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Connecting art & faith: Saint Helena with the True Cross

Italian Master, late 13th century Saint Helena with the True Cross Gouache and ink on vellum, c. 1290 Thrivent Collection of Religious Art

Helena hands the True Cross to her son Constantine, the Emperor of Rome. She places in his hands the most vital Christian relic: the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Legend says that Saint Helena was responsible for finding the True Cross on the site of Christ’s tomb near Calvary. Saint Helena is an important figure in the history of Christianity; as the mother of Constantine, she guided and helped form the beliefs of the emperor.

Constantine is renowned for establishing legal status for Christianity and all other religions in the Roman Empire in 313 C.E. This important act allowed freedom of worship and encouraged the flourishing of Christianity. In 325, Constantine called together church leaders at the Council of Nicaea, which resulted in the formalization of the beliefs of Christianity into the Nicene Creed, further establishing Christianity’s growth. Some scholars believe that Helena was responsible for instilling Christianity in her son, making this scene symbolically captivating. She passes her beliefs to her son as she passes the True Cross to his hands.

This beautifully painted scene originally illustrated a page in an Italian manuscript choir book made around the year 1290. Prior to the 15th-century innovation of printed woodblock images and invention of the printing press, books were made entirely by hand. Painstakingly drawn and painted, most illustrated manuscripts from the medieval period were used in worship or for personal prayer; the precious metals and pigments used were meant to glorify God and illuminate the words and images on the pages. The pigments used here, such as the vibrant orange-red of Helena’s gown and the deep blue background, have fared remarkably for their age.

This is the earliest dated work in the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art. 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the collection, which features a wide array of original works on paper from the 13th century to the present day. Since 1982, this special collection has existed to preserve history and be a shared resource for the community. With public gallery hours, educational programming and engagement events, the collection is a distinctive expression of Thrivent’s character and history. Supporting these historical expressions of culture helps humanity thrive and keeps community vibrant.