IMC 2004: Sessions

Session 703: The Legend and Cult of St Helena, I

Tuesday 13 July 2004, 14.15-15.45

Organisers:Hans A. Pohlsander, Department of Classics & Religious Studies, State University of New York, Albany
Sherry L. Reames, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Moderator/Chair:Karin E. Olsen, Afdeling Engelse Taal en Cultuur, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Paper 703-aHelena, Heraclius, and the True Cross
(Language: English)
Hans A. Pohlsander, Department of Classics & Religious Studies, State University of New York, Albany
Index terms: Hagiography
Paper 703-bCubiculum und Cubile: Räume Helenas in Rom und Trier
(Language: Deutsch)
Michael Friedrich, Independent Scholar, Trier
Index terms: Hagiography
Paper 703-cThe Holy Nails and the Helena Tradition
(Language: English)
Cynthia Wittman Zollinger, Department of English, Providence College, Rhode Island
Index terms: Hagiography

Abstract Paper -a:
St. Helena was born c. 250 and died c.330, while the emperor Heraclius came to power in 610 and died in 641. These two personalities are thus separated from each other by three centuries, and yet they are closely connected with each other in the traditions of medieval western Europe. Both are historical figures, but both are celebrated more for the legends surrounding them than for their
historical roles. Of Helena we know that she resided for a time in Trier and in Rome, that she was highly esteemed by her son, the emperor Constantine, and that she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; but, above all, she was credited with the inventio of the True Cross. Heraclius founded a new dynasty in Byzantium, waged war successfully against Sassanian Persia, and saved the Byzantine empire from collapse. That he returned the True Cross to Jerusalem is accepted as a historical fact by most historians, but the legend surrounding this event has attracted the most attention.
It is the True Cross, then, which constitutes the thematic link across the centuries. And such a link may be observed in liturgy, literature, and art. Thus the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is observed in both East and West on 14 September and commemorates both the Invention of the Cross and its recovery from the Persians and return to Jerusalem. Homily 70 of Hrabanus Maurus briefly mentions the inventio and verificatio of the Cross by Helena, and then tells at length of the loss of the Cross to the Persians and its recovery by Heraclius.
The famous Legenda Aurea of Iacobus de Voragine in the 13th century has chapters both on the Invention and on the Exaltation of the Cross. The Augsburger Heiligkreuz- spiel, one of the miracle plays popular in the Late Middle Ages, tells of Constantine and Helena in the first part, while the second part deals exclusively with Heraclius.
Two medieval works of art which depict both Helena and Heraclius shall be mentioned here: the cycle of frescoes created by Agnolo Gaddi in the Alberti-Alamanni chapel of Florence’s Church of S. Croce (c. 1380) and the cycle of frescoes created by Piero della Francesca in the Church of S. Francesco in Arezzo (1466). Post-medieval examples are fairly numerous, giving evidence of the strength of the legend.
And there are two painted altars in which all regard for historicity is set aside and Helena and Heraclius are seen side by side in the same narrative composition, as if they were contemporaries and collaborators. One is an altar by Miguel Ximénez and Martin Bernat in the Museum of Fine Arts in Zaragoza. The other is in a church in Bártfa in eastern Slovakia. In both cases Helena joins Heraclius as he carries the Cross to Jerusalem. Other examples of such a historical composition can be given. Art was not meant to provide historical documentation, but to convey an idea, in this case the salvific power of the Cross.

Abstract Paper -b:
Als Basilica Heleniana wird die römische Kirche S. Croce in Gerusalemme bereits in Quellen des 6. Jahrhunderts mit der historischen Person Helenas in Verbindung gebracht. Parallel dazu ist seit dem 5. Jahrhundert der Name Hierusalem belegt. Beide Traditionen verlagern sich im Verlauf einer bis heute nicht näher untersuchten Entwicklung auf die hinter der Apsis der Kirche gelegene Kapelle Hierusalem: Spätestens seit der Mitte des 14. Jahrhunderts gilt sie als Gründung Helenas in ihrem eigenen cubiculum und spirituelle Jerusalem-Kopie in Rom. Auch in der Gründungstradition der Trierer Bischofskirche spielen domus und cubile der Kaiserin spätestens
seit der Mitte des 9. Jahrhunderts eine große Rolle und regen zu einer neuen Lesart der Eingangspassage in der Helenavita Altmans von Hautvillers an.