Chapel of St. Helena
Within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a hallway from the Crusader era along the eastern side houses several small chapels that mark significant events on the crucifixion. Next to the Chapel of the Division of the Raiment is a set of stairs that descend to the much bigger Chapel of St. Helena. The chapel is controlled by the Armenian Orthodox Church. To the Armenian Church, the chapel is referred to as The Chapel of St. Gregory.
St. Helena was the mother of Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great. She was married to Roman Emperor Constantius by whom she had Constantine. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian. Helena became a Christian as well as is credited with discovering the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. St. Helena died in present-day Turkey around AD 328.
Descending to the Chapel of St. Helena is a staircase with twenty-nine steps. On the walls of the staircase, medieval pilgrims carved crosses into the stone. When coming to the main level of the Chapel of St. Helena, two prominent features are evident. First, in the Armenian style, numerous lamps and a large chandelier are hanging from the ceiling. Second, a detailed mosaic adorns the floor leading up to the first altar that is seen. The mosaic depicts the most significant churches found in Armenia. The main altar is set apart from the rest of the chapel by an iron fence with an opening for passage to the main altar.
Just to the north of the main altar is a smaller chapel that is dedicated to the thief that asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus gets to paradise. Jesus responds by promising that because of his repentance that thief will be with Jesus in paradise that very day. The chapel is a relatively simple altar with a marble canopy covering it nestled neatly into an alcove. An iron wrought fence with Crusader style crosses is in front of the altar area. The front columns are black and hold the arch that gives a line of sight into the altar. The back columns have a solid wall going between them. On this wall is a picture held in an ornate frame. The canopy ascends and holds a cupola which is topped by a cross. On the south wall of the Chapel of St. Helena is a big painting that depicts the discovery of the cross by Helena. A closed off section of the chapel that is opened only by permission of the Armenians is the Chapel of St. Vartan and the Armenian Martyrs. This chapel has a drawing of a sailing vessel with the inscription in Latin which reads “Lord, we will go.” Some believe this references going into the house of the Lord from Psalm 122.
The Chapel of St. Helena served as the crypt of Constantine’s basilica in the 4th century. This chapel is the oldest complete part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also, the entrance to the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross is to the right of the main altar of the Chapel of St. Helena.