At some time during the 4th century the Christians of Jerusalem began reverencing a cross which they believed to be the one on which Jesus had died. The discovery of this cross may have happened as early as the 320s, when Bishop Macarius is known to have cleared the area around Golgotha and the Holy Sepulcher. Also in the 320s, the city was visited by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who built the several churches there.1
On the basis of these historical facts, the Church History written by Rufinus in 402 claimed that it was Helena who did the clearing at Golgotha and during excavations found three crosses. At Macarius' suggestion he and Helena took the crosses to a woman who was lying sick and touched each of the crosses to her in turn. At the touch of the third cross "she began to run about all over the house magnifying the power of the Lord" (Head, 85). This verified the identity of the True Cross, and Helena built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the site where the Cross had been found.
The 5th century saw a Greek retelling of the story, soon translated into Latin under the title Vita Cyriaci. The latter is the basis of most western accounts of Helena's sojourn in Jerusalem. In these accounts the historical Macarius disappears and a Jew named Judas is introduced who warns his coreligionists that their faith will be destroyed if Helena finds the cross, because so much of the Christian story is true.
In fact no Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem in the 4th century,2 but Judas' speech is just the first shot in the antisemitic barrage of this story. Helena convenes the Jews and demands that they tell her where the cross is buried on pain of death. Fearing her threats to destroy the entire city, they deliver Judas, who seems to now something. He feigns ignorance and is thrown into a pit for seven days. At last he prays to God to reveal the hiding place "if it is your will for the son of Mary to reign" (si tua voluntas est regnare filium Mariae, Vita Cyriaci, 447). Then a column of smoke reveals the place, Judas digs up three crosses, the True Cross is revealed as in Rufinus, and Judas converts to Christianity. Later he becomes Bishop of Jerusalem under the name Cyriacus.
The story of Helena and Judas appears in a number of media throughout the middle ages. Like the predella panels shown below, images often present in serial format Helena's convening of the Jews, the unearthing of the three crosses, and the resuscitation of the dead man. Examples include the Stavelot Reliquary. There are also single-scene images that celebrate the resuscitation together with the "Exaltation of the Cross," a feast of the universal church occurring on September 14. (See examples from Venice, Rome, and Urbino)
The primary attribute of St. Helena is a standing wooden cross, usually taller than the saint but not quite tall enough to actually hold a crucified man, as in the painting at right. A second attribute is a crown, referring to her status as mother of the Emperor.
A figure resembling Helena is portrayed in two martyrdom paintings in the Franciscan museum in Dubrovnik. In one of them, as St. Lawrence rises to Heaven from the gridiron below he hands his palm of martyrdom to a woman who is seated on a cloud, holding a tall wooden cross and reclining on what appears to be a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This would seem to be Helena, but there is no crown, and Lawrence predeceased the empress by many years.
In the other painting, it is St. George who ascends toward the woman on the cloud. She extends her right hand to his and points up to Heaven with her left. On her left a putto holds a wooden cross. Again, this is a martyr who died before Helena's time, so why would she be at Heaven's gate to welcome him?
These female figures are probably not the Virgin: they do not wear blue, are not crowned, and are not enthroned beside Christ. And it seems a stretch to see them allegorically as the Church, because of their transitional location in the heavens.
NARRATIVE IMAGES FROM A PREDELLA (Thumbnails – click for full image and description)
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
NOTES1 Head 77-79.
2 The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Jerusalem (A.D. 71-1099)," ¶5. Wikipedia s.v. "Aelia Capitolina," Both retrieved 2014-01-07.