Brother Kassianos of Pantokrator, Constantine and Helena
Constantine and Helena, dressed in a Byzantine imperial costume known as the loros, are shown flanking and holding the gemmed cross. The composition displayed on this icon is based on a common iconography found on Byzantine cross reliquaries and in icons going back to the tenth century, and the Athos icon finds a close parallel in an example at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.1
Helena, also known as St. Helen, was married to Constantius Chlorus, and was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (r. 306-337). According to the Inventio crucis (“Invention” or “Finding of the Cross”)2 – one of three legends surrounding the discovery of the cross – Helena was sent to Palestine in search of the holy sites by her son. As a result of her journey she is credited with the recovery of the cross in Jerusalem. It is said she encountered three crosses, but was guided by the Holy Spirit to identify that of Christ and not those of the thieves.3 Before its discovery, the location of the cross had been concealed for three centuries.4
Constantine the Great was the first Roman Emperor to accept and actively promote Christianity. In his early life he worshiped the sun god, Sol Invictus, as his father did.5 He later converted to Christianity for reasons that, to this day, are a bit ambiguous, but likely were motivated by political gain rather than spiritual reasons. With the Edict of Milan in the year 313 Constantine legalized Christianity, making Sunday the official day for worship.6 Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the cross had not been a widely used symbol for Christians; in fact it was secondary to the fish, ship, and dove. During his rule it became popularized and was dispersed in many forms such as prayer books, jewelry, coins, and clothing.7 Generally, Constantine is a celebrated figure among Christian communities. He became known as the isapostolos8 – thirteenth apostle – after his baptism on his deathbed in the 337 and according to his own plan, was buried amidst cenotaphs of the twelve apostles in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
September 14th marks the Exaltation of the Cross-, which is a major feast day in the Orthodox Church celebrating the joint veneration of mother and son, as well as the Discovery of the Cross. After recovering the cross, Helena brought it back to the court where the Patriarch then lifted it above the pulpit so that the crowd could see it, which proceeded to responded with “Lord have mercy.” This occasion became known as the Exaltation. The feast day provides an opportunity to celebrate the full significance of the cross, including its power and the triumph of God through it. The celebration consists of a Vespers service the night before, as well as a Matins service on the day of the feast. The monks place a cross on a tray and encircle it with sprigs of basil – the fragrant herb that grew where the cross was found. Then a procession takes place during which a hymn is chanted. The priest raises and lowers the cross in memory of its exaltation. At the end of the service, the priest disperses the basil to other monks as an offering.9
Baert, Barbara, and Lee Preedy. Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image. Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.
“Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Accessed December 11, 2016 at http://www.goarch.org/special/listen_learn_share/exaltholycross/index_html.
Jones, Christopher P. Between Pagan and Christian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Teteriatnikov, Natalia. “The True Cross Flanked by Constantine and Helena. A Study in the Light of the Post-Iconosclastic Re-evaluation of the Cross,” Deltion 18 (1995): 169-188; Accessed January 12, 2017 online at http://ejournals.epublishing.ekt.gr/index.php/deltion/article/viewFile/4619/4395.pdf.
Saunders, William. “St. Helena and the True Cross.” Catholic Education Resource Center. 2005. Accessed December 11, 2016.
Thompson, Glen L. Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. London: James Clarke & Co, 2014.
Weed, Stanley E. “Reviewed Work: A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image by Barbara Baert.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 37, no. 3 (2006): 787-88. doi:10.2307/20478010.
1For the history of this theme in Byzantine art and its roots in the post-Iconoclastic cult of the Cross, see Teteriatnikov, “The True Cross Flanked by Constantine and Helena”.
2Saunders, “St. Helena and the True Cross.”
3Baert and Preedy, Heritage of Holy Wood.
4Weed, “Reviewed Work: A Heritage of Holy Wood.”
5Jones, Between Pagan and Christian.
6Thompson, Rethinking Constantine.
7Baert and Preedy, Heritage of Holy Wood.
8Thompson, Rethinking Constantine.
9“Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America online at http://www.goarch.org/special/listen_learn_share/exaltholycross/index_html. Accessed December 11, 2016.