Helen or Helena was mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. She dreamed that an angel revealed to her the location of the cross on which Christ was crucified and urged her to travel to the Holy Land to find it. She dug up three crosses and, by testing their healing power, was able to identify Christ’s, known as the True Cross.
Saint Helena sits with one foot up on a stone bench in a window alcove, her head resting in her hand, her elbow on the window ledge. As she sleeps, two winged cherubs appear in the sky carrying the True Cross. The deterioration of the pigment smalt has caused the sky to turn from pale blue to yellow-grey.
Veronese’s painting has probably been cropped at the top and bottom. It was clearly designed to be seen from below, and may have been painted as decoration for an organ shutter, perhaps with a now lost opposite shutter showing Constantine.
Helen or Helena was mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. She dreamed that an angel revealed to her the location of the cross on which Christ was crucified and urged her to travel to the Holy Land to find it. She excavated three crosses and, by testing their healing power, was able to identify which was Christ’s cross, known as the True Cross.
In Veronese’s painting, Saint Helena sits with one foot up on a stone bench in a window alcove, her head resting in her hand, her elbow on the window ledge. As she sleeps, two winged cherubs appear as a vision in the sky carrying the True Cross. The composition is highly unusual in Veronese’s work and the economical way in which it is painted is masterly. The absence of the sumptuous accessories usually favoured by Veronese and of any pattern or detail in Saint Helena’s salmon pink and gold dress allows light to ripple over the softly blended colours like a dream flowing through the sleeping body. The effect has been likened to sunlight gleaming in damp sand on the seashore.
This picture’s composition was derived from an anonymous print of Saint Helena (British Museum, London), which itself was based on a drawing by Raphael (Uffizi, Florence). The print probably represents Saint Helena, although Raphael’s drawing may have been intended as someone else – an early inscription identifies it as Danaë. Veronese’s painting differs from the print in its dramatic cropping – Saint Helena fills almost the entire canvas – and the unusual, knotty grouping of angels and the Cross at the top. The cupid on the left and Saint Helena have lost their feet, which suggests that a little of the painted area has been cut off at the top and bottom of the picture, and the deterioration of the pigment smalt has caused the sky to turn from pale blue to yellow-grey.
The limited palette and relative roughness of the brushstrokes may reflect the painting’s original purpose and location. It was probably not intended to be seen at close range, but was clearly designed to be displayed high above the viewer – we can see the underside of Saint Helena’s chin and only sky is visible through the window. It may have been made as one of the outside canvas shutters for a church organ, visible when the organ was not in use. The canvas is of a similar size to Veronese’s shutters for the organ at S. Giacomo on the Venetian island of Murano. Organ shutters often showed pairs of saints, one on each shutter. The most likely companion saint for Helena would have been her son Constantine. Their images are commonly found in Franciscan churches dedicated to the True Cross (Santa Croce in Italian).
The National Gallery’s painting may have been the Saint Helena that was listed in Rubens’s collection in Antwerp after his death in 1640.
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