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FEAST - A Saint for the Day (August 18): St. Helen, empress


John Dillon <[log in to unmask]>


medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>


Thu, 18 Aug 2016 07:01:31 +0000





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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

In the Roman Martyrology 18. August is the day of commemoration of St. Helen, empress. In churches that use the Byzantine Rite, in the Armenian Orthodox Church, and in churches of the Anglican Communion she is commemorated on 21. May together with her son St. Constantine the Great.

Herewith a few earlier fourth-century images of Flavia Iulia Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine I, followed by some more period-pertinent images of St. Helen, empress (in her case the title is an honorific; she never actually ruled). It is not known when she converted to Christianity, or when she was baptized, or by whom. In 327 Helen made a trip to the Holy Land whose religious aspects are covered in some detail by Eusebius. Eusebius' silence about the discovery of the True Cross, first attributed to Helen in the later fourth century, permits the conclusion that she had nothing to do with the appearance of this potent relic. When viewing representations of the Finding of the True Cross in its various aspects it may be helpful to recall that Jacopo da Varazze's chapter thereon in his widely read _Legenda aurea_ provides two initially late antique versions of the Testing of the Three Crosses, one in which the True Cross is identified when it restores a dead youth to life and another in which such contact revivifies a woman already half dead.

a) as portrayed (probably) in the earlier fourth-century bust of an originally second-century statue in Rome's Musei Capitolini:
Detail view (bust):

b) as portrayed in relief (at left) on Roman imperial coinage during her lifetime:
1) a bronze follis (318/319) struck at Thessaloniki: http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/helena/_thessalonica_RIC_048.jpg
2) a gold solidus (318/319) struck at Thessaloniki: http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/ric/helena/_thessalonica_RIC_149.jpg
3) a fourth-century bronze follis (325/326) struck at Trier: http://tinyurl.com/obav9yr

c) as depicted (upper left; at the Finding of the True Cross) in an earlier ninth-century compendium of canon law (ca. 825; Vercelli, Biblioteca capitolare, ms. CLXV):

d) as depicted (bottom register, twice: enthroned and at the Finding of the True Cross) in a later ninth-century copy (between 879 and 882) of the _Orationes_ of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Paris, BnF, ms. Grec 510, fol. 440r):
The marginalium at right reads: _euresis tou timiou staurou_ ["finding of the Holy Cross"].

e) as portrayed in relief (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) in the probably tenth-century Byzantine inner portion of a silver gilt reliquary box for a piece of the Holy Cross (staurotheke / staurotheca) in the Tesoro delle Sante Croci in the duomo vecchio of Brescia:
Detail view (Helen):

f) as portrayed in low relief (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) on an eleventh-century silver gilt reliquary box (staurotheca) of Byzantine inspiration but seemingly of Western origin, reportedly in the collections of the Musée du Louvre in Paris:
The object disassembled:
g) as depicted (at left; at right, St. Constantine the Great) in the eleventh-century frescoes of the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church; Church of the Serpent) at Göreme in Turkey's Nevşehir province:

h) as depicted (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) in the earlier eleventh-century mosaics (restored between 1953 and 1962) in the narthex of the church of the Theotokos in the monastery of Hosios Loukas near Distomo in Phokis:

i) as portrayed in high relief (at right, lower register and to the right of the cross; to the left of that cross, St. Constantine the Great) on a seemingly late eleventh- or early twelfth-century silver gilt reliquary box of Constantinopolitan origin for a piece of the Holy Cross (staurotheke / staurotheca), in Russia since at least the fifteenth century and now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (zoomable image):

j) as depicted in a twelfth-century fresco in Milan's basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore:

k) as portrayed in low relief (at right or nearly at right; in True Cross scenes) in the three silver gilt and enamel roundels of the opened right wing of the mid-twelfth-century Stavelot Triptych (betw. 1156 and 1158) in the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum in New York (zoomable image; read up from bottom):
The triptychs in the central portion of this object date from the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Helen is also portrayed in the lower of these (at right in the bottom register; at left, St. Constantine the Great).

l) as depicted in four later twelfth-century enamel plaques of Mosan origin (ca. 1160-1170; from a processional cross) in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin:
1) threatening Jerusalem's Jews with fire:
2) at the Finding of the Three Crosses:
3) at the Finding of the True Cross:
4) prostrate before the now erected True Cross:
5) the plaques on display in Berlin:

m) as portrayed on an engraved copper shutter of the late twelfth-century Holy Cross triptych (shortly after 1180) in the Basiliek van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw in Tongeren:
The triptych viewed from a greater distance:

n) as depicted (at far right) as depicted in an uncovered late twelfth-century fresco (1190/1191) above the entrance to the Confessio in the Basilika Sankt Gereon in Köln:
That is neither a large morel nor an incense burner that Helen is holding in her right hand. Rather, it's the Basilika Sankt Gereon in its earliest known depiction, showing only the Dekagon (the church's great polygonal nave, completed in 1227).

o) as depicted (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) in the late twelfth-century frescoes (ca. 1191) of the church of St. George at Kurbinovo (Resen municipality) in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia:

p) as portrayed in high relief (at left) on a jamb of the late twelfth-century portal (ca. 1199-1200) of the basilique Saint-Just in Valcabrère (Haute-Garonne):
Detail view:

q) as depicted (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) in the late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century frescoes of the Palaia Enkleistra ("Old Hermitage") in the St. Neophytus monastery at Tala near Paphos in the Republic of Cyprus:

r) as depicted in the three best preserved of six thirteenth-century frescoes in the north aisle of the rupestrian chiesa / cripta di Santa Croce ai Lagnoni in Andria (BT) in Apulia:
1) arriving at Jerusalem:
2) interrogating Judas Cyriacus after his placing in the well:
3) at the Finding of the True Cross:
The panels _in situ_:

s) as depicted (at right; at left, Judas Cyriacus) in a mid-thirteenth-century Cistercian antiphoner from the abbey of St. Urban in Pfaffnau (Luzern, Zentral- und Hochschulbibliothek, ms. P 15 fol., fol. 40r):

t) as depicted in two of the mid-thirteenth-century frescoes (ca. 1250) of the oratorio di San Silvestro in Rome's basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati:
1) fourth from left; at the Finding of the Three Crosses:
2) third from right; behind learned Jews whom at Constantine's bidding she had brought to Rome to dispute with pope St. Sylvester (at left, the disputation's Miracle of the Bull):

u) as depicted (second from left, after a partly preserved St. Constantine the Great) in the later thirteenth-century frescoes (1259) in the church of Sts. Nicholas and Panteleimon at Boyana near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia:

v) as depicted (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) in a fresco of ca. 1300 in the nave of the church of the Holy Apostles in the Patriarchate of Peć at Peć in, depending upon one's view of the matter, either Serbia's province of Kosovo and Metohija or the Republic of Kosovo:
Detail view (Helen):

w) as thrice depicted in earlier fourteenth-century frescoes (betw. ca. 1301 and 1350) in the capilla de Santa Elena in the basílica metropolitana y primada de Santa María in Tarragona:
1) at right, a full-length portrait:
Detail view:
2) in two scenes (at right in the upper panel, ordering the placing of Judas Cyriacus in a dry well in order to induce him to reveal the hiding place of the Cross; at left in the lower panel, at the Finding of the Three Crosses):
A clearer view of the upper panel:

x) as depicted (at right; at left, a bit of St. Constantine the Great) in the earlier fourteenth-century frescoes (betw. ca. 1312 and 1321/1322) of the monastery church of the Theotokos at Gračanica in, depending on one's view of the matter, either Serbia's province of Kosovo and Metohija or the Republic of Kosovo:
Detail view (Helen):

y) as twice depicted in an earlier fourteenth-century copy of Vincent of Beauvais' _Speculum historiale_ in its French-language translation by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1335; Paris, BnF, ms. Arsenal 5080):
1) seeking information in Jerusalem (at left; at right, Judas Cyriacus; fol. 316r):
2) at the Finding of the Three Crosses (at left; fol. 317r):

z) as depicted (in this detail view, upper register at right, next to Constantine; at pope St. Sylvester's disputation with the Jews and its Miracle of the Bull) by Maso di Banco in one of his earlier fourteenth-century frescoes (ca. 1335) in Florence's basilica di Santa Croce illustrating the Sylvester legend:

aa) as depicted in the mid-fourteenth-century frescoes (1340s) of the monastery church of St. Michael the Archangel at Lesnovo (Probištip municipality) in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia:
Detail view:

bb) as depicted (illumination in the left-hand column; at the Finding of the Three Crosses) in the mid- to later fourteenth-century Breviary of Charles V (betw. 1347 and 1380; Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 1052, fol. 369r):

cc) as depicted (at the Finding of the Three Crosses [only two showing]) in a later fourteenth-century copy (ca. 1370-1380) of Vincent of Beauvais' _Speculum historiale_ in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (Paris, BnF, ms. Nouvelle acquisition française 15939-15942, at 15942 [bks. 14-16], fol. 26v):

dd) as depicted (at right, praying before the Cross; at left, also praying, a female figure in Dominican habit) by Simone di Filippo / Simone dei Crocifissi in a later fourteenth-century panel painting (ca. 1375-1380) in the Pinacoteca nazionale in Bologna:

ee) as depicted in two panels by Agnolo Gaddi and workshop in their later fourteenth-century fresco cycle on the True Cross (ca. 1380; alternate starting dates: ca. 1385, ca. 1388) in the principal chapel of the basilica di Santa Croce in Florence:
1) in red, nimbed, in two scenes at the Finding: at right, the Finding of the Three Crosses; at left, the cure of a dying woman during the Testing of the Three Crosses):
Detail view (the Finding of the Three Crosses):
2) nimbed, in a detail of the scene of her entry into Jerusalem with the True Cross:
NB: Image 2 postdates the restoration campaign of 2005-2011.

ff) as depicted (upper register, left of center; at the Finding of the True Cross) by Giovanni di Benedetto and workshop in a late fourteenth-century Franciscan missal of Milanese origin (ca. 1385-1390; Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 757, fol. 355r):

gg) as depicted in a fifteenth-century fresco in the apse of the church of Sv. Jelena in Oprtalj (Centralna Istra) in Croatia:

hh) as depicted (left-hand column; at the Finding of the True Cross) in the early fifteenth-century Hours of René of Anjou (ca. 1405-1410; London, BL, Egerton MS 1070, fol. 91v; image zoomable):

ii) as depicted (third from at left in the lowest register above the angel and at left in next peopled register above that; the Finding of the Three Crosses and then the Testing of the Three Crosses) in the early fifteenth-century Holy Cross window (a.k.a. Helena window; Fenster nord VIII; ca. 1410-1416/1420) in the Dom Beatae Mariae Virginis -- for most of its existence not a cathedral -- in Erfurt:
Detail view (the Testing of the Three Crosses, with "before and after" depictions of both the young man and the woman):

jj) as depicted (at center; at a conflation of the Finding of the Three Crosses and the Testing of the Three Crosses) as depicted by the Master of Laufen in an earlier fifteenth-century panel painting (ca. 1440-1445) in the Universalmuseum Joanneum in Graz:

kk) as depicted (touching the cross at center in the scene at right: the Finding of the True Cross) by Piero della Francesca in a mid-fifteenth century fresco (betw. ca. 1440 and 1462) in the choir of the basilica di San Francesco in Arezzo:
Detail view (Helen):

ll) as depicted in two illuminated initials in the mid-fifteenth-century Prayer Book for Barbara von Cilly (1448; Vienna, ÖNB, cod. 1767, fols. 139v, 271r):
1) identifying the True Cross through its resuscitation of a dead person in the Testing of the Three Crosses:
2) standing with the Cross in a windowed interior:

mm) as depicted (at far right, facing Constantine at far left; at pope St. Sylvester's Miracle of the Bull) by Francesco Pesellino (attrib.) in a mid-fifteenth-century predella panel (before 1458) in the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA:

nn) as depicted (at right; at left, St. Constantine the Great) by Menas of the Marathasa valley in the later fifteenth-century frescoes (1474) in the church of Archangelos Michael in Pedoulas (Nicosia prefecture) in the Republic of Cyprus:

oo) as depicted (second from right; blessing the youth restored to life by the Holy Cross during the Testing of the Three Crosses) in a later fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century panel painting (variously dated to ca. 1475-1485 and to ca. 1500) from a winged altarpiece and now in Vienna in the Schatzkammer des Deutschen Ordens:

pp) as portrayed in relief (at left; at right, Jews) on a boss from the original, later fifteenth-century choir vaulting (ca. 1480) in the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart, now mounted in that building's south wall:

qq) as depicted (at the Finding of the Three Crosses) in a late fifteenth-century copy of the _Legenda aurea_ in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1480-1490; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 244, fol. 146r):

rr) as depicted (at left; at the Testing of the Three Crosses) by Ulrich Mair in a painting on one of the wings of his late fifteenth-century Dreifaltigkeitsaltar (Altarpiece of the Trinity; 1482) in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt:

ss) as depicted by Miguel Ximénez and workshop in panels of his and Martín Bernad's late fifteenth-century altarpiece of the Holy Cross (completed, 1487) for the parish church of Blesa (Teruel) and now, after dismemberment, mostly in the Museo de Zaragoza:
1) enthroned among the Jews of Jerusalem: http://tinyurl.com/qj9qmlm
2) being told where the Cross had been buried: http://tinyurl.com/om5ws4u
3) entering Jerusalem with the emperor Heraclius: http://tinyurl.com/nr3qnlm
4) praying, together with Heraclius, before the newly erected Cross: http://tinyurl.com/puub5xc

tt) as portrayed in relief in the central panel of the late fifteenth-century Finding of the Cross altarpiece (ca. 1490) in the Liebfrauenmünster in Wolframs-Eschenbach (Lkr. Ansbach) in Bavaria:
Detail view:

uu) as depicted in an initial "C" in a cutting from a late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century antiphoner of north Italian origin in the British Library (ca. 1490-1510; London, BL, MS Add 18197, fols. D, G and I, fol. G):

vv) as depicted (left margin at top) in a hand-colored woodcut in the Beloit College copy of Hartmann Schedel's late fifteenth-century _Weltchronik_ (_Nuremberg Chronicle_; 1493) at fol. CXXXv:

ww) as depicted by Cima da Conegliano in a late fifteenth-century panel painting (ca. 1495) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington:

xx) as depicted in an early sixteenth-century window in Aosta's cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta e San Giovanni Battista:

yy) as depicted (at left) by the painter Dionisy and his sons in an early sixteenth-century fresco (1502) in the Virgin Nativity cathedral of the St. Ferapont Belozero (Ferapontov Belozersky) Monastery at Ferapontovo in Russia's Vologda oblast:

zz) as portrayed in three parts of the early sixteenth-century principal altar (1502) of the Filialkirche Hll. Helena und Maria Magdalena in Magdalensberg (Land Kärnten):
1) the polychromed wood central statue:
Detail views:
2) the painting on the predella, enthroned and asking Jerusalem's Jews for information about the hiding place of the Holy Cross:
3) a painting on one of the wings (shuttered position), at center in the Testing of the Three Crosses:

aaa) as depicted (at the Finding of the True Cross) by Jean Bourdichon in the early sixteenth-century Grandes Heures d'Anne de Bretagne (ca. 1503-1508; Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 9474, fol. 207v):

bbb) as depicted (bottom register, first two panels from left: the Finding of the Three Crosses and the Identification of the True Cross) in the early sixteenth-century Triumph of the Cross window (bay 8; ca. 1506) in the église Sainte-Madeleine in Troyes:

ccc) as depicted (bottom register, first two panels from left: the Finding of the Three Crosses and the Identification of the True Cross) in the earlier sixteenth-century Legend of the Cross window (bay 6; before 1524?) in the église Saint-Nizier in Troyes (image greatly expandable):

John Dillon

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