The Great Conversion A Tour of the Symbols, Art, and Architecture of Constantine the Great Tracie Conner
Constantine: Early Years Constantine the Great (Flavius Valerius Constantius) was born in 274 AD; the son of Constantius, then an officer in the Roman army, and his consort Helen. Constantine entered military service in 296 and was present at Nicodemia alongside his now-Caesar father, in 303 A.D. when Diocletian issued his First Edict of the Great Persecution, which called for the destruction of Christian artworks, liturgy, and places of worship. The Edict also made Christian worship punishable by death or imprisonment. Soon after Diocletian published the Edict, his palace was partially destroyed by a fire, which he alleged was an act of Christian retaliation. However, Constantine later states “The palace, and the emperor's private chamber were destroyed, consumed by lightning, devoured by the fire of heaven..”* Constantine thereby acknowledges Diocletian’s fabrication which was apparently an attempt to justify the persecutions. Some theorize Constantine, whose Mother was a Christian, may have seen the lightning strike and resulting fire as evidence of an angry Christian God? In 306, Constantine is named his father’s successor however is denied the title Augustus and instead granted that of Caesar by Emperor Galerius.*Eusebius, The Oration of Constantine, Chapter 25
“In Hoc Signo Vinces” In 312 AD, Constantine claims a miraculous vision, which Eusbius later recounts: “About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it whichsaid, ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’” (Translation: By this Sign Conquer). He continues “Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign which had appeared in the sky, and to use this as protection against the attacks of the enemy.” Constantine orders the sign of his omen be placed upon the shields of his soldiers with the Greek letters Chi and Rho together as a symbol of “Christus” before facing Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. When Constantine emerges from the battle victorious, his men proclaim him “Augustus” and so emerges the first use of the Chi-Rho sign of Christianity.
4th Century Roman Helmet Crest Constantine’s Cross, commonly known as the Chi-Rho, was first used to mark the labarum, shields and helmets of his soldiers. Though it is seen after marking the tombs of Christians and Roman coins. Pictured, far left, is a 4th Century Roman soldier’s helmet crest impressed with Constantine’s Cross. The insert (bottom left) illustrates the placement on the helmet. Above, a detail of the impression of the symbol. This piece, measuring 123 mm long, 15 mm wide, and 1 mm deep, was wrought from copper alloy with gold gilding.
Early Roman-Christian Sarcophagus, ca. 350 A.D. In 313 AD, Emperor Constantine issues the Edict of Milan thereby granting religious freedom throughout the Roman Empire and grants Christians restitution for confiscated properties. As a result, Christians are free to worship and ceremonially bury their dead. It is also during the 4th century that Christians begin using Constantine’s Cross or Chi-Rho in funerary works seen in the early Christian catacombs of Rome. Pictured above is the richly detailed relief carved upon an early Christian sarcophagus, ca. 350 AD. The sarcophagus likely from Domitilla, is conserved in the Vatican Museum, Rome, and features the Passion of the Christ, scenes of Jesus being crowned with thorns, Jesus appearing before Pilate. However, on the front of the sarcophagus is prominently featured a cross bearing the Chi-Rho of Constantine, surrounded by a wreath of laurel symbolic of Christ’s victory over death. Two roman soldiers are seen kneeling at the cross, perhaps a reference to the sentiment of the Roman Empire under the rule of Constantine.
Arch of Constantine, 315 A.D. To commemorate his victory over Maxentius at the Battle for Milvian Bridge, the Senate ordered the construction of a triumphant arch in honor of Constantine. The arch, in view of the Colosseum, was dedicated in 315 A. The Arch of Constantine was constructed of marble and incorporated repurposed sculptural works from the earlier periods of Trajan and Hadrian. The arch measures 85 feet wide and 69 feet tall. The structure consists of three arches which are decorated with frieze depictions of Constantine’s greatness including a scene in which his army is shown driving the troops of Maxentius into the Tiber River. The statue is inscribed with a dedication to Constantine noted to be vague an neutral referring to the “divine” rather than a specific religion or god.
Historic Site:Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, 326 A.D. In 324 A.D., Constantine charged his Mother Helen with determining locations significant in the life of Christ. On her subsequent trip through Palestine, Helen conducted careful excavations of Christian sites purportedly identifying the mount of the ascension and the grotto of the nativity (the current sites of Chapel of the Ascension and Church of the Nativity, respectively). Helen also claimed to have determined the location of the True Cross and nails of Jesus’ crucifixion. Unfortunately, a temple honoring the Aphrodite had been built upon the site preventing further exploration. In 325-326, Constantine ordered the temple be torn down. In it’s place, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was constructed. The fragments of the True Cross recovered during Helen’s excavations were dispersed among churches for use in holy relics such as the one still conserved in the Reliquary of the True Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (pictured left). Constantine ordered the establishment of The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and construction was overseen by Helen. The tomb identified on the site as that of Jesus was carefully sealed and a Byzantine style church constructed over it. The original church was destroyed by Persians in 614 A.D., rebuilt and again destroyed in 1009 when Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim raised the building and tomb he found underneath. The building as it remains today is of Crusaders design constructed in 1860. With its dome and brick and mortar style, it likely portrays some of the details of the original.
Hagia Sophia, 360 A.D. In 330 A.D. Constantine enjoys sole rule over a unified Roman Empire and transfers his seat of government to Byzantium which is renamed Constantinople. It is here that Constantine constructs the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), 360 A.D. The Hagia Sophia is considered Constantine’s crown jewel, a remarkable testament to Christianity and Byzantine architecture. Though it is impressive in both beauty and scale, the simple brick and mortar construction of the exterior doesn’t suggest the opulence of the interior. The Hagia Sophia is filled with beautiful mosaics, which honor its Christian heritage with depictions of Jesus, Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. There are also gilt crosses as well as marble pillars recovered and transferred from preexisting buildings of the ancient period as well as impressive marble doors, which are beautiful remnants of the Roman Hellenistic period. The main structure is comprised of a rectangular basilica measuring 245 feet long and 229 feet wide. The central nave, measuring 102 feet in length, is capped with an equally matched central dome that rises 160 feet, and measures 102 feet in diameter. The dome appears to sit atop a ring of 40 arched windows that floods the interior with natural light purported to have a mystical quality. This dramatic use of windows creates the illusion that the massive expanse is supported by a perimeter of light when, in actuality, the weight of the dome is structurally supported by four arches (pendentives) and a series of tympana and semi-domes.
Constantine the Great’s Roman Empire 305 A.D. Constantine the Great left an indelible mark on the Roman Empire and no doubt played a crucial role in the development and sustainability of the Catholic Church. His legacy is tangible in the arts and architecture of the Roman Catholic Church and Byzantine culture.
Sources Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantin, Oration in Praise of Constantine; Prolegomena; I. Constantine the Great, Chapter One;http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iv.iii.i.i.html#iv.iii.i.i-Page_41Coleman, Christopher Bush, 1875, Constantine I, Emperor of Rome, d. 337 Constitutum Constantini, The Columbia Universtiy Press, New York, 1914 http://www.archive.org/stream/constantinegrea00colegoog#page/n7/mode/1upThe Online Collection of Roman Artifacts, Helmet Fragments and Shield Items; Complete Late Roman Helmet Cresthttp://www.roman-artifacts.com/Helmet%20Fragments%20&%20Shield%20Items/Complete%204th%20Century%20Helmet%20Crest/4th%20century%20helmet%20crest.htmEusebius, Oration of Constantine, Chapter 25, New Adventhttp://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2503.htmPhoto Credit: Constantinople Christian Sarcophagus, Circa 400; Photographer at Le Grand Palais, Paris 2007, Uploadalt, Permission )http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Contantinople_Christian_sarcophagus_circa_400.jpgInstitute for Sacred Architecture; The Sarcophagus of Domatilla http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/images/uploads/DomatillaSarcophagus.jpgArch of Constantine, Rome, Italy. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in June 2007 and placed in the public domain.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arch.of.constantine.threequarter.view.arp.jpgArch of Constantine, Wilson Delgado, December 8, 2008, Romehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Constarch_d4.jpgChurch of the Holy Sepulcher, Treasure Room, Jerusalem, adriatikus, public use workhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:5281-20080123-jerusalem-holy-sepulchre-treasure.jpgDestination 360; Church of the Holy Sepulcherhttp://www.destination360.com/middle-east/israel/church-of-the-holy-sepulcherThe Influence of Hagia Sophia on Ottoman Architecture, Qantara: Mediterranean Heritage http://www.qantara-med.org/qantara4/public/show_document.php?do_id=706&lang=enSacred Destinations; Hagia Sophia, Istanbul; http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophiaKleiner, Fred. Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art, 2nd Edition. Wadsworth Publishing, 01/2010. 132). <vbk:1111504571#page(132)>