses both of food and drink; the forests are free from furious wild beasts, and the earth from poisonous serpents; the ground, on the contrary, is filled with a numberless multitude of tame cattle abounding in milk, and sheep loaded with rich fleeces, &c. [back]

Note 4. L. de Script. Britan. p. 24. [back]

Note 5. Lactant. de Mort. Persec. c. 7, 8. [back]

Note 6. The bloody edicts were sent from the East to Maximian, and Constantius in the West. The former willingly obeyed them; but Constantius put no man to death himself on that account, though some suffered in Britain by the obsequiousness of governors, till he put a check to their fury. He indeed suffered the churches to be pulled down. He had many Christians among his officers, and in his household. Having received the edicts of Dioclesian, he told them, that he gave them their choice either to sacrifice, or to lose their posts and his favour. Many preferred their temporal interest to their religion, and offered sacrifice. These apostates Constantius from that moment despised, and discharged from his service, saying, that persons so self-interested and treacherous to their God would never be faithful to him. On the contrary, those who continued steadfast in their faith, he kept near his person, declaring them worthy to be intrusted with the care of his person and empire. (Eus. Vit. Constant. l. 1, c. 16.) Dioclesian complained to him by his ambassadors, that he neglected to amass a public treasure to serve in time of need. Constantius promised the ambassadors, if they allowed him a little time, to show them a great treasure. He immediately made known his present necessity to his friends and the people, and desired to borrow what they could lend him for a few days. Immediately his apartments began to be filled with gold, silver, and jewels to an immense value. He then introduced the ambassadors, and seeing them astonished at what they saw, told them, that they might bear him witness that the love and riches of the people are a prince’s best treasure. He was remarkably indulgent to the poor Christians. He had by Theodora two sons, Constantius Dalmatius and Annibalius, and two daughters, Constantia and Eutropia. Constantine, his eldest son, he was obliged to send to the court of Dioclesian, where he was kept as a hostage for his father’s fidelity. Thus was that prince, like another Moses, brought up amidst the enemies of truth, whom he was one day to extirpate.

  Dioclesian was sick all the year 304, and spent the summer at Ravenna; then went to Nicomedia before winter, where Galerius came to him, making proposals, that he and his colleague should resign the purple, which he claimed as his due, complaining that he had sustained the weight of the wars against the Persians, and on the banks of the Danube eighteen years. Dioclesian, with many tears, pressed to retain the purple, though he readily consented to give him the title of Augustus; but Galerius insisted upon his abdication, and that he should appoint two new Cæsars, Severus and Daia or Daza. This latter was Galerius’s nephew, his sister’s son, little better than a barbarian, to whom his uncle had given the name of Maximian, though he is oftener called Maximin. Severus was a dancer and a drunkard, who turned day into night. Thus Maxentius, the son of Maximian Herculeus, and Constantine were excluded. This latter was a prince of untainted morals, and well formed in mind and body; he had a genius for war, and was much beloved by the soldiers, and desired for emperor by the people. Dioclesian pleaded that he should be pitched upon, but Galerius dreaded his reputation and virtue, and feared to have such a colleague. Dioclesian said of the new Cæsars, sighing, “These are not fit persons to support the state; but being compelled to acquiesce, on the 1st of May, in 305, on an eminence three miles from Nicomedia, in the presence of his officers, soldiers, and a crowd of people, he put off the purple, and said, weeping, that he was infirm, and required rest. He then declared Galerius and Constantius emperors, and Severus and Maximian Cæsars. The former was sent into the West to Maximian Herculeus, who had agreed to make the like resignation. Dioclesian then retired to Dioclea, in Dalmatia, his own country.

  Constantius had by the partition, Gaul, Britain, Spain, and Africa; but Galerius withheld the two latter, and expecting he would die soon, had in his eye Licinius, an officer with whom he had contracted an intimacy from his first coming to the army; and him he intended to associate to the empire. Constantine he kept with him under a strict eye, and not daring to cut him off yet, for fear of a civil war, he exposed him to combats with wild beasts, and to other dangerous enterprises. The young prince, after many refusals, at length extorted his leave for setting out the next day to go to see his father in Britain, who had so often written to Galerius on that subject, that he could no longer resist without a rupture. Galerius intended still to stop his journey the next day, or to have him intercepted by Severus in Italy; and was enraged to hear that he was gone the night before, and had taken up the horses at all the stages, that he might not be pursued. Constantine made incredible haste, and found his father lying on his death-bed at York. Constantius recommended him to his soldiers, and appointed him his successor in the empire, and soon after died, on the 25th of July, in 306, having reigned thirteen years as Cæsar, and near fifteen months as emperor. Eusebius tells us, that before his death he professed the belief of one only God. Constantine was saluted emperor by the army; nor durst Galerius himself refuse to receive his image when it was sent to him, crowned with laurel, according to custom; but only acknowledged him Cæsar. The same year Maxentius, the son of the late Emperor Maximian Herculeus, assumed the title of Cæsar in Italy, and soon after, that of emperor. His father Herculeus also resumed the purple which he had quitted only by compulsion; Severus was discomfited by him, abandoned by his own men, and having surrendered himself to Herculeus at Ravenna, was put to death by the opening of his veins. Hereupon Galerius declared Licinius his colleague and emperor, and, marching into Italy, intended to cut off Maxentius; but was obliged to return, seeing his own troops inclined to forsake him. Herculeus acknowledged Constantine emperor, but obliged him to divorce his first wife Minervina, and to marry his daughter Fausta, who proved a firebrand in his family.

  Maximinus Cæsar persecuted the Christians in the East with no less fury than Galerius, was extremely addicted to superstition and art magic; and, being vexed to see Licinius preferred to the title of Augustus before him, assumed it himself, and Galerius was obliged to ratify what he had done. In the West, Maximian Herculeus, conceiving a base jealousy against his own son, sought to depose him, but did not succeed; then coming into Gaul, he endeavoured several ways to surprise Constantine, his son-in-law, but being forsaken by his own soldiers in Belgium, fled to Arles, whither Constantine pursued him, and having taken him prisoner, spared his life; but he made new attempts upon the life of Constantine, and stabbed a eunuch, thinking to kill him. Whereupon Constantine caused him to be strangled in 308. The persecutor, Galerius, consumed by worms and putrefaction, acknowledged the hand of God, and published an edict at Sardis in favour of the Christians, in 311; and died miserably in exquisite torment. Then were the prisons opened, and the confessors released, and, among others, Donatus, to whom Lactantius dedicated his book, On the Death of the Persecutors.

  Maximinus carried on the persecution in Syria and Egypt, where he commanded; and after the death of Galerius, over all Asia. Licinius obtained for his share only Illyricum, Greece, and Thrace, and forebore all persecution, as did also Maxentius in Italy, though, in other respects, no less impious, tyrannical, and debauched in his manners than Maximin Daia. He declared war against Constantine, under pretence of revenging the death of his father. Constantine marched against him, and encamped over against the bridge Milvius, now called Ponte Mole, two miles from Rome. His army was inferior in number; but Constantine earnestly implored the protection of the one supreme God. After his prayer, a little after noon, as he was traversing the country with part of his forces, he saw in the sky a cross of light, with this inscription, “In this shalt thou conquer.” The night following he was favoured with a vision, in which Christ ordered him to make a representation of that cross which he had seen, and use it for an ensign in battle. The emperor did so; and this was the famous banner called the Labarum. Maxentius was defeated, and by the breaking of a bridge of boats which he had caused to be thrown over the Tiber, was drowned in his flight. The senate caused a triumphal arch to be built in honour of Constantine, which is still to be seen at Rome. A statue was also erected to him in one of the public places of the city, where he appeared holding a long cross in his hand instead of a lance; and he caused this inscription to be made on the pedestal,—“By this salutary sign, the true mark of courage, I have delivered your city from the yoke of tyranny, and restored the senate and people of Rome to their ancient glory.”
(Eus. in Vit Constant. Codinus, Gillius, Du Cange, et Ball.)

  
Constantine went to Milan the January following, in 313, and was there met by Licinius, to whom he gave his sister Constantia in marriage. Maximin in the East, who had made an alliance with Maxentius, was jealous of the success of Constantine, and invaded Thrace, but was vanquished by Licinius near Byzantium. He fled into Asia, and being pursued, retired into the straits of Mount Taurus, where he drank poison, but survived the dose four days, and expired in excessive pain, rage, and despair, in 313. Thus died the most cruel of all the persecutors. Licinius extirpated his whole family, and caused Valeria, the widow of Galerius, and daughter of Dioclesian, to be beheaded with her mother Octavia, at Thessalonica, and their bodies to be thrown into the sea. Dioclesian had abdicated the empire in the seventy-first year of his age, and from that time languished rather than lived in continual alarms and anguish of mind during seven years; and hearing that Constantine had thrown down his statues at Rome, together with those of Maximian and Maxentius, died in rage and despair, in December, 312. [back]

Note 7. A Roman Follis or purse of money, then consisted of two hundred and fifty silver denarii. See Du Cange, Dissert. de Inferioris ævi Numismat. n. 90, 91; and F. Sirmond, not. in Serm. 40, 1st of August. [back]

Note 8. L. 9, ep. 9. [back]

Note 9. Eus. Vit. Constan. l. 2, c. 16. [back]

Note 10. L. 3, c. 42. [back]

Note 11. L. 10, c. 7. [back]

Note 12. L. 1, c. 17. [back]

Note 13. Chronogr. p. 18. [back]

Note 14. Ep. § 4, n. 43. [back]

Note 15. Theoph. ib. [back]

Note 16. Hom. 85, al. 84, in Joan. ed. Ben. t. 8, p. 505. [back]

Note 17. Or. de Obitu Theodosii. [back]

Note 18. Hist. l. 10, c. 8. [back]

Note 19. Hist. Sacræ, l. 2. [back]

Note 20. Adorandam populo princeps ipse venerantium promit. Paulin. ep. cit. [back]

Note 21. De Glor. Mart. l. 1, c. 6. [back]

Note 22. L. 3, c. 30, De Vita Const. [back]

Note 23. C. 43. [back]

Note 24. C. 45. [back]

Note 25. L. 10, c. 7. [back]

Note 26. Eus. Vit. Constan. c. 44; Sozom. l. 2, p. 2, &c. [back]

Note 27. She seems not to have died in Rome itself, because Eusebius says, that after her death her son caused her body to be conveyed to the city with royal magnificence. [back]

Note 28. This urn was made so large in order to contain not the ashes but the whole body of this empress. It was discovered in 1672, in the time of Pope Urban VIII. The carvings on the urn of a lion and many other figures, without any heathenish emblems, are in a middle taste of architecture, such as that of the first figures on the triumphal arch of her son Constantine. This vast mausolæum was situated near the road to Palestrina; the ruins are now called Torre Pignattara, on the Via Lavicana, about three miles from Rome. See Keysler’s Travels, t. 2; and Venuti, the celebrated antiquary to the Popes Benedict XIV. and Clement XIII. in his Accurata Descrizione Topografica delle Antichita di Roma, in 4to. Rome, 1763, t. 1, p. 125, part. 1, c. 7. The ruins also of the private baths built with great magnificence in Rome for her use by her son, still bear the name of Thermæ S. Helenæ, in Italian Terme di S. Elena. See a fine stamp with the description in the same author, t. 1, p. 131, with a fragment of an inscription still remaining there in the Villa Conti, as follows: “D. N. Helena. ven. Aug. Mat. Avia. Beatis.—Therma,” &c. The ashes of St. Helen are now kept in a rich shrine of porphyry under the high altar of the church of Ara Cœli. See Keysler’s Travels, t. 3. [back]

Note 29. Gall. Christ. t. 4, p. 1. [back]

Note 30. Act. SS. Ord. S. Bened. t. 6, pp. 154, 156. [back]

Note 31. Bolland. ad 18 Aug. pp. 607, 611. [back]

Note 32. Hist. Littér. de la France. [back]

Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).  Volume VIII: August. The Lives of the Saints.  1866




Sant' Elena Madre di Costantino


Drepamim (Bitinia), III sec. – ? † 330 ca.

Di famiglia plebea, Elena venne ripudiata dal marito, il tribuno militare Costanzo Cloro, per ordine dell'imperatore Diocleziano. Quando il figlio Costantino, sconfiggendo il rivale Massenzio, divenne padrone assoluto dell'impero, Elena, il cui onore venne riabilitato, ebbe il titolo più alto cui una donna potesse aspirare, quello di «Augusta». Fu l'inizio di un'epoca nuova per il cristianesimo: l'imperatore Costantino, dopo la vittoria attribuita alla protezione di Cristo, concesse ai cristiani la libertà di culto. Un ruolo fondamentale ebbe la madre Elena: forse è stata lei a contribuire alla conversione, poco prima di morire, del figlio. Elena testimoniò un grande fervore religioso, compiendo opere di bene e costruendo le celebri basiliche sui luoghi santi. Ritrovò la tomba di Cristo scavata nella roccia e poco dopo la croce del Signore e quelle dei due ladroni. Il ritrovamento della croce, avvenuta nel 326 sotto gli occhi della pia Elena, produsse grande emozione in tutta la cristianità. A queste scoperte seguì la costruzione di molte basiliche. Morì probabilmente intorno al 330. (Avvenire)

Etimologia: Elena = la splendente, fiaccola, dal greco

Martirologio Romano: A Roma sulla via Labicana, santa Elena, madre dell’imperatore Costantino, che si adoperò con singolare impegno nell’assistenza ai poveri; piamente entrava in chiesa mescolandosi alle folle e in un pellegrinaggio a Gerusalemme alla ricerca dei luoghi della Natività, della Passione e della Risurrezione di Cristo onorò il presepe e la croce del Signore costruendo venerande basiliche.

Entrando nella basilica di San Pietro, alla base dei quattro enormi pilastri che sorreggono la cupola di Michelangelo e fanno da corona all’altare della Confessione, sotto il quale c’è la tomba dell’apostolo Pietro, si alzano maestose e magnifiche le statue di sant’Elena, raffigurata con la Croce, sant’Andrea, santa Veronica e san Longino. L’opera è stata realizzata dagli allievi di Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Nell’iconografia orientale sant’Elena è raffigurata spesso insieme al figlio, l’Imperatore Costantino (274-337), ambedue posti ai lati della Croce e tale rappresentazione è dovuta ai due grandi meriti di cui si rivestirono madre e figlio: Elena ritrovò la vera Croce del martirio del Salvatore e Costantino diede libertà di culto ai cristiani, che per trecento anni erano stati perseguitati ed uccisi a causa della Fede.

Il nome di santa Elena (Flavia Iulia Helena) riconduce immaginariamente ad origini prestigiose, perché madre dell’Imperatore, ma la realtà è un’altra. Nacque nel 248 circa a Drepamim, in Bitinia (antica regione, che fu regno autonomo e provincia romana, situata nella parte nord-occidentale dell’Asia Minore, delimitata dalla Propontide, dal Bosforo Tracio e dal Ponto Eusino, oggi Mar Nero), città che prenderà il nome di Elenopoli per volontà di Costantino, in onore della madre. Ella discendeva da umile famiglia, secondo sant’Ambrogio (339-340-397) esercitava l’ufficio di stabularia, ovvero «ragazza addetta alle stalle» e il Vescovo di Milano la definisce anche una bona stabularia, «buona locandiera».
Proprio qui conobbe il romano Costanzo Cloro (250 ca.-306), tribuno militare, che la volle sposare, nonostante lei fosse di grado sociale inferiore.

Il 27 febbraio 274 nella città di Naissus, in Serbia, nacque il figlio Costantino che Elena crebbe con amore e dedizione. Costanzo, essendosi distinto per la sua abilità militare, il 1° marzo 293, a Mediolanum, venne nominato da Massimiano (250 ca.-310) proprio Cesare, una sorta di vice-imperatore per la parte occidentale dell’Impero. Stessa decisione prese Diocleziano (244-311) con Galerio (250 ca.-311), facendo sorgere la tetrarchia, «il governo a quattro». Costanzo, per manovre di potere, ripudiò Elena e si unì in matrimonio a Teodora, figliastra di Massimiano; con queste nozze Costanzo si vide assegnate la Gallia e la Britannia. Con il ritiro di Diocleziano e Massimiano, divenne egli stesso Augusto il 1º maggio del 305, scegliendo come proprio Cesare e successore Flavio Valerio Severo (?-307). Tuttavia, alla sua morte, sopraggiunta l’anno seguente a Eboracum, durante una spedizione contro i Pitti e gli Scoti, le truppe proclamarono Augusto il figlio Costantino, che si pose l’obiettivo di riunificare l’Impero romano sotto il suo potere nel 324. Le spoglie paterne vennero cremate e portate a Treviri: i resti del mausoleo di Costanzo Cloro sono stati presumibilmente identificati nel 2003.

Elena, a causa del ripudio, tornò umilmente nell’ombra, mentre il figlio venne allevato alla corte di Diocleziano. Tuttavia il nascondimento si ruppe allorquando Costantino venne proclamato Imperatore dai suoi soldati nel 306. L’Imperatrice madre andò a risiedere prima a Treviri, poi a Roma e venne accolta con il massimo onore, ricevendo il titolo di Augusta. Costantino la ricoprì di alta dignità, dandole libero accesso al tesoro imperiale e facendo coniare delle monete con il suo nome e la sua effigie. Elena visse nella preghiera e diede prova di grande pietà e carità, moltiplicando le donazioni per l’edificazione e la vita delle chiese. Dei privilegi ricevuti mai ne abusò, anzi se ne servì per beneficiare generosamente persone di ogni ceto e addirittura intere città. Soccorreva i poveri con vesti e denaro, inoltre, grazie alla sua intercessione, salvò numerosi prigionieri condannati al carcere oppure ai lavori forzati o all’esilio.

Fu madre di splendida Fede e quanto abbia influito sul figlio per l’emanazione dell’editto di Milano del 313, che riconosceva libertà di culto al Cristianesimo, non è dato sapere; tuttavia esistono due ipotesi storiografiche: una deriva da sant’Eusebio (283 ca.-371), il quale affermava che Elena fosse stata convertita al Cristianesimo dal figlio, e l’altra da sant’Ambrogio, che sosteneva il contrario. Quest’ultima è la versione maggiormente avvalorata dai fatti, in quanto Costantino ricevette dal Vescovo Eusebio di Nicomedia (?-341) il battesimo nel 337, in punto di morte. 

Elena visse in modo esemplare la sua Fede, nell’attuare le virtù cristiane e nel praticare le buone opere; partecipava con raccoglimento e con devozione alle funzioni religiose e a volte, per confondersi con i fedeli, indossava semplici abiti. Sovente invitava i poveri a pranzo nel suo palazzo, servendoli con le proprie mani.

Mantenne un atteggiamento prudente allorquando si consumò l’oscura tragedia familiare di Costantino, il quale nel 326 fece giustiziare a Pola il figlio Crispo - nato nel 302 circa dalla prima moglie Minervina (?-307 ca.) - su istigazione della matrigna Fausta (289/290-326), sua seconda moglie, che poi fece uccidere. Crispo fu colpito da damnatio memoriae: alcuni storici antichi sostengono che Crispo e Fausta avessero una relazione, ma esiste anche l’ipotesi che Fausta avesse accusato ingiustamente Crispo di averla molestata e in seguito Costantino l’avesse punita per la falsa denuncia... Tutta questa lugubre vicenda ha lasciato una traccia archeologica: nel Duomo di Treviri sono stati rinvenuti i frammenti di un soffitto a cassettoni - i cui riquadri erano stati dipinti con la raffigurazione dei membri della famiglia imperiale - probabilmente eseguito in occasione delle nozze di Crispo nella parte del palazzo a lui destinato. Successivamente il volto del principe fu cancellato. Poco dopo il palazzo venne distrutto e al suo posto, probabilmente per volontà di Elena, fu edificata una chiesa. Forse, proprio per questi foschi episodi, che coinvolgevano il figlio, a 78 anni, nel 326, l’Imperatrice intraprese un pellegrinaggio penitenziale in Terra Santa. Qui si adoperò per la costruzione delle Basiliche della Natività a Betlemme e dell’Ascensione sul Monte degli Ulivi, che Costantino poi ornò splendidamente. Secondo lo storico bizantino Zosimo (seconda metà V secolo), fu in seguito ai rimorsi per la morte del figlio che l’Imperatore si avvicinò ancor più al Cristianesimo.
La tradizione racconta che Elena, salita sul Golgota per purificare il sacro luogo dagli edifici pagani qui fatti costruire dai romani, scoprì la vera Croce di Cristo. E venne eseguita la prova: su di essa fu posto il cadavere di un uomo, il quale resuscitò.
Questo miracolo è stato rappresentato da molti artisti, celebri sono i dipinti nella Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme di Roma e quelli presenti nel famoso ciclo di san Francesco ad Arezzo, firmato da Piero della Francesca (1416/1417 ca.-1492).

Alla santa madre di Costantino è anche attribuito il ritrovamento della Santa Croce e degli strumenti della Passione, i quali sono custoditi e venerati nella Basilica romana di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, che lei fece innalzare dopo l’eccezionale scoperta.
Le sante reliquie sono: parti della Croce di Cristo, il titulus crucis (il cartiglio originario infisso sopra la Croce), la croce di uno dei due ladroni, la spugna imbevuta d’aceto, un chiodo e parte della corona di spine. Gli altri tre chiodi si trovano uno nella Corona Ferrea a Monza, uno sospeso sopra l’altare maggiore del Duomo di Milano e uno, dalla tradizione più dubbia, nel Duomo di Colle di Val d’Elsa in provincia di Siena. Inoltre, nella chiesa di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme si trova la cappella di Sant’Elena, il cui pavimento era stato coperto con terra proveniente dalla Terra Santa. 

Elena morì a circa 80 anni (329 ca.), assistita dal figlio, in un luogo non identificato; il suo corpo fu trasportato a Roma e sepolto sulla via Labicana ai due lauri, oggi Torpignattara, in un sarcofago di porfido, collocato in uno splendido mausoleo a forma circolare con cupola, che si può ammirare - e vale davvero la pena andarvi – presso le Catacombe di Sant’Agnese. Ma esiste anche quest’altra versione della Tradizione: sull’isola di Sant’Elena, vicino a Venezia, venne edificata nel 1028 la prima cappella dedicata alla madre di Costantino e fu affidata agli Agostiniani, che accanto costruirono anche un convento. Nel 1211 giunse a Venezia da Costantinopoli il corpo dell’Imperatrice, grazie al monaco agostiniano Aicardo e venne posto proprio in quella cappella, che, in seguito, gli Agostiniani inglobarono in una chiesa più grande. Nel XV secolo il convento e la chiesa passarono ai monaci Benedettini Olivetani. Sotto la dominazione napoleonica, nel 1810, la chiesa venne sconsacrata e l’urna fu trasportata nella basilica di San Pietro. La chiesa dell’isola di Sant’Elena fu riaperta al culto nel 1928 ed affidata all’Ordine dei Servi di Maria; negli anni successivi l’urna venne riposta nuovamente all’interno dell’edificio sacro. Forse, là dove si attesta come «salma» della santa Imperatrice, si può pensare ad essa come a delle parti del corpo, visto che era uso, nei primi secoli, scomporre le membra dei martiri e dei santi per farne reliquie e soddisfare, in tal modo, la devozione di più fedeli in diversi luoghi.

Fu da subito considerata una santa e quando i pellegrini arrivavano a Roma non omettevano di visitare anche il suo sepolcro, situato tangente al portico d’ingresso della Basilica dei Santi Marcellino e Pietro. L’imponente sarcofago fu trasportato nell’XI secolo al Laterano e oggi è conservato nei Musei Vaticani. Il culto si diffuse largamente in Oriente e in Occidente. Il monaco benedettino Usuardo (?-877 ca.) fu il primo ad inserire il nome di sant’Elena nel suo Martirologio al 18 agosto, la sua opera, molto diffusa nel Medioevo, servì poi di base al Martirologium Romanum, redatto sotto il pontificato di Gregorio XIII (1502-1585).

Nell’841-842 le reliquie sarebbero state trasferite dal monaco Teugiso da Roma all’abbazia di Hatvilliers, presso Reims. Oggi tre chiese si fregiano dell’onore di custodire le reliquie della santa Imperatrice: la basilica dell’Ara Coeli a Roma; l’antica chiesa abbaziale di Hautvilliers e la chiesa di Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles a Parigi, dove  i Cavalieri del Santo Sepolcro avevano stabilito la sede delle loro riunioni.

Sant’Elena viene venerata con culto speciale in Germania, a Colonia, Treviri, Bonn e in Francia ad Elne, che in origine si chiamava Castrum Helenae. È considerata la protettrice dei fabbricanti di chiodi e di aghi ed è invocata da chi cerca gli oggetti smarriti. In Russia si semina il lino nel giorno della sua festa, affinché cresca lungo, si dice, come i suoi capelli.

Autore: Cristina Siccardi




Nell’iconografia, specie orientale, sant’Elena è raffigurata spesso insieme al figlio l’imperatore Costantino e ambedue posti ai lati della Croce. Perché il grande merito di Elena fu il ritrovamento della Vera Croce e di Costantino il merito di aver data libertà di culto ai cristiani, che per trecento anni erano stati perseguitati ed uccisi a causa della loro fede.

Di Elena i dati biografici sono scarsi, nacque verso la metà del III secolo forse a Drepamim in Bitinia, cittadina a cui fu dato il nome di Elenopoli da parte di Costantino, in onore della madre.

Elena discendeva da umile famiglia e secondo s. Ambrogio, esercitava l’ufficio di ‘stabularia’ cioè locandiera con stalla per gli animali e qui conobbe Costanzo Cloro ufficiale romano, che la sposò nonostante lei fosse di grado sociale inferiore, diventando così moglie ‘morganatica’.

Nel 280 ca. a Naisso in Serbia, partorì Costantino che allevò con amore; ma nel 293 il marito Costanzo divenne ‘cesare’ e per ragioni di Stato dovette sposare Teodora, figliastra dell’imperatore Massimiano Erculeo; Elena Flavia fu allontanata dalla corte e umilmente rimase nell’ombra.

Il figlio Costantino venne allevato alla corte di Diocleziano (243-313) per essere educato ad un futuro di prestigio; in virtù del nuovo sistema politico della tetrarchia, nel 305 Costanzo Cloro divenne imperatore e Costantino lo seguì in Britannia nella campagna di guerra contro i Pitti; nel 306 alla morte del padre, acclamato dai soldati ne assunse il titolo e il comando.

Divenuto imperatore, Costantino richiamò presso di sé Elena sua madre, dandole il titolo di ‘Augusta’, la ricoprì di onori, dandole libero accesso al tesoro imperiale, facendo incidere il suo nome e la sua immagine sulle monete.

Di queste prerogative Elena Flavia Augusta ne fece buon uso, beneficò generosamente persone di ogni ceto e intere città, la sua bontà arrivava in soccorso dei poveri con vesti e denaro; fece liberare molti condannati dalle carceri o dalle miniere e anche dall’esilio.

Fu donna di splendida fede e quanto abbia influito sul figlio, nell’emanazione nel 313 dell’editto di Milano che riconosceva libertà di culto al cristianesimo, non ci è dato sapere.

Ci sono due ipotesi storiche, una di Eusebio che affermava che Elena sia stata convertita al cristianesimo dal figlio Costantino e l’altra di s. Ambrogio che affermava il contrario; certamente deve essere stato così, perché Costantino ricevé il battesimo solo in punto di morte nel 337.

Ad ogni modo Elena visse esemplarmente la sua fede, nell’attuare le virtù cristiane e nel praticare le buone opere; partecipava umilmente alle funzioni religiose, a volte mischiandosi in abiti modesti tra la folla dei fedeli; spesso invitava i poveri a pranzo nel suo palazzo, servendoli con le proprie mani.

Tenne un atteggiamento prudente, quando ci fu la tragedia familiare di Costantino, il quale nel 326 fece uccidere il figlio Crispo avuto da Minervina, su istigazione della matrigna Fausta e poi la stessa sua moglie Fausta, sospettata di attentare al suo onore.

E forse proprio per questi foschi episodi che coinvolgevano il figlio Costantino, a 78 anni nel 326, Elena intraprese un pellegrinaggio penitenziale ai Luoghi Santi di Palestina.

Qui si adoperò per la costruzione delle Basiliche della Natività a Betlemme e dell’Ascensione sul Monte degli Ulivi, che Costantino poi ornò splendidamente.

La tradizione narra che Elena, salita sul Golgota per purificare quel sacro luogo dagli edifici pagani fatti costruire dai romani, scoprì la vera Croce di Cristo, perché il cadavere di un uomo messo a giacere su di essa ritornò miracolosamente in vita.

Questo episodio leggendario è stato raffigurato da tanti artisti, ma i più noti sono i dipinti nella Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme di Roma e nel famoso ciclo di S. Francesco ad Arezzo di Piero della Francesca.

Insieme alla Croce furono ritrovati anche tre chiodi, i quali furono donati al figlio Costantino, forgiandone uno nel morso del suo cavallo e un altro incastonato all’interno della famosa Corona Ferrea, conservata nel duomo di Monza.

L’intento di Elena era quello di consigliare al figlio la moderazione ed indicargli che non c’è sovrano terreno che non sia sottoposto a Cristo; inoltre avrebbe indotto Costantino a costruire la Basilica dell’Anastasis, cioè della Resurrezione.

Elena morì a circa 80 anni, assistita dal figlio, verso il 329 in un luogo non identificato; il suo corpo fu però trasportato a Roma e sepolto sulla via Labicana “ai due lauri”, oggi Torpignattara; posto in un sarcofago di porfido, collocato in uno splendido mausoleo a forma circolare con cupola.

Fu da subito considerata una santa e con questo titolo fu conosciuta nei secoli successivi; i pellegrini che arrivavano a Roma non omettevano di visitare anche il sepolcro di s. Elena, situato tangente al portico d’ingresso della Basilica dei Santi Marcellino e Pietro.

Il grandioso sarcofago di porfido fu trasportato nell’XI secolo al Laterano e oggi è conservato nei Musei Vaticani. Il suo culto si diffuse largamente in Oriente e in Occidente, l’agiografo Usuardo per primo ne inserì il nome nel suo ‘Martirologio’ al 18 agosto e da lì passò nel ‘Martirologio Romano’ alla stessa data; in Oriente è venerata il 21 maggio insieme al figlio s. Costantino imperatore.

Gli strumenti della Passione da lei ritrovati, furono custoditi e venerati nella Basilica romana di S. Croce in Gerusalemme, da lei fatta costruire per tale scopo, le sue reliquie hanno avuto una storia a parte, già dopo due anni dalla sepoltura a Roma, il corpo fu trasferito a Costantinopoli e posto nel mausoleo che l’imperatore aveva preparato per sé.

Poi le notizie discordano, una prima tradizione dice che nell’840 il presbitero Teogisio dell’abbazia di Hauvilliers (Reims) trasferì le reliquie in Francia; una seconda tradizione afferma che verso il 1140 papa Innocenzo II le trasferì nella Basilica romana dell’Aracoeli e infine una terza tradizione dice che il canonico Aicardo le portò a Venezia nel 1212.

È probabile che il percorso sia stato Roma - via Labicana, poi Reims e dopo la Rivoluzione Francese le reliquie siano state definitivamente collocate nella Cappella della Confraternita di S. Croce nella chiesa di Saint Leu di Parigi; qualche reliquia deve essere giunta negli altri luoghi dell’Aracoeli a Roma e a Venezia.

S. Elena è venerata con culto speciale anche in Germania, a Colonia, Treviri, Bonn e in Francia ad Elna, che in origine si chiamava “Castrum Helenae”.

Inoltre è considerata la protettrice dei fabbricanti di chiodi e di aghi; è invocata da chi cerca gli oggetti smarriti; in Russia si semina il lino nel giorno della sua festa, affinché cresca lungo come i suoi capelli.

Nel più grande tempio della cristianità, S. Pietro in Vaticano, s. Elena è ricordata con una colossale statua in marmo, posta come quelle di s. Andrea, la Veronica, s. Longino, alla base dei quattro enormi pilastri che sorreggono la cupola di Michelangelo e fanno da corona all’altare della Confessione, sotto il quale c’è la tomba dell’apostolo Pietro.

Autore:
Antonio Borrelli