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Rome Diaries - Week 122

May 26th, 2011


Finding the remains of Saint Helena is about as difficult as her own search for the True Cross. A few years ago, when I went looking for the Mausoleum of Costanza, daughter of Helena’s son Constantine, it was a pleasant work of traveling a few miles on the ancient Via Noumentana and keeping an eye peeled for Sant’Agnese fuori le mura where a vast burial complex had been built to accommodate those Christians inspired by the young virgin martyr Agnes. The classic royal burial chapel (which had been part of the larger burial hall) is still functioning on the grounds of Sant’Agnese and a replica of Costanza’s porphyry sarcophagus sits in a niche opposite the chapel door. (Touring the Vatican Museums will bring you past both Costanza’s and Saint Helena’s imperial sarcophagi; they seem a matched set as you pass by them on your march to the Octagonal Courtyard.) Helena’s mausoleum, sited on what was her own property three miles from Porta Maggiore off Via Labicana (now Via Casilina), is today hemmed in by school buildings and playing fields. I visit the area today, taking the little tram that stops precisely there. The place was made a Christian burial ground by Constantine to commemorate the beheading of Tiburtius, who was martyred on the spot in 286. Formerly the land served as a cemetery for the imperial horse-guards, the very troops who lost to Constantine at the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The imposing brick structure was built by Constantine for his own use, but he later assigned it to his mother, Helena, who died in 330, just as his great Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople was being completed. (Constantine would be buried there seven years later, surrounded by some of the premier relics of Christendom.) The cylindrical mausoleum I see today rose over 80 feet, its dome (now partially collapsed) had been made lighter by using hollow fragments of amphorae. Eight windows, cut into the upper cylinder, still light its interior. Security became an issue in the 9th century when Western monasticism began an entrepreneurial phase during which monks would obtain, by purchase or stealth, coveted Roman relics. The noble goal was putting their particular monastery on the pilgrim map and Saint Helena was not only the mother of the first Christian emperor, but the first Christian pilgrim, having journeyed to Jerusalem at the age of 80 where she discovered the True Cross. Theogisus, the monk in question, left half the saint’s remains behind and took the rest for his abbey in Hautvillers, a monastery in the Archdiocese of Rheims. The hope was to claim Helena as their own by making the case that since Helena was born near, Trier, an imperial city in the Western Empire, it was perhaps plausible that a large monastery, not too far away, might rightly possess a portion of her remains. (While Helena’s fame has tapered off in recent centuries, Hautvillers is fortunate to have another draw, Dom Pérignon, the 17th century Benedictine monk who "invented" Champagne.) In 1140, what was left in the mausoleum three miles outside Rome, was taken, for safety's sake inside the city walls and placed in that most aristocratic of churches, Santa Maria Ara Coeli, on the Capitoline Hill. Helena’s fate was better than Constantine’s. The ransacking of the Church of Holy Apostles by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 scattered its trove of relics all over the Europe and in 1461 Mehmet the Conqueror tore down the dilapidated church and built Fatih Mosque on the rubble. The Mausoleum of Helena, however, is still adorning a schoolyard just beyond the walls of Rome, her imperial sarcophagus is passed by thousands of visitors each day at the Vatican Museums and an interested tourist can find her bodily remains in a church not far from the Roman Forum...and, of course, at a monastery near Rheims.


June 15th, 2011

I meet a man who considers himself new to believing. “Three years ago I was an atheist,” he says, “but now I think there is a God. When I went to the Pantheon today, I walked in there and had no idea it was a church. That hole in the ceiling, letting in the light! He said he always wanted to see it when it rained. We stepped outside and, in a few moments, it started to rain. We went back into see; it was magical.” The Pantheon impresses just about everyone, believer or not, which is why its still here, only slightly restored, after two thousand years.


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