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Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

By David Hendin for CoinWeek …..
Some years ago, on a visit to Rome, my wife and I searched out the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. My guidebook said it was “One of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome, it is said to have been built to house the precious relics of the True Cross brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.”

The book added that “St. Helena founded this church … on the grounds of her private palace. Although the church stood at the edge of the city, the relics of the Crucifixion that St. Helena had brought back from Jerusalem made it a center of pilgrimage. Most important were the pieces of Christ’s Cross (croce means “cross”) and part of Pontius Pilate’s inscription in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek: ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.’”

When we entered Santa Croce, we were the only visitors. We walked up to the altar and around the chapel. We did not see any relics, so we poked into the smaller side rooms. The relics were displayed in a small room behind the main altar. Here we saw St. Helena’s relics: three pieces of wood set in a larger cross said to be actual pieces of the True Cross. Two thorns said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns are mounted and stand alongside it, as does a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, we saw the Titulus Crucis, a piece of wood said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate reportedly erected over Jesus at the time he was crucified.

Helena, the First Christian Pilgrim

Whether or not they are authentic relics, I cannot say. I note, however, that they are said to have been acquired by Helena in Jerusalem more than 300 years after the crucifixion. At any rate, seeing them was a fascinating experience.

It led me to think about the importance of Helena, later revered as St. Helena, to Christianity and to the ancient land of Israel. She was in fact an early, royal explorer, who sought out the relics of the True Cross, long before the Crusaders existed.

Helena’s story runs from “rags to riches”. Historians believe that Helena was born in about 249 CE in the town of Drepanum in Bythnia, which the Roman emperor Constantine later renamed Helenopolis. St. Ambrose referred to her as an inn-keeper; others say she was a simple barmaid in her father’s tavern. Eventually, she attracted the attention of a Roman soldier named Constantius Chlorus and she became either his longtime mistress or his wife. In either case, there is no doubt that together they bore a son, Constantine.

In 292, when Constantius became Caesar of Spain, Gaul, and Britain, he dumped Helena and married Theodora, the daughter of his patron Maximian.

Meanwhile, Helena’s son Constantine became a soldier and spent a lot of time at Diocletian’s court. When Constantine persuaded the Roman legions in Britain to proclaim him Caesar in 306, he immediately called for his mother and installed her in his court with the appropriate honors befitting the mother of the Emperor.

In 312 CE, the most significant event of Constantine’s reign occurred. While preparing for a battle with the army of his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, he reported seeing a cross in the sky with the inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“In this sign you will conquer”). He immediately ordered his troops to paint the monogram of Jesus, the labarum, on their shields, and this extra strength is said to have enabled their victory, which gave Constantine control of the West as well as the East. After becoming the sole emperor, Constantine vowed to make the Roman Empire a Christian nation.

In 324, Constantine named his mother Helena as “Augusta”, a title that was established by the first emperor Augustus for his wife Livia but was not granted to every empress, much less every royal mother.

In 325 CE, the Council of Nicea met and Constantine declared Christianity to be the nation’s official religion. It is not clear whether Constantine himself actually ever became a Christian. His mother was not only converted but was so excited by her spiritual experience that it enticed her to make a pilgrimage, circa 326, to Judea, where she could visit all of the sites that were important in the life of Jesus. She was in her late 70s at the time she embarked. Helena’s pilgrimage was the prototype for the travels of virtually every Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land for some 1,700 years, right up to today.

Until Helena’s visit, nobody outside of the Christians in the holy land itself had paid much attention to the sites in Judea. This was a time, by the way, when the Jews who lived here maintained important academies at Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Lydda (Lod).

The Jews were in the final stages of developing the Talmud itself. When I was the chief numismatist with the Joint Sepphoris Expedition in 1985 and 1986, led by Duke University’s Eric and Carol Meyers and Hebrew University’s Ehud Netzer, we discovered–and many more were subsequently discovered– some remarkable mosaic floors that indicated that the city was extremely wealthy at the time Helena arrived in the country. In fact, we dated some of these mosaics by small groups of Constantinian coins lying on top of and just under them.

While there is no doubt that the local traditions held some, or perhaps many of the sites Helena visited as holy shrines, it did not hurt that the mother of the emperor of Christian Rome further declared the sites to be true.

And indeed, Helena was said to have:

  • Proclaimed the actual path Jesus took on his way to the cross, the Via Dolorosa, and declared the precise spots of all of the 14 Stations of the Cross;
  • Found at least several pieces of the true cross itself;
  • Identified the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, upon which Constantine built a church at the foundations of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
Helena-Augusta. AD 324-328. 30 Follis. 18.5mm, 3.40g. Nicomedia mint.
  • Identified the spot near the Sea of Galilee where the miracle of fish and loaves occurred;
  • Confirmed the place where Jesus stood when he gave his Sermon on the Mount;
  • Marked the place of the Annunciation, where Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus;
  • And she also identified places where Joseph’s carpentry shop stood, where Jesus was born, the field in which the shepherds saw the Bethlehem Star, and the inn of the Good Samaritan.

The story of Helena’s pilgrimage is certainly not fantasy. In his Life of Constantine (c. 340 CE), Eusebius wrote (only about 10 years after her death) that Helena lavished good deeds on the Holy Land, and “Although well advanced in years, she came, fired by youthful fervor, in order to know this land” and she “explored it with remarkable discernment …And by her endless admiration for the footsteps of the Savior … she granted those who came after her the fruits of her piety. Afterward, she built two houses of prayer to the God she revered, one in the Grotto of the Nativity (this is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) and the other on the Mount of the Ascension (this is the Eleona Church on the Mount of Olives).”

It is a matter of some interest that while Helena’s important pilgrimage is well-documented, not a single numismatic memento of these events was issued. So, the coins of Helena can only offer us only a glimpse of the appearance of this important woman of antiquity.

Copyright © 2021 by David Hendin

Parts of some CoinWeek articles may be adapted from my previous articles or my Guide to Biblical Coins.

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David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at [email protected] and he will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.


David Hendin
David Hendin
David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at [email protected].

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