We return to the Hall of Constantine, one of the four Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. Its main frescoes show crucial episodes in the life of the Emperor Constantine, but did they ever happen?

Show Notes

I introduced the Sala di Costantino, or Hall of Constantine, in the last episode, and we return to it today, but let me begin with a reminder that starting next week, I’ll probably have the time only to publish Mini Pods on Thursdays. And—since I’m now facing the practical questions of how to use my time in Rome—these Mini Pods will also tend to have a more practical character than usual. In the first of these, for example, I’ll divide Rome up into four geographical zones to help you get a big picture of the layout of the city. As usual, after simplifying Rome, I’ll make it more complicated.

But for today, it’s back to Constantine, one of the most influential men in Roman history: he reunited the empire under himself, he initiated the policies that eventually Christianized the entire empire, and he moved the capital away from Rome to a city he named after himself.

Constantine also helped Rome begin to change its look, as he is credited with building such large churches as the first St. Peter’s, St. Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Croce, and others. The famous Sala that bears Constantine’s name celebrates a pious warrior for having made the world not only safe for Christianity but actually Christian.

Two popes from the powerful Medici family of Florence, Popes Leo X and Clement VII, commissioned the great frescoes of the Hall of Constantine. That they did so almost 1,200 years after his death is an indication of Constantine’s longlasting importance for the papacy.

The Sala is big: it has about one quarter of the floor space of the Sistine Chapel. Like the Chapel, it is a rectangle with a vaulted ceiling, which leaves four vast flat and several curved spaces to paint. The frescoes include countless details, and in fact some of the details are as mind-catching as the main subjects, but four main episodes of Constantine’s life receive the main emphasis. Raphael designed the first two of these large frescoes, but his untimely death left the design of the other two, and most of the painting, to his assistants, and to Giulio Romano above all.

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

The first fresco shows Constantine and his army as they witness the miraculous vision of a cross in the sky. The second shows him aided by angels and defeating Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome. The third records his baptism by Pope Sylvester, and the fourth shows him giving an important gift to the same pope. By the actions represented in these four frescoes, the Imperial Rome of the pagans is transformed into the Holy Rome of the popes, thanks to a pious ruler’s acceptance of the true God, his victory in battle, and his subordination to the Bishop of Rome, or so the murals proclaim.

The first two murals teach viewers that Constantine won the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge because he heeded a heavenly message. As the fresco shows, the message said, “By this [sign], conquer!” so he changed his military standards to bear Christian signs and symbols, and sword-wielding angels then joined him in the battle. The two frescoes claim both that Constantine chose to fight for God and that God therefore chose to fight for him.

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

But on what basis, besides the frescoes themselves, are we to believe that Constantine received a heavenly sign that bade him conquer under the sign of the cross? The only source for the first two frescoes was a book called the Life of Constantine, written by a Bishop named Eusebius, who hailed from Caesarea, located in the Holy Lands.  You can read the story in Book one, chapters 27-32, which are easily found on the internet. To make more credible a story he himself admits is hard to believe, Eusebius tells us that Constantine swore an oath that the vision truly happened. Still, oath or no oath, a few questions come to mind. Since Eusebius also says that “the whole company of soldiers” witnessed the miracle in broad daylight, why should Constantine need to swear that it really occurred? Why does Eusebius wait until after Constantine had died, a quarter of a century after the event, to report such an important miracle? Why doesn’t he mention it in his earlier book, The History of the Church, even though it too discusses Constantine’s victory? Why didn’t Constantine or anyone else mention this world-changing vision or even memorialize it on coins or in architecture? Why is there no evidence that Constantine’s armies henceforth marched under Christian symbols as the vision demanded?

With Eusebius’s story in mind, I once stumbled upon what might be an irreverent response to it in another part of Rome. A column surmounted by a cross stands in a courtyard of Santa Maria Maggiore, and it once carried a label, the same one that Constantine saw in the sky, namely, “By this sign, conquer!” But since the column is shaped like a cannon, the message of the ensemble may have been that cannons, not crosses, are the causes of victory. This sober or cynical thought is worth pondering, but perhaps it does not convey sufficiently the power of belief. Even if crosses do not possess supernatural powers, might they not bring much needed unity to an army of believers? Whatever the firepower of crosses by themselves, isn’t it useful for an army to have symbols that carry conviction and encourage hope? Even if there is something to this line of thought, it puts forward a very different claim from the one made openly by Raphael’s mural. (For a more detailed account of this cannon-column, click this link.)

However these questions may be settled, the Hall of Constantine calls attention to the Christianization of the West, which is surely one of its defining or, rather, redefining episodes. While Christianity’s deeply alluring messages of a loving God and justly distributed afterlives surely helped to win support for its moral and theological revolution, these papal frescoes acknowledge that the victory of Christianity required force as well. Perhaps the sponsoring popes made this point because their Church was still in need of such vigorous support more than a thousand years later, when the frescoes were painted.

The third and the fourth main frescoes show Constantine on his knees before Pope Sylvester, first to be baptized, later to offer him homage. Neither event ever happened.

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

The baptism fresco suggests that the conqueror underwent an early and sincere turn to Christianity and thus discourages the thought that he might have favored the new faith for political reasons. After all, Constantine was a ruthless conqueror, so it is natural to wonder whether he might have promoted Christianity for the sake of political advantages. Showing him on his knees stifles any such question.

The story of Constantine’s baptism is taken from a work called the Acts [or Life ] of Blessed Silvester, which put paganism in a terrible light and countered the evidence that Constantine was actually baptized late in his life and far from Rome. Even worse, this widely accepted account has him being baptized by Eusebius, who may even have been an Arian at this point, a heretic, though this is angrily denied on the internet, so I’ll stay out of it. As for the more fanciful version that has Constantine being baptized in Rome by Saint Sylvester, the whole story is shown in a cycle of 13th century frescoes in the Chapel of Saint Sylvester in the fortified basilica of Quattro Santi Coronati, between the Colosseum and St. John Lateran. It’s worth a visit, as this site shows. The gist is that Constantine suffered from leprosy and asked pagan priests for a remedy. The terrible pagans told him to slaughter little children and bathe in their warm blood. Constantine refused to do so, and for his merciful restraint, Saints Peter and Paul appeared to him and told him to seek out Saint Sylvester. He found the saint in hiding because of the persecutions, but Constantine led him into Rome in triumph. Sylvester then cured Constantine’s leprosy not by the murder of small children but by having him do penance and take a baptismal bath. This is the baptism represented in the Hall of Constantine. In addition to the baptism itself, other parts of this story are represented in the frieze beneath the large mural of the Donation of Constantine.

This legend enhances Constantine’s Christian credentials, but it also serves the interests of the papacy, for it makes the Bishop of Rome the religious official of whom Constantine asked to be baptized and to whom he kneeled. In Constantine’s day, bishops around the empire did not consistently recognize the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome, so representing him as instructing, baptizing, and working miracles for the Emperor was a way of enhancing his authority, at least among those who believed the stories.

School of Raphael, Donation of Constantine (Public Domain)

The fourth mural shows Constantine again on his knees before Pope Sylvester. This time he is offering him the gift of a gilded statue, which represents an actual document, the Donation of Constantine. The three-page Donation announces that the emperor is conferring vast political and ecclesiastical authority upon the Roman Church. It concludes with the warning that those who do not respect it, “shall be burned in the lower hell and shall perish with the devil and all the impious.”

In particular, the Donation authorizes the pope to rule over “the city of Rome, and all the provinces, places, and cities of Italy and the Western regions.” Amazing! It promotes the pope to be the ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire. If anyone should miss the point, the next lines even imply that Constantine left Rome because he believed his own authority was so far inferior to that of the pope that he may as well leave town. As the Donation puts it, “Where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion have been established by the heavenly Emperor, it is not right that there an earthly emperor should have jurisdiction.” Priestly and papal rule trumps mere political rule and is sufficient to replace it. In fact, then, the Donation does not really transfer authority from Constantine to the pope: the pope’s authority comes directly from God. Constantine could not confer it and could not remove it.

The Donation explicitly confirms the pope’s ecclesiastical as well as his political authority. It declares that the Bishop of Rome will be supreme over the bishops of four other main centers of Christianity (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople), “as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth.” He will be “more exalted than, and chief over, all the priests of the whole world.” This mural is a supreme example of Renaissance fresco painting, but it is also an attempt to confirm the Church as a unified papal monarchy seated in Rome rather than a federation of separate but equal churches scattered around the world. It affirms that the Roman Church should reign supreme over all other churches.

Other signs of the importance of the Donation are Dante’s attacks on it in his De Monarchia (3.10) and Divine Comedy (Inferno 19.115-17). He sees it as bad for both religion and politics. To authorize the Church to rule is to tempt or compel it to become worldly, and for an empire to divide its rule with a church is to weaken it. So even if Constantine had written the Donation, Dante implies that its poor reasoning would invalidate its conclusions.

Lorenzo Valla, a priest and Renaissance student of ancient texts, demonstrated that Constantine never wrote the Donation: it was a forgery, probably designed to encourage the eighth-century kings of the Franks to follow Constantine’s alleged example. The pope then needed their help against both local enemies and the threatening Lombards. Valla wrote his essay about seventy-five years before the Sala of Constantine was painted. His stated reason for writing was to protect the core of the faith by cautioning believers not to blindly accept what he called “ridiculous legends,” a caution that either did not reach or did not persuade the popes who commissioned the Sala.

The legends represented on the walls of the Sala would not have seemed quite so fanciful in the sixteenth century as they do today. Reflective historians, like Thucydides or Tacitus, had hardly been read for over a thousand years. Ammianus Marcellinus had written a thoughtful history that included chapters on Constantine, but these had long since been lost or destroyed. If the critical reading of history had virtually disappeared, it was returning in the Renaissance, as Valla’s work confirms. Thomas More, Machiavelli, and Erasmus all wrote in Raphael’s lifetime, and the papacy itself had already funded Raphael’s beautiful tribute to philosophic wisdom, The School of Athens. But legends still saturated Christendom, and the Renaissance papacy took advantage of them to enhance its authority.

The popes derived their primary claim to authority from Christ and Peter, not from Constantine, but the legends represented in the four main murals of the Stanza buttress and supplement the popes’ main claim. The Donation includes an explicit (and generous!) grant of political authority, and the Stanza as a whole shows a Constantine who was privileged by God and deserved his imperial title.[4] It does not even hint that Constantine’s path to power entailed not a single battle but constant warfare and led him to kill three rivals for the imperial dignity, two of whom were brothers-in-law and one a father-in-law. He also ordered the deaths of his first wife Fausta and his first-born son Crispus. His father had become an Augustus by the procedures then held to be legitimate; Constantine made himself Emperor by force of arms. I think it is safe to say he was a more complicated character than Eusebius or the Vatican frescos indicate.

If the Renaissance popes’ simplifications seem desperate, perhaps they sensed the urgency of a new challenge that had arisen in the form of Martin Luther, who had announced his ninety-five famous theses in 1517, seven years before this fresco was completed. The Protestants of the Reformation were happy to deploy Valla’s work to argue that the authority of the popes rested at least in part on a fraudulent document, so the popes could not take it for granted that their authority was securely recognized.

As Dante realized, the issue is not merely the merits of the legal claim rooted in the forged Donation; it is also the general question of whether it is good for the Church to engage in political rule. Even though he never elevated the papacy in the way the Donation claimed, Constantine did co-involve the Church in the administration of his empire, and this surely increased its status and influence. He turned the Church from a target of persecution into the state cult or imperial church, which amounted to a monumental mission shift for a radically apolitical faith. Only in 1870, when the popes lost the last remnant of their political authority, did the Church cease to be directly involved in political rule.

Not all decisions are made under perfect circumstances. Livy admits that Romulus faced a crisis that led him to orchestrate the abduction of the Sabine women and that Numa invented the goddess Egeria to make the Romans more pious and strengthen his own authority. Neither king asked for the political challenges he faced, nor did Livy strongly condemn either of them for the morally questionable actions they undertook. If the Church later defended its authority in written and painted fables, it is at least worth wondering whether any claim to rule can dispense with crude exaggerations. This said, Livy’s myths about ancient Rome have a fundamentally different purpose from those of the Sala, for his teach the harsh requirements of political success, whereas the Sala hides them. 

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