If you hear the name Constantine and immediately you think of Keanu Reeves, please keep reading. As much as I like a good Keanu Reeves film this post will focus on the Roman Emperor Constantine. As Peter Leithart says in Defending Constantine, ““It is one of the epic lives in Western history, full of firsts and foundings.”
It’s been especially fun reading about Constantine in light of my recent trip to Rome. Constantine might have set up his capital in Constantinople but his footprint still strongly remains in Rome. Here’s a tiny bit about Constantine through the lens of my camera. I won’t be digging into the controversies, retelling his bio, or even listing many of the “first and foundings” attributed to him. Instead, I’ll simply recount some highlights of Constantine that fit with pictures I took while in Rome. Come on, I have to justify taking these pictures somehow so what better way than this?!
When it comes to pictures the place to begin is one of Raphael’s rooms in the Vatican. You might want to call it Constantine’s Room since it’s full of wall size paintings–of frescoes to be exact. These pictures in the Sala di Costantino (Hall of Constantine) painted by Raphael’s students (16th century) pay homage to Christianity’s victory over paganism, courtesy of Constantine. These rooms–like most things in the Vatican–are stunningly beautiful, larger than you would imagine by seeing pictures, and packed full of history (the Catholic version at least). Here’s an example of the color and scale.
Each wall in this room presents a different part of the story of Constantine. No inch remains untouched the ceiling places the lid on top by picturing Christian Rome defeating Pagan Rome. The walls depict four scenes from Constantine’s life. The first depicts the famous vision of Constantine from October 27, 312. In 312 Constantine marched on Rome against Maxentius. Constantine’s troops camped north of the Tiber. Around noon Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a bright sign in the heavens of the cross and the words “by this conquer.” Either in this vision, or in a dream later that night which clarified the vision, Constantine was told to replace the symbols of eagles on the soldier’s standards and replaced it with the cross. Some would say this is the moment of Constantine’s conversion, but whether that’s true or not it’s clear from this moment forward he sees himself aligned with Christianity.
Constantine instructed his soldiers to put the Chi Rho monogram on their shields. He believed God had promised divine help in the battle against Maxentius. [The Chi Rho monogram (XP) would become a common symbol for soldiers, on coins, and many other things from this time forward. This symbol is known as the labarum, the two letters being the first two letters of the name Christ as well as forming the picture of a type of cross. While in the basement–the crypt–of the Pantheon in Paris I actually stumbled upon a Chi Rho plaque.]
The next day, Maxentius’s army crossed the river and attacked Constantine’s smaller army, but to no avail. Maxentius’s army became sandwiched between Constantine’s army and a replacement bridge that had been built (the Milvian bridge was destroyed). The bridge collapsed and much of the army, including Maxentius himself, died in the water. Constantine’s army defeated Maxentius in what historian Eusebius saw as an Exodus like event. With the victory Constantine became sole Emperor (Augustus) of the West.
That same year the Arch of Constantine began construction and in 315 it was dedicated. I mention it, partly for an excuse to show another picture, but also because the inscription written by the Senate points to the fact that most people saw Constantine’s victory over Maxentius as a good thing.
“To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.” Unfortunately, while there the Arch was undergoing a bit of construction.
Here you can see the happy couple in front of the Arch with the Colosseum in the background on the right.
Question the validity of Constantine’s conversion if you will–there are good reasons too–but he certainly proved to be an ally for Christians who had recently experienced devastating persecutions. Constantine did a lot for the Church. He freed Christians from persecution, returned properties and buildings to the church, pressed for unity and doctrinal orthodoxy in the church, stopped the pagan ritual of sacrifice as well as replacing a lot of the pagan architecture with more Christian friendly architecture, played a part (positively I think) in the formation of orthodox Trinitarian theology, and funded some of the earliest and most significant basilicas in Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. One should understand these building projects as part of a Roman Emperors legacy and gifting back to the Empire. In the past, these emperors had built many impressive castles, buildings, theaters, and Pagan temples for the people. Constantine gave the empire large and magnificent basilicas. The first in Rome was the archbasilica St. John’s Lateran, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to see. The second church was Old St. Peter’s. This basilica increasingly grew in importance until it was replaced with the basilica that stands in its place today (St. Peter’s Basilica). Although the erroneous theology, hopeless ritual, and ridiculous extravagance in the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica can be disconcerting, there’s no question this is one of the most beautiful things man has created. It’s a treasure house of artifacts and the home of some of the most beautiful paintings a person could see. I could picture after picture of this place but I’ll stick with one. Here’s a picture of the Basilica with the famous Tiber river in the foreground.
The ceiling in the Hall of Constantine pictures what supporters of Constantine and the Roman Catholic Church believe to be the Triumph of Christianity. The image of Christ on the cross stands center and a pagan statue lies broken on the floor. This was true throughout the empire in a very real sense as Constantine had many pagan statues destroyed or refashioned to his liking. But, metaphorically, it describes the defeat of paganism in the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity.
Finally (and if you’ve made it this far you’re a trooper), Constantine remained the Roman Emperor until his death in 337. Like many people in the fourth century, Constantine delayed baptism until close to death, believing that this would help with the remission of sins. Unfortunately, Constantine seemed to have shifted away from Nicene orthodoxy. He exiled Athanasius in 335 and was baptized by an Arian bishop. The frescoe below shows him kneeling to receive the sacrament from Pope Sylvester I.