Alexander the Monk’s Text of Helena’s Discovery of the Cross, BHG 410 (John W. Nesbitt, 2003)

NOTE: The following article is excerpted from Byzantine Authors: Literary Activities and Preoccupations. Texts and Translations dedicated to the Memory of Nicolas Oikonomides, pp. 23-42:



Afterwards the emperor [Constantine] despatched his praiseworthy and God-beloved mother Helena to Jerusalem with letters and money in abundance for the bishop of Ailia, by name Makarios, in order to search for the glorious cross and erect buildings upon the holy sites, the empress herself having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem and to bring to light the holy places buried by the impious and become hidden from sight, up to her own day. The bishop, learning of the coming of the empress, assembling the bishops of his province, met her with due honor. At once she ordered the bishops to make a search for the longed-for wood. Since all were at a loss concerning the place [of its burial] and from feelings of uneasiness began describing an array of different things, the bishop of the city ordered all to affect silence and in earnest offer prayer to God on behalf of this. Upon doing so the place by the will of God was revealed to the bishop, in which was situated a temple and cult statue of the unclean daimon. Then the empress, using imperial authority, gathering together a very great quantity of builders and workers, ordered the foul building to be overthrown to its foundations and to cast away the dust far off from there. Upon this being done, there came to light the divine monument and the place of Golgotha and not far off three buried crosses. Diligently searching they also found the nails. From whence therefore despair and anxiety gripped the empress, who demanded which was the cross of the Lord. The bishop through faith resolved the problem. For there was a woman (one of the leading citizens) in ill-health and all despaired of her chances. And while she was breathing her last [the bishop], bringing each of the crosses, found the answer. For it required only the shadow of the salvific cross to approach the sickly woman for the motionless and limp patient at once through divine power to jump up, crying with a great voice and glorifying God. Empress Helena with great joy and fear having taken up the life-giving cross carried off a portion with the nails for her son. She had made for the remainder a silver casket that she gave to the bishop of the city for a remembrance to all generations. And she decreed that churches be built in the form of life-giving remembrances on Holy Golgotha and in Bethlehem in the cave where our lord Jesus Christ submitted to a birth according to the flesh, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord upon blessing his disciples ascended. And so after doing many other good things in Jerusalem she returned to her son. Having received her with joy, he placed the piece of the precious cross in a the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Some of the nails he had forged for his helmet, whereas others he had added as studs to his horse bridle, in order that he might fulfill what was said by the Lord through his prophet, to wit “On that day shall there be holiness upon the horse bridle unto the all-powerful Lord” (Zachariah 14: 20).

In his Introduction the author states that it is his intention “to compose a historical narrative on the finding of the life-giving cross, the all-holy and all-revered cross on which our lord Jesus Christ allowed himself to be stretched out, whereby he destroyed the power of the devil and the tyranny of death and bestowed on those believing in Him unknowable salvation.” I accept the author at his word and therefore reject the notion that he copied out and appended to his composition Cyril of Jerusalem’s letter to Constantius about the appearance of the cross over Jerusalem. Alexander was not concerned with the post-Constantinian history of the cross and indeed the opening lines of Cyril’s narration (at 3.1-4) totally contradict portions of Alexander’s story of Helena’s adventures in Jerusalem. The relevant section of Cyril’s letter reads as follows:

“For…in the days of your Imperial Father, Constantine of blessed memory, the saving wood of the cross was found in Jerusalem (divine grace granting the finding of the long hidden holy places to the one who nobly aspired to piety)….” In Cyril’s account, there is no mention of the identity of the person who found the cross, but it is specified that the person who discovered “the long hidden holy places” was a man. Additionally, Alexander was not a mere copyist. He was an historian. He was not a great historian, but he told his story in his own way and for this reason I submit that Cyril’s letter represents nothing more than a later addition to Alexander’s original text…

Let us now conclude by examining in some detail Alexander’s narrative regarding Helena’s finding of the cross. The purpose here is to compare Alexander’s narration with prior accounts, to see in what ways it is similar or varies and, following that, to suggest what purpose Alexander had in mind in writing his specific version of Helena’s invention. We shall proceed with the first task by summarizing each section of the Treatise’s version and listing within the section the versions of earlier writers regarding the same events.

Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825
Helena finding the True Cross, Italian manuscript c. 825


Alexander the Monk: Constantine and Helena share joint responsibility for initiative. Constantine sends his mother to Jerusalem to identify the location of the cross and build churches; Helena is inspired to the same task by a divine vision.

V(ita) C(onstantini): Constantine orders the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Helena visits the Holy Land and initiates construction of various churches. No mention of cross.

Ambrose of Milan: Helena goes to Jerusalem and visits. The Spirit inspires her to search for the wood of the cross.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): (Spurred by divine visions), Helena travels to Jerusalem (“in order to lay hold of the holy places and seek out the venerable wood of the Cross”).

Rufinus: “Helena…was alerted by divine visions and traveled to Jerusalem (divinis admonita visionibus, Hierusolyma petit).”

Socrates: Helena, summoned by dreams, goes off to Jerusalem.

Theodoret: Helena, now aged, travels to Jerusalem with letters for

Bishop Makarios from Constantine. In these letters Constantine directs Makarios to clear the area of Christ’s tomb and to erect on the spot a church.



Alexander the Monk: Helena, met by Makarios, orders the bishops to search for the wood.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena inquires of inhabitants of the town where Christ was crucified.

Rufinus: “[Helena] traveled to Jerusalem, where she asked the inhabitants where the place was where the sacred body of Christ had hung fastened to the gibbet Socrates: Helena searches zealously for the tomb of Christ, where buried, he arose.


Alexander the Monk: God reveals the place to dig, an area where there was situated a pagan temple and cult statue. She gathers workmen and they clear the site. Three crosses are found and the nails. No mention of the titulus.

Ambrose: Helena goes to Golgotha and has the ground opened where three gibbets are found, the nails and the titulus.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): the location is revealed, a place where there was a statue of Venus; workmen topple “the polluted structures” and, upon excavating, bring to light three crosses.

Rufinus: the location is “indicated to her by a sign from heaven”; beneath a statue of Venus set there are uncovered, in a jumble, three crosses and the titulus.

Socrates: those opposed to Christianity had covered with earth the site of Christ’s passion and established a temple there with a cult statue. The situation becomes clear to Helena. She has the statue toppled and the earth cleared. The cross is uncovered in the tomb, along with the crosses of the two thieves, and the titulus composed by Pilate.

Theodoret: “When [Helena] saw the area where the passion had occurred, she immediately commanded that the abominable temple be knocked down and the statue be carted off”.



Alexander the Monk: confronted by three crosses Helena wonders which cross was the one on which Christ was crucified. Makarios solves the problem. He approachesa lady of rank who is close to death. It requires only the shadow of one (the true) cross to fall near the woman and at once she is cured (see Acts 5: 15: the sick await Peter, hoping that at the least his shadow will fall upon them).

Ambrose: the identity of the true cross is guaranteed by the presence of the titulus attached to it.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): With the empress, Makarios visits a noble lady who is gravely ill. He brings all three crosses. He prays and then touches the woman in vain with two crosses. As soon as the shadow of the third draws near she is cured.

Rufinus: the titulus is of no help. Accompanied by the empress, Makarios, bringing along all three crosses, visits a woman of distinguished position who is near death. He touches her with all three crosses, but only the true cross cures her.

Socrates: the titulus plays no role. Makarios seeks a sign from God and God sends one. “And the sign was such”. A certain woman of the district was near death. Makarios arranges that she receive the touch of all three crosses. When touched by the first two she shows no improvement but when she receives the touch of the third cross, she is healed.

Theodoret: confusion reigns over the identity of the true cross. Makarios solves the problem. He has a woman who is near death touched by the three crosses: it requires only the approach of the true cross and the lady is cured.

The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome's Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
The titulus crucis and relics of the True Cross can be seen in Rome’s Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.


Alexander the Monk: Helena reserves a portion of the true cross and the nails for Constantine. She has a silver casket made for the remainder and gives it to Makarios. She has churches built on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine places the piece of cross in a gold box and gives the box to the bishop, ordering the day of the cross’s discovery to be annually commemorated. Some of the nails are added to his helmet and others to his bridle.

Ambrose: Helena finds the nails: from one she has made a bridle and from the other a diadem.

Gelasius of Caesarea (reconstruction): Helena builds a church at the find spot of the cross. She searches for the nails and finding them she has several inserted into Constantine’s helmet, and others are smelted and mixed with metal of his bridle. She returns with a portion of the cross for Constantine, but leaves behind the remainder, which is placed in a silver casket and given to Makarios.

Rufinus: Helena has a church built at the site of the discovery of the cross. The nails still adhered and these she brought to Constantine. From some he has made a bridle and with others he outfitted himself with a helmet. “As for the healing wood itself, part of it she presented to her son, and part she put in silver reliquaries and left in the place; it is still kept there as a memorial with unflagging devotion.”

Socrates: “The mother of the emperor had a splendid house of prayer built on the site of the sepulchre (called “New Jerusalem”)…. She left behind there a portion of the cross enclosed in a silver casket  as a memorial for those wishing to observe [it], the remainder she despatched to the emperor.” Helena also finds the nails and sends them to Constantine. He has them fashioned into bridle-bits and a helmet. Helena has other churches built: one at Bethlehem and another on the mount of the ascension.

Theodoret: mention of the nails and their disposition. Helena has some nails placed in the imperial helmet; the remainder she had made into a horse bridle in order to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Zacharias. She has a portion of the cross sent on to Constantinople and the rest placed in a silver casket which is given to the bishop of the city, requesting that he watch over these “memorials of salvation”. She has churches of great workmanship constructed.

Geronda Ephraim's mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).
Geronda Ephraim’s mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).

The invention of the cross involves three different traditions. We have been following only one, and so before we proceed, we might take a moment and reflect upon the other two. The beginning of the fifth century saw the emergence of two new versions of the finding of the cross. Both are of Syrian origin and are re-workings of the older Helena version. One is the “Protonike” legend: a story in which the central character, Protonike, said to be the wife of Emperor Claudius (41-54), converts to Christianity and visits Jerusalem where she discovers the true cross in the sepulchre, hands it over to James, and builds a church over the tomb. This version was known at first only in Syriac, then later in Armenian. The second is the “Judas Cyriacus” legend: a version in which Helena goes to Jerusalem and orders an assembly of the Jews. Among them is a certain Judas who is brought before her and interrogated. He asks God to show him the place where the cross is buried. God gives him a sign and he uncovers three crosses, one of which restores a dead man. Helena provides the cross with a mount and encases it in a casket. She builds a church on Golgotha and Judas converts. Judas, now Cyriacus, finds the nails for her; she has bridles made from them. This retelling, popular in the Middle Ages because of its anti-Jewish flavor, was read in many languages, the earliest versions of which are in Syriac, Greek, and Latin. The fifth-century Byzantine historian, Sozomen, knew of the Judas Cyriacus legend: “Some say that a certain Hebrew who lived in the East had prior knowledge [of the location of the cross] from paternal records….” Sozomen rejects the legend, declaring it more likely that divine matters are revealed through “signs and dreams”, than through records of the past. We may reasonably assume that Alexander the Monk had knowledge of this legend. Like Sozomen, Alexander rejected the Judas Cyriacus tradition. It is not difficult to understand why: one of his objectives is to give full and sole credit for the discovery of the cross to Constantine and his mother.

We see this in the way Alexander has crafted his narration. In the Introduction he has Constantine send his mother to Makarios with letters and money for the purpose of uncovering the cross and erecting churches on holy places. Alexander has borrowed the phrase “with letters”, as well as the notion of Constantine’s participation in the cross’s discovery. The latter states that Constantine had a letter composed in which he directs Makarios to clear the area where Christ was entombed and to build on the site a church. In a second letter he speaks of the financial arrangements for the construction. In other words, Constantine knows where Christ’s tomb is located and hence, by implication, where the cross is to be found. All that is required is for Helena to go to Jerusalem and seek it. On the other hand, there was a strong tradition, beginning with Ambrose (395), that Helena, aroused to action by dreams, traveled to Jerusalem on her own initiative. To accommodate this version, Alexander simply grafted it on (though awkwardly) to his initial statement: “the queen herself, having made the request, asserting that some divine vision appeared, commanding her to go to Jerusalem….” From this point until almost the very end, Helena occupies center stage. She finds and identifies the cross and is responsible for the building of churches on Golgotha, in Bethlehem, and on Olivet. Constantine reappears in an interesting context. Helena returns to her son and Constantinople bearing a piece of the true cross. Upon placing it in a gold box and giving the relic to the bishop of the city, Constantine decrees that the appearance of the cross be celebrated with annual commemorations. Since the geographical setting of Alexander’s remark is Constantinople, we may reasonably infer that Alexander is attesting that in his own day (the sixth century) the feast of the Cross was being celebrated at the capital.

At base Alexander’s Treatise is a work of pilgrimage literature. If anyone doubts the validity of Scriptures—of Christ’s birth, crucifixion, and ascension—they need only visit Jerusalem and its environs. All the important sites connected with the unfolding of salvation are marked by holy structures. The cross exists. It was prefigured in the Old Testament. It became hidden after Christ’s death. Pagan rulers came and went. But now, through the efforts of Constantine and Helena, it can be seen, if not touched. But the miracle of the infirm woman, related in the various accounts of Helena’s discovery, including Alexander the Monk’s, makes it clear that one may expect benefits (a cure of physical affliction?) from “only the shadow of the salvific cross”. Propinquity is sufficient.

In concluding I would observe that Alexander’s Treatise differs from previous accounts of Helena’s discovery of the True Cross in length. Nevertheless the Treatise is a coherent example of pilgrim propaganda. It is clearly meant to entice people to undertake a trip to Jerusalem and to explore the sites where the drama of Salvation occurred and where testimony in Gospel accounts can be visually affirmed. In the same visit the infirm might find physical, as well as spiritual, comfort. Since it is pilgrimage- driven, I would say it is reasonable to postulate that the Treatise was written before the reign of Heraclius and the disruptions to pilgrimage traffic which his rule witnessed.

Alexander’s emphasis on the joint responsibility of Constantine and Helena for the discovery of the cross raises an interesting possibility about the date of their sainthood. Some thirty years ago Laurent published a seal (poorly known) of the seventh century depicting on the obverse a representation of a saint holding a globus cruciger who is identified on the reverse as St. Constantine. The seal indicates that by at least the late seventh century Constantine had become a saint. In my opinion, one of Alexander’s goals was to promote the cult of Saints Constantine and Helena and it was for this reason that he joins the two together and emphasizes their equal credit for the discovery of the cross.

Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena's church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Murial of Saint Helena Finding the True Cross of Christ. at St Helena’s church which is inside the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem