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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Helena and the True Cross

However the events of her life played out, Helena has to be one of the more ambivalent and contentious figures from history. Revered as a saint by the Church, she also is implicated in the murder of her daughter-in-law Fausta, the wife of her son Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. Contention seems to have run in this particular family: Constantine himself not only orchestrated the [1]death of his wife at his mother’s instigation, but for good measure also murdered his own son, Crispus.

An alleged fragment of the True Cross mounted as a crucifix and presented as a relic. Such religious relics challenge us to accept their worth at face value or not. When all other means of proving their veracity are lacking, believing in what is claimed for them is a matter of individual faith.
These dark family doings apparently are outweighed in (or perhaps conveniently [2]overlooked by) the eyes of the Church by what Helena accomplished in her later years. Considerably later, as it turns out. Helena was reputed to be eighty years old when she journeyed to the [3]Holy Land, there to found churches on the sites of the Nativity and the sepulchre of the crucifixion. But it was what Helena brought back with her to Constantinople that resonated with an aura of legend. In her baggage was a sizable remnant of the True Cross.

In this 15th-century fresco by Piero della Francesca, Helena (far left) supervises the unearthing of the True Cross from the place of its secret burial in Jerusalem. The sincere intentions of the artist are not in themselves enough to convince us of the incongruous improbability of laying bare the perfectly-intact cross after three centuries of burial in the earth.
We can better understand the full import of the acquiring of this precious wood if we view it from the perspective of Helena’s own time and the centuries which immediately followed. For new churches, the acquisition of a holy relic meant status for an individual church, and such status carried with it an enhanced legitimacy – and additionally acted as a draw card for a potential swelling of that church’s [4]congregation. Inspired by such early examples as Helena’s, the acquiring of holy relics reached its peak in the Middle Ages.

With Helena’s help Constantine ruthlessly disposed of his wife, then having installed his mother in his palace to be his consort in all but name he underscored her status to the populace by having this coin struck in her honor: a state of affairs which we now would view as bizarrely Freudian.
Many churches claimed to possess fragments of the True Cross – enough wood, as it was wonderingly remarked at the time, from which to fashion several houses. Seven churches across the Empire boasted the only genuine skull of Mary Magdalene, and no less than thirteen churches laid claim to possess the tiny (and presumably much desiccated) foreskin of the Saviour. Perhaps there was a sense that things in this direction had gone a bridge too far when one nun insisted upon wearing the bizarre trinket as a fleshy ring on her finger to symbolize her marriage to Christ.

This [5]excess of holy relics seems in the end to have become an embarrassment of riches for these early churches, with a growing common-sense awareness of the impossibility of them all being genuine. But if at least some of these relics, and perhaps even most of them, must have been spurious, could any of them be what was claimed for them? Just how historically likely would it have been for Helena, the apparent initiator of this fevered craze for holy relics, to have both found and possessed a portion of the actual cross upon which Jesus had been crucified? To use the contemporary term: how sure can we be of the provenance of Helena’s prize?

An artistic curiosity fashioned by different hands over time, this statue of the seated Helena was originally carved as a portrait statue of an unknown Roman noblewoman. Some two hundred years later the face was re-carved to transform it into a likeness of Helena.
Helena set foot upon the soil of the Holy Land some three hundred years after the events of the crucifixion. We now view those events as momentous because we see them through the lens of the faith which has grown up around them. But this clearly is not how they would have been perceived at the time. Jesus received the sentence which the occupying Roman authorities reserved for those who were tried for sedition. Such offenders could be made to carry the heavy crossbeams to the place of execution, where the wooden uprights, held fast in the ground by large wedges front and back, awaited them. The wood was then reused for other such executions. There would have been no keeping portions of such crosses as mementos, and no recognition at the time that such keepsakes might have been worth preserving.

The crucifixion of insurrectionist slaves, as portrayed by the artist Fyodor Bronnikov. The tau (‘T’-shaped) cross would have been the most likely form of cross for execution because of the readily-changed crossbeam and the way in which the crossbeam supported the weight of the condemned. Death was mainly caused by slow and prolonged asphyxiation due to pressure on the lungs.
This is history applied with common-sense. Even had followers of Jesus, who would have had reason to regard him as special, requested such a keepsake, would the Roman authorities have allowed them to do so? A man charged with sedition against those very authorities needed to be swiftly forgotten for the sake of civic order, not have his memory and his principles [6]kept alive in the form of such a treasured memento by his followers.

This fanciful painting by Paolo Veronese portrays Helena contemplating a vision of the True Cross, which is here helpfully supported by a winged cherub. Fanciful, because the artist depicts the serene Helena of legend who went to the Holy Land in search of Christian truth, rather than the ruthless Helena of history, who conspired with her son to murder his wife and take her place at his side.
Whatever it was that Helena [7]brought back with her to Constantinople a full three centuries later, it hardly could have been what she claimed for it. Neither will we ever know what the wood actually was. Eager-to-please locals could just as easily have supplied her with a lintel from an old door frame or some such piece of worn building material no longer in use. Or perhaps given her dubious and ruthless past, Helena herself might not have been above knowing that what she brought back with her to Constantinople was not the real deal. Her own status as the mother of the emperor would have served as guarantee for the wood’s shady provenance. But faith – true faith – is not in things. All the relics in all the churches in all the world cannot amount to a truth which is experienced in the heart, and it is there that for many the True Cross may be found.

[1] Fausta (right), the wife and consort of Constantine, apparently was murdered by the bloodless yet gruesomely cruel method of confining her in an overheated bath. Constantine's son Crispus was poisoned.

[2] In its entry on ‘Saint’ Helena, the Catholic Encyclopedia makes no mention whatever of her implication in her daughter-in-law’s murder.

[3] The church historian Eusebius, while writing in detail about the deeds of Helena in Jerusalem, curiously makes no mention of her discovery of the cross, which was said to have been found intact and complete with nails at the site of the Holy Sepulchre.

[4] This marble bust of the principal Roman god Jupiter (left, housed, perhaps ironically, in the collection of the Vatican) would not have been viewed by the Romans as the god himself, any more than statues of the Virgin are by Catholicism. This makes the line between the veneration of statues and holy relics on the one hand, and idolatry on the other, a hazy one, if it exists at all. From a Catholic point-of-view the argument tends to be looked at backwards: that it was assumed that the so-called idols of indigenous and non-Christian cultures were true idols, that these images made by human hands literally were the actual gods. In reality such pagan and indigenous images functioned in the same way as their Church counterparts: as a focus for acts of veneration. The gods themselves remained discreetly invisible, as gods tend to.

[5] The hand of a 16th-century Jesuit missionary (right), severed from his corpse in India and brought to Rome to be lavishly displayed under glass as a holy relic. As the obsession to harvest such relics gathered pace during the Middle Ages, eager pilgrims actually exhumed the corpses of supposed saints and martyrs to be dismembered and distributed as relics, with the trade in such lugubrious remains being practiced on an almost industrial scale. The theft of relics from one church to be exhibited in another, with the returning successful thieves being greeted as heroes, also became common practice. Whether we regard such relics as objects of veneration or the morbid and distastefully ostentatious displaying of human remains is a matter of individual faith.

[6] The story which Helena is said to have encountered while in Jerusalem, that the cross was deliberately buried by Jews to prevent it becoming an object of Gentile veneration, is clearly a historical nonsense. For one thing, the Roman overlords would not have permitted such an act for the reasons explained in this post. The cross, or any cross used for execution purposes, was in this sense Roman property. For another, there was at this time no concept of separation between Jewish and Gentile beliefs among Jesus’ followers, which seems to have been an idea advocated later by Paul.

[7] According to the account, most of the recovered cross was erected in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with Helena taking back smaller pieces to Constantinople and Rome. We must wonder why such a massive sacrilege of faith as carving up the True Cross by Helena for distribution as relics went apparently unquestioned. Again the common-sense answer must be: because Helena knew that it was not what it was purported to be. The cross (or whatever the wood actually was) was removed from the Basilica in a Persian invasion, later to be recovered and returned, only to be broken up still further and widely distributed as individual relics. The last remaining Jerusalem fragment was captured by Saladin (left) during the crusades and defiled by his Muslim forces, after which it disappears from history.

Thomas F. Madden: The New Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman & Littlefield Inc. 2005.

Susan Haskins: Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. Harcourt Brace and Company for Harper Collins, 1993. Chapter IV of this title comprehensively covers the phenomenon of relic collection and acquisition by the early Church. It is perhaps difficult for us now to comprehend the bizarre and often macabre nature of this phenomenon, and the sheer scale on which it was practiced. A variety of objects, individual items, corpses and body parts were exhumed, traded and stolen to supply market demands, with scant attention being given to bona fidé provenance.

Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov: Cursed Field.
Click on the image to view the full-sized version.
True Cross fragment relic in  the collection of the Weltliche Schatzkammer, Vienna. Fresco of the Recovery of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in the Church of San Francesco, Arezzo. Coin of Helena from the Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Helena statue in the Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Nuovo, Rome. The painting Cursed Field: The place of execution in Ancient Rome, painted in 1878 by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov. The painting The Vision of Saint Helena, painted in 1580 by Paolo Veronese.

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