The Empress Helena and her search for the True Cross.
This story was first recounted in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth century manuscript describing the lives of the saints. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, followed her son’s example and in AD312 adopted the Christian Faith. As an elderly woman she travelled with her royal entourage across the Middle East and visited Jerusalem and a number of other holy sites. When in Jerusalem she met an old man named Judas who claimed to know the exact site where Jesus Christ was crucified and where the cross once stood. Helena questioned him intently, paid him small amount money in the form of silver coins and tasked her servants to investigate the site that the old man had described.
Some workmen were hired and an excavation on the site of the Crucifixion revealed three crosses, buried flat in the soil not far below the surface. Helena decided that the remains of the crosses should be tested and prayed asking for a sign from God. A dead boy from a village near Jerusalem was placed upon each cross. When laid on the first two nothing happened, but when the boy’s body was laid upon the third cross he was miraculously brought back to life, proving that this indeed was the true cross. Helena wanted to take the cross back to Rome in order that her son could view it and administer its powers. Before she had the opportunity to arrange any of this, a war broke out with the King of Persia, Chosroes II.
During one of his early campaigns against Jerusalem he stole the cross and took it to Persia. After this Helena returned to Rome where she lived out her latter years as a nun serving the poor and tending to the sick. It is said she died of a broken heart, brought about by the thought of the cross of Christ falling into the hands of non-believers. She felt that she was responsible for this “abomination”.
However in AD629 the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius recovered the cross and brought it back to Jerusalem. He was about to make his triumphant and flamboyant entry into the city when the main gateway crumbled and fell down in front of him and his army. The gate to the city was blocked by rubble and dust and in the midst of the turmoil and angel appeared to Heraclius. The angel reminded him that Jesus was humble and that he would have ridden through the gateway on an ass and without any regal or military splendour. Heraclius took the warning to heart and so barefoot and without any insignia he carried the cross towards the gate. As he approached it, the gate opened and the rubble cleared before him as he entered the city.
From this point on the fate of the cross passes into the grey mist of history and no more is known of it nor are any further details recorded.
Some relevant pieces by Adam Elsheimer:
The Exaltation of the Cross.
The Embarkation of the Empress Helena.
The Questioning of Judas.
The Digging for the Cross.
The Testing of the Cross.
Heraclius on Horseback with the Cross.
Emperor Heraclius’ Entry into Jerusalem.