Today is the feast day of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine and the discoverer of the True Cross. Saint Ambrose called Helena a bona stabularia, a good stablemaid, in line with the tradition that she had humble origins. Another legend tells us that on her meeting with the Emperor Constantius, her husband-to-be recognised her as his soulmate because the two wore identical silver bracelets. The English, who really do colonise everything, claimed her as the daughter of King Coel – who was not, sadly, the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme. In fact, Saint Helena was born in what is now Turkey.
Empress Helena discovered the True Cross whilst on pilgrimage to the Holy Land; she was known for her piety and charity and is credited with influencing her son Constantinople in his conversion. Many of the relics of Christ’s Passion – the Titulus Crucis, two thorns of the Crown of Thorns; part of a nail; and three small wooden pieces of the True Cross – are revered at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, while a larger piece of the Cross is kept in Saint Peter’s, near the ‘boring’ statue of the saint by Andrea Bolgi. Here’s a beautiful painting instead: