The Chapel of Saint Helena
Location – Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Map Coordinates - 31.778460, 35.229556
The Chapel of Saint Helena was named after the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great. In 326 AD, Constantine sent Helena to the Holy Land in her late 70s to build churches on Christianity’s most holy sites, beginning with this location. There is probably more to say about this chapel than any other place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
It was actually the Crusaders who gave this chapel its common name, but the current custodians of the chapel, the Armenian Apostolic Church, renamed this chapel after their patron Saint. They now call it the Chapel of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.
The Cross Etchings.
Starting at the top of the stairs leading down to this chapel there are twelfth-century crosses etched into the walls throughout this room.
In the original Church of the Holy Sepulcher this staircase did not exist. Back then it was nothing more than an excavation tunnel that led down to the foundations of the Church that Empress Helena had commissioned.
The History of this Room.
When the pagan Roman emperor Hadrian defeated the Jews at the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD, he decided to do two things. First, he ran all the Jews out of town, and he renamed the city Alea Capitalina. Then he started a building program to completely Romanize the city, including the area now occupied by this church. According to the historians Eusebius and Saint Jerome, Hadrian had built a large pagan temple to the goddess Venus on this very spot, and the floor of this particular chapel was part of the original ground level when Hadrian built his pagan temple. That means that the floor of this chapel was used to build the foundations for the Temple.
After Christianity was legalized, in 325 AD the Empress Helena came to town, and she tore down this pagan temple. That process exposed the area of this chapel. At the time she did the same thing that Hadrian did 200 years earlier. She used this room as a foundation for the church that she built above it.
The church that Helena built lasted for almost 700 years, where this room was nothing more than a void with pillars that supported the church above. Then, in the year 1009 AD, the mad caliph from Egypt, Al-Hakim, came through Jerusalem, destroying churches and killing Christians. In response to this attack, 40 years later this church was starting to be rebuilt, and a little less than 60 years after that the Crusaders rode into town, and they were involved in a major reconstruction process here. The Crusaders also heard that Helena had discovered the “True Cross” of Jesus in a cistern below the church, so they went looking for this cistern.
In their search they found an ancient excavation tunnel that led down to this very room. That tunnel is now the staircase that you walk down to get here. When they looked at this room, which at the time was nothing more than a void with pillars that supported the church, they decided to make a chapel out of it. That’s how this became the chapel dedicated to Saint Helena.
Lo and behold, the Crusaders also found what they were looking for - the cistern where it is believed that Helena discovered the cross. That cistern is now the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.
The Altar of Saint Helena (aka. the Altar of Gregory the Illuminator).
The Altar of Saint Helena (also known to the Armenians as the Altar of Saint Gregory.
This altar was dedicated to Saint Helena herself. Shortly after Constantine became the Roman Emperor, his mother, Helena, became a Christian and was probably instrumental in leading her son to follow her in her faith. That event changed the entire world. Many churches were founded because of her, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Church of Pater Noster, where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer, the Church at the Shepherd’s Field, the Church of Saint George where there is the Cave of the Ten Lepers, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, and probably many more churches. Her legacy, and her influence over the Roman empire’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion made her one of the world’s more influential persons.
While the Crusaders dedicated this altar to Helen, when the Armenians assumed custody of this chapel, they rededicated this altar to Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Understandably, there is a picture on this altar of Gregory worshipping Mary and the baby Jesus.
The Marble Bench.
The commemorative marble bench of Empress Helena overlooking the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross.
Apart from building churches, Helena wanted to collect relics, most importantly, the “True Cross” of Jesus. Hearing that the cross of Jesus was hastily discarded in a dry cistern, her excavators focused their attention on the ancient cistern below the south wall of this chapel – a room that is now called the Chapel of the Discovery of the Cross. As the legend goes, from a bench overlooking this chapel Helena watched her workers rummage through this cistern, and a commemorative marble bench was built on the spot where it is said that she sat while she watched this excavation.
The Altar of the Penitent Thief (aka. Altar of John the Baptist).
The Altar of the Penitent Thief (also known to the Armenians as the Altar of Saint John the Baptist).
As you may know, Jesus died between two thieves. The builders of this chapel dedicated the altar on the left to one of those men – the repentant thief.
Written in the fourth century was a document called The Gospel of Nicodemus, and from this book we learned that the traditional name of this repentant thief who died next to Jesus was Dismas. For 2000 years the story of Dismas has been told billions of times.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that even while he was hanging on the cross, this thief was hurling insults at Jesus. However, at the very end of his life his heart melted, and he said to the Savior, “Remember me when you go to your father.” In response, Jesus said to him, “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
What does it mean, that a common thief, one who insulted Jesus, could acquire eternal life just minutes before his death, and secure a place beside Christ in heaven? Jesus answered that question about one week earlier, when a Pharisee came to Him, and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30.31). After insulting Jesus, in his last moments on earth, while he was being tortured to death, that is exactly what this Dismas did to acquire that one thing that every person desires.
Along with renaming the center altar after Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the Armenians, who are the custodians of this chapel, also renamed this the Altar of Saint John the Baptist. And there is a picture of John baptizing Jesus on this altar.
The Floor Mosaic.
Because this chapel is controlled by the Armenian Apostolic Church, on the floor you can see an elaborate mosaic illustrating nine ancient Armenian churches. While this mosaic looks old, it was actually built in the twentieth century, and at the bottom of this mosaic you can also see an illustration of Noah’s Ark.
The Armenian Cross.
The Armenian Cross.
Standing in this room on the north side is a good example of what we call the Armenian Cross. It is commonly shown sprouting leaves, symbolizing victory over the grave, where new life comes from this ancient instrument of death.
Who was Gregory the Illuminator?
Saint Gregory the Illuminator.
Like I said, when the Armenian Church assumed custody of this chapel, they gave it a new name. They don’t call it the Chapel of Saint Helena. They call it the Chapel of Saint Gregory, the Illuminator.
Saint Gregory is the patron saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and starting in 301 AD he was responsible for leading the king of Armenia to Christ, and subsequently converting the entire ancient nation of Armenia away from the pagan religion of Zoroastrianism to Christianity. The three large paintings on the north side of this room tell the story of Saint Gregory the Illuminator.
Picture #1. The Story of Saint Gregory.
Saint Gregory preaching in the court of King Tiridates.
Gregory was born in Armenia in the year 257 AD. When he was a boy, the king of Armenia was Kosrav II. Gregory’s father, Anak, killed Kosrav II and was executed for his crime. Gregory narrowly escaped execution as well with the help of his caretakers, who whisked him off to Cappadocia, which is in modern Turkey. There he was raised to be a devout Christian.
Sometime in his late twenties, Gregory came back to evangelize Armenia. But, now, sitting on Kosrav’s thrown was his son, Tiridates III, also called Tiridates the Great. When Tiridates heard that the son of the man who killed his father was evangelizing in his country, he arrested Gregory and put him into a deep underground dungeon - a place called Khor Virap. The nickname of this dungeon was the “pit of oblivion”, because no one who went there ever returned.
The dungeon of Khor Virap.
Gregory languished there for at least twelve years, but he didn’t die in this dungeon. According to the legend, a Christian Armenian widow, after being inspired by a dream, threw a loaf of bread to him every day during this entire time. If you run the math, that’s almost 5000 loaves of bread!
The monastery built on the site of Khor Virap.
In the year 297 AD, while Gregory was in prison, Tiridates became very ill. The king’s sister had a dream that Gregory was the only person who could pray the prayer of faith for her brother’s healing. But after at least twelve years no one knew if Gregory was still alive in Khor Virap. The odds were very slim, but Gregory was actually found alive, despite being incredibly malnourished.
This first painting is a portrayal of that event, where you can see Gregory preaching to the King’s court. The legend goes on to say that the king was miraculously cured of his illness.
Picture #2. The Baptism of Tiridates.
The Baptism of King Tiridates.
In this painting you can see Tiridates being baptized in 301 AD. At this time the king declared Armenia to be the world’s first official Christian nation, which was twelve years before Christianity was even legalized in the Roman empire. Tiridates could do this, because Armenia was not part of the Roman empire. He also put Gregory in charge of converting the entire country to Christianity.
Painting #3. The Building of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral.
King Tiridates laying the cornerstone of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral.
In the third painting you can see King Tiridates laying the cornerstone for the first official church building in Armenia, The Etchmiadzin Cathedral. That church is still in existence today and is believed to be the oldest cathedral in the world. Tiridates worked tirelessly to evangelize his country for the next twenty-nine years until his death.
The Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia - the oldest cathedral in the world.
The True Cross Painting on the South Wall.
Transporting the True Cross through Armenia.
In 614 AD Jerusalem was attacked by the Persian Empire, and a piece of the “True Cross” that was kept in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was stolen by the Persians. Fortunately, that piece was retrieved by the Christian Roman Emperor Heraclius only a few years later. On its way back to Jerusalem, this relic had to go through Armenia, and that’s what this painting is all about.
There’s only one problem with this painting. According to Cyril of Jerusalem in the year 348 AD, the cross had already been split up into fragments that were spread across the entire world as relics and souvenirs. Later in the same century, John Chrysostom said the same thing, as do two other anonymous sources from the same period. That means that what traveled through Armenia was probably only a piece of the cross, not the complete cross, as you see here.
The Painting of the Hermits Thotig and Howell.
The revelation to Thotig and Howell of the site of the True Cross.
To explain the last painting, we have to go back to the time when Gregory was in the dungeon. This story starts not in Armenia, but in Rome.
During the late third and early 4th centuries there was a Roman emperor named Diocletian – a great persecutor of the Church. During that same time there was a very beautiful Christian nun named Hripsime. The Emperor, Diocletian, wanted to marry her, but she was intent on keeping her vow of virginity, and, fearing for her life, she and 35 nuns fled Rome to Armenia. In her flight, Hripsime had in her possession a piece of the “True Cross” of Jesus, which she wore around her neck.
When Hripsime arrived in Armenia, she buried this piece of the “True Cross” in the mountains of Varak in central Armenia. Once again, because of her beauty, she caught the attention of King Tiridates III, to whom you were introduced in the first painting on the north side of this chapel.
Tiridates was still a pagan king at this time and had not yet converted to Christianity. Just like the emperor Diocletian in Rome, Tiridates also wanted to marry her. But Hripsime kept her vow before God and she denied his request. For this Hripsime paid the ultimate price, and on the order of Tiridates, she and the other nuns who were with her were tortured and martyred. Understandably, all knowledge of the whereabouts of the “True Cross” was lost.
This merciless and barbarous act by Tiridates triggered his downfall. He became gravely ill – even insane. As the legend goes he adopted the behavior of a wild boar, aimlessly wandering around in the forest. At this time Tiridates' sister summoned Saint Gregory from the dungeon, and after emerging from his prison, Gregory led Tiridates to Christ.
We should note that It was through the death of these nuns, the torture and imprisonment of Saint Gregory, and almost 5000 loaves of bread that an entire country of Armenia was led to Christ.
In around the year 653 AD there were two Armenian hermits in the heartland of Armenia, one of whom was named Thotig. While praying on Mount Varak, he had a vision, where he saw a shining cross of light radiating over the top of a mountain. This light led him to the place on Mount Varak where Hripsime had hidden the piece of “True Cross” 300 years earlier.
That piece of the cross became a very valuable relic in the Armenian Church for many years, and a monastery was ultimately built on this site. That monastery is shown in this painting.
The Armenian Monastery at Mount Varak.