cross and crucifix banner Home Blog Crosses History Articles About Resources

< Constantine | True Cross >

Helena: Finding the True Cross

According to legend, Helena Augustas, mother of Constantine, at the age of 80 travels to the Holy Land and finds the True Cross, the cross upon which Christ was crucified.

The visit takes place around 325, when Constantine initiates the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and informs the bishop to spare no expense. This martyrium encloses what is believed to be the site of the tomb of Christ as well as Golgotha.

Helena visits the Holy Land as a representative of the emperor and to view the places where Christ had lived and died. She becomes interested in locating the True Cross. There are several versions on how the cross is found. In some, Helena has a dreams telling her where the cross is buried. In another tradition, the Ethiopian Coptic tradition still celebrated as Mesquel, she follows smoke from a bonfire to the site.

However, the version that receives the most circulation and became popular in the middle ages, she asks the people of Jerusalem to tell her the location. When the Jewish leaders of the city are silent, she places one of them, a man named Judas, in a well until he agrees to show her the site. After seven days, he prays to God for guidance and reveals the location. Afterwards, Judas converts to Christianity, and takes the name Kyriakis, "he who belongs to the Lord."(1)

Helena finds the three crosses, nails, and title under a pagan temple. To determine which is the right cross, a dead girl is brought to the site. Upon being touched by the True Cross, she is restored to life.

Helena is made a saint for her role in finding the cross. She is also a model for a Christian empress due to her many acts of charity. Part of the trip was to promote good will for her son, especially after he apparently executed his wife and his favorite son, and to redress the wrongs inflicted on Christians by the other emperor, Licinius, who Constantine had recently defeated and killed.

A portion of the cross remained in Jerusalem, where it was exhibited on certain Holy Days. The remainder was divided between Rome and Constantinople. A portion of the title is sent to Rome, where it is hidden and then found again in the 16th century.

There are several legends surrounding the nails. In one, a nail is tossed into an angry sea to provide safe passage for the relics. In another, the nail becomes part of the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. A third has a nail becoming part of Constantine’s helmet and, to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy, formed into a bit for his horse.(2)

Within fifteen years, Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem, announces the wide spread distribution of the True Cross as a relic: "The holy wood of the cross gives witness: it is here to be seen in this very day, and through these who take [pieces] from it in faith, it has from here already filled almost the whole world." (3)

A practice, similar to pagan traditions involving amulets and bulla, developed among Christians to place this relic within crosses, rings, and other containers.(4)

The pilgrim Egeria in the late fourth century writes about viewing the True Cross in the basilica on Good Friday and that each celebrant touched their forehead and then kissed the piece of the cross while held by the bishop. Celebrants were watched closely. Egeria reports that one man had taken a bite out of the cross during this ceremony. The veneration of the cross on Good Friday in Jerusalem spread into Western practices. As the relic received greater distribution, the Veneration of the Cross feasts on September 14 emerged, which involved similar observances.

The first written records of the story of Helena finding the True Cross appear by the end of the fourth century. (5)

< Constantine | True Cross >


  1. Han J.W. Drijvers and Jan Willem Drijvers, The Finding of the True Cross: The Judas Kyriakis Legend in Syriac (Lovanii, 1997) [Return]
  2. Stephan Borgehammar, How the Holy Cross Was Found, From Event to Medieval Legend (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1991) 79. The prophecy is from Zachariah 14:20, "That which is on the bit will be sacred to the Lord." Later translations use the word bell instead of bit. [Return]
  3. Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992) 82. Cyril believed in the cross as proof of the incarnation of God. Louis Van Tongeren, Exaltation of the Cross: Toward the Origins of the Feast of the Cross and the Meaning of the Cross in Early Medieval Liturgy (Leuven: Peeters, 2000) 21, writes that the distribution may have been an exaggeration. He quotes Andre of Crete in the 7th century as saying that the cross was just recently uncovered and "now everywhere worshipped." [Return]
  4. Drijvers, pp. 90-91, relates the eulogy by Gregory of Nyssa for his sister in 379. She wore an iron cross and an iron ring, which contained a fragment of the true cross. These were worn on a chain close to her heart. John Chrysostom (347-407), bishop of Constantinople, writes that "both men and women had relics of the cross enclosed in gold and wore them around the neck." [Return]
  5. Drijvers, 96-99, Galerius of Caesaria, Historia Ecclesiastica, in the 390s is considered to be the original written source for the legends. The book has been lost but fragments were reconstructed in the 19th century. Drijvers writes that the source of the tale was based on what pilgrims to Jerusalem were told at the time. [Return]

 Trial of the True Cross
Trial of the True Cross, one of the woodcuts reproduced from a 1483 Dutch book by John Ashton, The Legendary History of the Cross, 1887. The True Cross brings the woman back to life.

 Holy card with Helena and cross
St. Helena, Spanish Holy Card, c. 20th century. Helena is shown here with her attribute, a large cross. She is usually shown as a young woman with a crown. She was either already a Christian or converted to Christianity after her son’s victory at Milvian Bridge. In St. Peter's in Rome, a reliquary niche near the statue of Helena contains a portion of the True Cross.

A Prayer Before Mesquel:
A Celebration of the Finding of the True Cross

In the name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit
Do not forget the quiet and peaceful house of God
Do not be fooled by the bright and shining lights of the world
Come to the house of God
And find the inner peace you have been looking for.

The hymn is sung during passion week and is from Richard Marsh, Black Angels:The Art and Spirituality of Ethiopia (Oxford, 1998) p 48. Torches as well as bonfires are lit to mark the celebration.
Back to top

Home Blog Crosses History Articles About Resources
Copyright © David Stiver 2005-2011