medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
The wife of one king of Serbia (St. Stefan Uroš I, r. 1243-1276) and the mother of two others (St. Stefan Dragutin, r. 1276-1282; St. Stefan Uroš II Milutin, r. 1282-1321), Helen of Anjou (in Serbian, Jelena Anžujska) was a Latin Christian who importantly promoted organized religion throughout a nation that though partly Roman in religion was majority Serbian Orthodox. According to her contemporary hagiographer the Serbian Orthodox archbishop St. Danilo II, Helen was a nobly born Frenchwoman. Her exact parentage is unknown. Her modern appellation "of Anjou" is down to her contemporaries Charles I and Charles II of Sicily having referred to her in letters and documents as a relative by extraction (_consanguinea_, _cognata_). The most recent suggestion of note makes her the daughter of an Hungarian nobleman and of his wife, a member of the Angevin-connected family of Courtenay and thus also a relative of the Latin emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II (d. 1273).
Helen married Stefan Uroš I in about 1245, when he was already king. In his rhetorically effective Life of Helen transmitted in the collection known as the _Lives of the Serbian Kings and Archbishops_ Danilo presents her as a pious woman who shortly after the death of her husband suffered a severe illness and who, prompted by this reminder of her own mortality, turned to a life of charity and prayer, encouraged her sons Stefan Dragutin and Stefan Uroš II Milutin to perform acts of charity, gave generously to the poor, founded monasteries, and provided for the support of the clergy.
Under her sons Helen had the rule of Zeta (essentially today's Montenegro plus the area of today's Albania around Shkodër / Shkodra), an officially Roman-rite part of the kingdom with a Latin bishop at Kotor and a Latin archbishop at Bar. Danilo praises her governance there and we know that she built the monastery church of St. Nicholas at Shkodër, where she spent most of her final years as a nun. Elsewhere in Serbia Helen founded the country's first school for girls at her residence at Brnjaci in today's Zubin Potok in Kosovo, founded the monastery of Gradac, and participated with her sons in other foundations and acts of support for the Serbian Orthodox Church. Helen died in 1314. Some place her death at Shkodër; according to Danilo she was at Brnjaci when she succumbed to her final illness, surrounded by leading nobles and Orthodox clergy of the kingdom.
Helen was buried at Gradac, where three years later she received a formal Elevatio. Like her husband and her two kingly sons (not to mention others of their Nemanjić dynasty), she is a saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Like them, she has yet to grace the pages of the Roman Martyrology. Danilo's Life of her may be read in an annotated German-language translation in Stanislaus Hafner, tr., _Serbisches Mittelalter: Altserbische Herrscherbiografien (Graz: Styria, 1962-1976), vol. 2, pp. 99-144 (plus notes on pp. 290-297 and important contextual matter in Hafner's introduction).
Some period-pertinent images of St. Helen of Anjou:
a) as depicted as a nun (at right; at left, St. Stefan I; at center, St. Stefan Uroš I) by Michael Astrapas in the late thirteenth-century frescoes (1296) in the church of St. Achilles / Achillius of Larissa at Arilje (Zlatibor dist.) in central Serbia, a foundation of king Dragutin:
b) as depicted as a nun (at left; at right, St. Stefan Uroš I) in an earlier fourteenth-century fresco (betw. ca. 1319 and 1321/1322) in the narthex of the monastery church of the Theotokos at Gračanica in, depending on one's view of the matter, Serbia's province of Kosovo and Metohija or the Republic of Kosovo:
Detail view (Helen):
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