After an overview of the three Raphael Rooms that followed the Stanza della Segnatura, we focus today on the Hall or Sala of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor.

Show Notes

I’ve focused in the last several podcasts on the most famous of the four Raphael Rooms, the Stanza della Segnatura. I think it is the most beautiful, with the most perfectly painted human figures, and I invite you to test this view when you visit the Rooms in the Vatican Museums. But my reason for emphasizing it has more to do with the ideas it was advancing, or questions it raised, than with a purely aesthetic judgment. Past episodes have summarized its question like this: How is Athens is related to Jerusalem? That is, how is philosophy related to faith?

Workshop of Raphael, “Leo I meets Attila” (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Raphael designed and painted the Room of the Segnatura before he turned to the other three Raphael Rooms. The

Workshop of Raphael, Battle of Ostia (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

next three next three also raise or imply an important question, though it is a different one, and they answer it more emphatically. Their main purpose is to show, in one way or another, that God supports the Roman Catholic Church and its papacy and that this is why the Church won such great victories over the course of more than a thousand years. Thanks to divine support, for example, Pope Leo I repelled Attila the Hun, and Leo IV repelled the Saracens in the Battle of Ostia. God also brought victory to Constantine over the pagan Maxentius, thus making it possible for the first Christian emperor to spread Christianity and support the Bishop of Rome.  So too, more or less, with the other nine major frescoes in these three rooms.

My first reaction is to consider the subject matter of the three later rooms as falling short of the high importance of the first. The question of the relationship between faith and philosophy is a fundamental one, and if I wish to pursue it, I can do so with the help of such great and varied thinkers as Plato, Averroes, and St. Thomas. But the later three rooms hurry to advance specific claims that are not entirely easy to believe or to test. If we leave aside the two that are based on the Bible, that still leaves ten that depict stories that lack varying degrees of plausibility and support from tradition.

Raphael, Fire in the Borgo (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Consider the implied claim, for example, that the prayers of Pope Leo III extinguished a raging fire in the ninth century, as we see affirmed in the fresco called the “Fire in the Borgo.” The source for this claim is the “Liber Pontificalis,” a book of uncertain authorship and questionable reliability. To put it bluntly, and leaving their artistry aside, the later three of the Raphael Rooms look like papal propaganda, which I would never say of the Stanza della Segnatura. Nor would I say it of another great work executed at the very same time as this Stanza. Michelangelo’s vast fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel does not include a single pope or significant reference to a papal deed (though Julius II’s coat of arms is up there somewhere).

We in the modern West live in a secular and generally anticlerical age, so it is easy to be dismissive or skeptical of the immediate subjects of Raphael’s three later frescoed rooms, so let me try harder to see whether I can find some deeper themes in them.

Perhaps we are intended to look beyond the aggrandizing details and see the frescoes as affirming that there is a loving God who acts providentially in our world.

Michelangelo, God creates Adam (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps their real point does not concern Leos I, III, IV, and X but asks us to consider the possibility that our world, far from being mere sound and fury signifying nothing, is supervised by God and His moral purpose. This is a question worth thinking about, even if no painting can answer it fully and even if we have no way of knowing what caused a particular fire to start or stop a thousand years ago. It is worth wondering whether we should refer sometimes to providence and not always to chance, and yet I can’t help but say in response that this group of papal frescos presents God as acting especially through the popes. I’m not so sure this strengthens the case for the providential view. Again, Michelangelo presents the idea of providence on the Sistine Ceiling without showing God as acting only through the papacy.

Here’s a second way the three later Raphael Rooms might get us thinking. If they exaggerate the popes’ claim to rule, are they the only ones guilty of such exaggeration? Or, is it perhaps the case that all those who claim the authority to rule are obliged to exaggerate the justice of their particular claim, whether they are emperors, popes, or presidents? The popes’ claim to divine support is especially hard to accept in an age that began by denying that political power derives from God, but wouldn’t the ideas that we readily accept be scrutinized more carefully in times other than our own? Presidents don’t claim to be chosen by God: they say they were chosen by the majority, and that the will of the majority is authoritative.  And yet it is not too hard to wonder, if we allow ourselves to think outside of the democratic box for just an instant, whether endless, emphatic, and sometimes indignant repetition somehow enhances the effective persuasiveness of this opinion. However it may be with God, we know at least that majorities exist and what their will is from one instant to the next, but what makes them the source of genuine authority? Their wisdom? Their unselfish concern for the common good? Their general human decency? Suspicion that three of the four Raphael Rooms exaggerate the degree of divine support operating in particular papal actions is a good occasion to wonder what claim to rule is not exaggerated. Surely we want our scrutiny of others to promote self-scrutiny as well.

I hesitate to say that these three rooms’ emphasis on papal authority was a response to Luther’s attack, for his attack did not take shape until after 1515, while these later three rooms were executed between 1511 and 1524. But even if they were decorated twenty-five years before the Council of Trent, which is often taken to mark the beginning of the Counterreformation, their exaltation of the papacy is a theme that would become common as the Catholic Church responded to the Protestant challenge. You may remember this from our visits to St. Peter’s Basilica, where it sometimes seemed that the popes received as much attention as the core miracles of the Christian faith. If Catholicism had wanted to stress its similarity with the Protestants, it might have stressed the core miracles that they too accepted, but emphasizing popes and saints put the spotlight on where the Church thought the Protestants had gone wrong.

The three later Raphael Rooms still look to me as though—among other things—they multiply the miracles that operate through the popes and thereby simplify the case for their rule. But rather than sneering at this claim, I suggest taking it as a stimulus for asking whether other ages, and the other Romes, do so also. It would not be surprising if one age or one form of government, even democracy, should embrace its own understanding without hesitation while dismissing with contempt the inadequate views of other alternatives.

Exhaustive mention of details can overwhelm and obscure points of the greatest importance, so I try to stress what I take to be most fundamental. But this strategy also comes with a challenge, for its focus on a main idea runs the risk of overshadowing observations that may be important even if secondary. I have stressed that Raphael seems to have been obliged to paint in what might be called a “rhetoric of grandeur” that celebrates the papacy, but I need to acknowledge that he also managed to work in other themes and give us many other things to think about. In his “Fire in the Borgo,” for example, he clearly alludes to the burning of Troy by the ancient Greeks, the event which prompted Aeneas to become a refugee and flee to Rome. The artist thus reminds us of another Rome, one that ruled the Mediterranean world long before the popes took over and which helps to explain why it would be the Bishop of Rome who claimed superiority over the other bishops. I think the question of papal authority is the main theme of the later three Raphael Rooms, but I don’t think it is the only subject with which the great artist is concerned. Perhaps we can see such complexities best if we start to focus on one room, the Room of Constantine.

I choose this focus because—of the various subjects of these three later Raphael Rooms—Raphael devoted the most sustained attention to Constantine, who is a major subject of all four walls of the Room that bears his name. This room is also by far the largest of the four rooms, and for this reason it is called a “Sala” or “Hall” and not a “Stanza” or “Room,” like the others. The Sala was intended to be used for public and political functions, with the pope seated on a throne, so its political function added to its special importance. It is true that, sadly, Raphael died before he could paint more than a figure or two in this hall. If this seems a crushing blow, as his early death certainly was, bear in mind that Raphael did not paint all the frescoes in the other three rooms either. He designed them all, and did careful preliminary cartoons, but he left varying degrees of the actual painting to his assistants, with whom he worked closely, whereas Michelangelo tended to work alone. I think I can see that some figures in the Raphael Rooms are more beautifully drawn than others, but the complex and harmonious designs of each of the four rooms to entitle all four to be called “Raphael Rooms.”

My further reason for concentrating on the Hall of Constantine is that doing so will help us learn more about Constantine, the political figure most responsible for having ended paganism and Christianized the Roman Empire. I can’t say this with perfect confidence, of course, but it’s quite possible that had Constantine not come along, the Western World would never have become Christian and would not still show the effects of its long Christian period, as it does today, in spite of centuries of attacks on the old faith.

School of Raphael, Vision of the Cross (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Hall of Constantine features four main frescoes that are beautiful, complicated, and rich in detail. The Sala also

Giulio Romano, or School of Raphael, Battle of Milvian Bridge (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

includes other frescoes beneath, beside, and above its main frescoes, and these extend and amplify the main messages. Beneath are painted rectangular panels like a band on a frieze. These show scenes associated with the main frescoes, such as Constantine’s magnanimous treatment of conquered troops after the battle. To the sides of the four main frescoes are eight popes seated on thrones, surrounded by angels and female allegories of qualities the popes would like to be associated with, such as Justice, Innocence, and Truth. There are also several relief panels done in stucco, and even the thick walls around the windows are painted. The ceiling above the large panels is thoroughly decorated, and the center of the ceiling has a fresco that was painted a half century after the others but still seems to me to represent well the main idea of the room, namely, the triumph of Christianity over paganism—though I’m also tempted to call it the triumph of the papacy over paganism. No part of the room, save its windowpanes and door panels, is left undecorated.

School of School of Raphael, Baptism of Constantine (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Two of four vast frescoes show Constantine and his army just north of Rome. The other two show him with the

School of Raphael, Donation of Constantine (Public Domain)

pope of the day, Pope Sylvester. In the first two, he is the clear commander of the army and wears a crown in both. In the second two, he is on his knees before the pope, and it is the pope who wears the crown; Constantine is bareheaded in the case of one, with a wreath of laurel in the other. The message is clear: his political and military authority is supreme over his worldly subjects, but he is subordinate to the Vicar of Christ, and he knows it. We might say that Church and State look like they are separate, but we’d have to add that the fresco has the empire acknowledging the supremacy of the Church.

Constantine has already appeared in two of our Episodes, numbers 19 and 21. The first discussed Bernini’s statue of him in the Narthex of St. Peter’s; the second took a look at the Arch of Constantine. The simplest purpose of these episodes was to show how differently Constantine was remembered by Bernini on the one hand and by the ancient Roman Senate on the other. For the ancient Senate, he appears to have been a Roman general and emperor in the tradition of Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. For Bernini, he was the first of a new tradition, a privileged recipient of a miraculous vision sent by the Christian God. The difference between the two helps us wonder who the real Constantine was and what kind of world we live in.

When Constantine’s political and military career began, the Roman Empire was a house sharply divided. His main military achievement was to put it together again, which he did by fighting his way from Britain to the Black Sea, defeating everyone who stood in his way. He made himself the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire, which stretched from Wales to Egypt, and from North Africa to what is Bulgaria today. So, Constantine’s first claim to fame is that he was a great warrior.

This much is acknowledged by the first two frescoes of the Hall of Constantine, where we see him first before and then during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which was fought in Rome in 312. After having won victories in Gaul and northern Italy, Constantine marched down the peninsula and was met just outside of Rome by Maxentius: historians say that both men had a certain claim to rule but that neither respected the legal arrangement that the Emperor Diocletian had put in place. Both counted on might being somehow able to make up for what they lacked in right.

Constantine defeated Maxentius, and Raphael follows historical accounts in showing how important the Tiber River and Milvian Bridge were for the magnitude of his victory. Since Maxentius sent his troops onto the western bank of the river, retreat was possible only across one small bridge, and Constantine’s troops were able to destroy Maxentius’s entire army, making it easier for him to proceed to his next conquest.

But the real key to the victory in Raphael’s rendering was not the river or Maxentius’s mistake: it was God’s active support, which then became Constantine’s real claim to rule. The main feature of Raphael’s first fresco shows the appearance of a divine sign in the sky before the battle, and it was this event that caused such great emotion for both horse and rider in Bernini’s statue in the narthex of St. Peter’s. The importance of this sign is confirmed in the second fresco, which shows armed angels supporting Constantine’s army during the battle. There is a source for this, the Bishop Eusebius of Cesarea. We’ll have to pause later to wonder how reliable his account might be.

If the first two frescoes show Constantine’s actions before and during his battle for Rome, the other two show what he did after the battle. As noted, he is down on his knees in both. One has him being baptized in Rome by the pope; the other has him handing a statuette of Rome to the pope, an act which symbolizes his granting of vast political and ecclesiastical authority to the pope, and which was known as “the Donation of Constantine.”

So the main messages of the Hall are that Constantine enjoyed the benefit of God’s support and that he became not only a devout Christian but also a devoted defender of papal power. Next time, we will look a little more closely at this Donation of Constantine and test the historical claims made by the Sala. I’ll also note the presence of subordinate themes, such as that of the ongoing destruction of ancient pagan monuments, which Raphael hoped to stop.

Share this podcase episode