Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Saint Helena Bringing the True Cross to Jerusalem (larger view)

  • Title: Saint Helena Bringing the True Cross to Jerusalem (detail)
  • Creator: Gaddi, Agnolo, painter
  • Description:

    In this panel from the legend of the True Cross cycle, Saint Helena brings the newly discovered cross used in Christ's crucifixion to the people of Jerusalem. She bears the full weight of the cross on her shoulder and commands the attention of the crowd at the city's gate as well as that of her attendants. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, had been charged by her son with the task of finding the cross. She wears a robe trimmed in ermine and a crown but her status as a traveler and pilgrim is signaled by her brimmed hat, a style known as bycocket in English. A distinctive halo frames her profile which conveys a spiritual beauty and determined strength.

    Agnolo Gaddi and his workshop painted eight fresco panels in the choir of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in the 1380s and early 1390s. This was the first large scale treatment of the legend of the True Cross and drew on accounts in the Legenda Aurea as well as the liturgical celebrations of the Invention of the Cross (May 3) and the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). The paintings were sponsored by the Alberti family, prominent in business and politics, and were overseen by the friars at Santa Croce.

    The paintings cover a range of time periods to demonstrate the providential nature of God's plans for human salvation. The series begins with seeds from the Tree of Knowledge being planted over the body of Adam, then Solomon and the Queen of Sheba recognize the holy nature of the wood. It is used to make the cross and then is discovered by St Helena through its capacity to heal the sick. She takes the cross to Jerusalem where it is later stolen by the Persian king, Chosroes, during his attack on the city. He uses the relic to make himself more powerful. An angel warns the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius of the danger. Chosroes fights with the emperor's son, meets defeat and is executed. Heraclius returns to Jerusalem in triumph with the cross but is miraculously barred from the city because of his pride. Only when he walks barefoot is he able to enter the city as a humble penitent, carrying the cross.

    Agnolo Gaddi was a prominent artist in Florence and an heir to the heritage of Giotto through his father Taddeo, an assistant to Giotto. Moreover, Gaddi's brothers were merchants and political figures as well as artists. A project on the scale of that of Santa Croce's painting cycle called for influential contacts and organizational skills. Gaddi also brought new solutions to the need for meaning and beauty. He endowed his figures with an elegance and delicacy inspired by Gothic painting. The color palette in the True Cross cycle is remarkable for its rich pastels and, originally, its liberal use of gold and silver (now much diminished). The composition and movement of figures conveys dynamic story lines.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Art History- Painting Florence- Church of Santa Croce Crosses and Crucifixes Gaddi, Agnolo, Painter Helena, Saint True Cross Women in Religion Women in Art
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14
  • Date: Circa 1380s- early 1390s
  • Related Work: All panels of Gaddi's frescoes of the legend of the True Cross in one view;
    Individual panels with higher resolution views from the basilica's website;
    Photographs of the basilica of Santa Croce, exterior and interior;
  • Current Location: Florence, Basilica of Santa Croce, Cappella maggiore
  • Original Location: Florence, Basilica of Santa Croce, Cappella maggiore
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Frescoes;
  • Donor: Laymen; the Albertis, a powerful family of bankers with a strong connection to the Franciscans at Santa Croce
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): Approx. 4 meters/Approx. 7 meters/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Frosini, Cecilia. Agnolo Gaddi and the Cappella maggiore in Santa Croce in Florence: Studies after its Restoration. Silvana, 2014;
    Grebe, Anja. "Pilgrims and Fashion: The Functions of Pilgrims’ Garments." Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles. Edited by Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe. Brill, 2005. Pages 3-27;
    Lavin, Marilyn Aronberg. The Place of Narrative: Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431-1600. Pages