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The Dream of Saint Helena

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.

Credit: Bought, 1878

c. 1570
Oil on canvas
197.5 x 115.6cm
Image and text © The National Gallery, London, 2024

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