by Roderick Conway Morris

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Capitoline Museums, Rome
Remains of a colossal statue of Constantine the Great, early 4th century AD

Before and After Constantine the Great

By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 2 July 2005


The pagan Roman emperors were, in many respects, tolerant of diversity of belief. What made the Christians obnoxious was their refusal to recognize the emperor, and therefore the state, as the supreme authority.

One of the worst periods of suppression, the 'Great Persecution' under the Emperor Diocletian, almost immediately preceded an extraordinary 'volte-face.' The Edict of Milan of 313, declared not only general freedom of worship, but mentioned the Christians by name and particularly favored them. A dozen years later, Christianity became the official state religion.

The prime author of the edict was Constantine, then one of the joint rulers of the Roman empire. In the following years, he eliminated the last of his rivals and reunified the empires of east and west. In 330, he inaugurated a new capital bearing his name on the shores of the Bosporus, and it would remain a bastion of Christianity in the east for more than 1,100 years. In the west, the primacy of the religion he adopted endured until the 20th century.

The long-term implications for Western and Near Eastern art of Christianity's official status were enormous, but what was the impact during this early, transitional period? This is expertly examined and illustrated by 'Constantine the Great' at the Castel Sismondo, a gathering of more than 250 pieces of sculpture, mosaic, painting, ivories, glass and other objects from numerous European sources. (The exhibition continues until Sept. 4.)

While he protected and promoted Christianity, Constantine was for most of his life himself not strictly a Christian - he was baptized shortly before his death in 337. He was declared emperor by popular acclamation of the troops at York in England in 306, after the death of his father, the ruler of this northern zone of the empire.

In 312, he marched on Rome to unseat one of his rivals, Maxentius. On the eve of battle, with the odds heavily against him, Constantine had a visionary experience. He saw in the evening sky an image of the Greek letter 'chi' (ch) combined with the 'ro' (r), the first letters of Christ's name, and heard a voice saying: 'In hoc signes vinces' (With this sign you will win).

He had this device, the 'Christogram,' painted on his soldier's shields and on his banner instead of the Roman eagle into battle. They routed Maxentius, who drowned in the Tiber as he fled.

From that moment, Constantine believed that he had forged a personal alliance with the God worshiped by the Christians, without formally joining the church himself. He rather enlisted the church, so long seen as an enemy of the state, into his personal service, presenting himself as the God-favored ruler of the Roman state. The 'Christogram' became the first imperial Christian symbol to receive wide currency in both west and east. But it is conceivable that, had the God of the Christians not continued to deliver a series of decisive victories, Constantine might have eventually sought divine assistance from elsewhere.

As befitted an emperor, Constantine's main contribution to imperial Christian art was in the form of grand monumental architecture. In Rome, where he spent only a few months of his life, he had constructed the first Vatican basilica over the tomb of St. Peter, and the church of what is now known as St. John Lateran, as well as the largest Roman triumphal arch ever built. In the rest of the empire, he built imposing basilicas as far apart as the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople and that of Trier in Germany.

Constantine was born in Naissus, present-day Nish in Serbia, around 272. His mother, Helena, was a bargirl of humble stock, whom his father never married and whom he abandoned to make a more advantageous dynastic marriage. Constantine remained devoted to her, and she became an important force in advancing the Christian cause. She undertook serious archaeological excavation on the Hill of Golgotha, unearthing not only what was accepted as the 'True Cross' but even the Crucifixion nails. Subsequently, she raised the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.

Pre-Constantinian Christian art tended to be modest, which was inevitable given that it was an underground religion for much of the time. Subterranean cemeteries, which came to be called catacombs, were one of the principal clandestine meeting places for Christians. The secret language of the early Christians is still preserved there: the fish, representing Christ; the anchor, hope and steadfastness; the garden or a tree, paradise; the bird, the soul (or if a dove, the Holy Spirit), and so on. Most of these emblems took the form of graffiti, paintings or carvings of the utmost simplicity.

But as the religion came into the limelight, grander, more complex artistic expressions were possible. Basilicas of the Constantinian period were fairly plain externally but were sumptuously decorated within, with frescoes, glittering mosaics, rich silken fabrics and gold and silver vessels for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Richer Christians could advertise their faith even in death by commissioning ornate sarcophagi adorned with religious symbols, biblical figures and narratives. Indeed, a new form of 'frieze sarcophagus' allowing for greater numbers of figures and scenes, emerged during this time. These sarcophagi seem to have been made in the same workshops that continued to cater to pagans, and in them we can witness the blending of pagan and Christian imagery - the persistence, for example, of cupids, typical pre-Christian funerary emblems.

There was, in fact, a great deal of continuity between the art of the new religion and the old. Candles and incense were burned before devotional images, as they had been before statues of the gods; holy water was placed in basins at the entrance of churches, as it had been at temples; Christ and the saints were depicted with halos, as the powerful and wise had been before. And in time the pagan roots of these practices were simply forgotten.

Constantine's consolidation of power ushered in an era of peace and prosperity. The life of the court was itinerant as the supreme leader tirelessly toured his domains, dealing with state affairs and supervising the military structures to ensure the security of the empire's borders. Senior officials, too, resided at different times in different places and might have properties widely dispersed in various provinces. The style of luxury goods surviving in locations throughout the empire is remarkably uniform, and increasingly they bore the insignia of the new faith.

Gift-giving at court and in the upper echelons of society was lavish. Objects such as intricately carved ivories and beautifully wrought silver dishes were produced in multiple copies, customarily at least 30.

Many of these luxury objects, secular in origin, were donated to cathedrals and churches, where - jealously guarded in ecclesiastical treasuries and regarded as sacrosanct by barbarian invaders who had also embraced Christianity - they survived the centuries, leaving us with precious evidence of the artifacts of a world gradually undergoing Christianization.

The church remained profoundly Roman, even when it more vigorously tried to repudiate its pagan cradle. Fears of these links with the past helped stoke at various times Iconoclasm in the east and later Protestantism in the west, while in the lands where the influence of papal Rome was greatest, the devotion to sacred statues, for example, remained as passionate as in times of old. Even today, Greek Christians colloquially refer to themselves as 'romi' (Romans). And St. Constantine and his mother, St. Helena, are especially revered in the Greek Orthodox Church.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023