WAS Constantine the Great a ruthless megalomaniac who dispatched all rivals to become the omnipotent Roman Emperor, who had his wife and eldest son cruelly murdered, and who forced on to the whole Empire a fanatical political version of Catholicism which lasted for hundreds of years?
Trier, in south-west Germany, where Constantine spent his first ten years as Emperor, from 306 to 316, is holding an exhibition under the auspices of Luxembourg, Cultural City of 2007, to answer some of these questions. In three separate venues, it brings together, at a cost of €6.6 million, unique artefacts from the British Museum, museums of Vatican City, the Louvre, El Prado, and many other prestigious museums.
The Rheinisches Landesmuseum, near the Palatinate Palace, concentrates on Constantine’s military imperial environment. On a central dais, four fully armed Tetrarchs stand back to back, and two marble busts show his father, Constantius Chlorus, Emperor of Gaul and Britain. On the gentler side is a life-size reclining marble statue of his mother, Helena, whom his father divorced after Constantine’s birth in Serbia in 275.
Although trained in the Imperial College as a future Emperor, Constantine had to fight ruthlessly not only to succeed his father when he died in York in 306, but to defend himself against the plots and treachery of his Western rival Emperor Maximian and his son Maxentius, portrayed in several busts as a sad, flat-nosed young man. Constantine had married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian, and sister to Maxentius, in 307, to gain a tighter hold on the dynasty. A wall is taken up by huge tapestries, designed by Rubens, of the imperial wedding.
In 312, Maxentius claimed sole ownership of the western front, and this was the turning-point in Constantine’s career and declared belief. He had followed his parents in being sympathetic to Christians without declaring himself one; but, when Constantine was about to engage in battle with Maxentius, he saw a vision of the cross in the sky and heard the words “In this sign you will conquer”.
He immediately had a military standard (labarum) made in the shape of a cross with Christian symbols on it including the Chi-Rho (the first two letters of Christ in Greek), a replica of which is on display. Maxentius in Rome had all the bridges destroyed, but rode across on a temporary bridge of boats to meet Constantine and his much smaller army.
The bridge came apart, Maxentius in full armour fell into the Tiber and drowned under the Milvian Bridge, and Constantine became Emperor on the western front. Reliefs of the time narrate the story simply, but a huge 17th-century painting by Johannes Lingelbach, inspired by Raphael, gives a dramatic close-up of Maxentius falling into the water.
WITH the tacit agreement of Licinius, portrayed here in statues, Constantine stopped the persecution of the Christians by passing in 313 the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed freedom to all faiths. In 324, he gained victory over the troops of Licinius, and became the sole Emperor of the whole Roman Empire.
He proclaimed Christianity as the state religion and in the Diocesan Museum, next to the Cathedral, there are scale models of all the main cathedrals and churches he had built, including old St Peter’s in Rome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the original Cathedral of St Peter in Trier. Most interesting is the only surviving replica of the tomb of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which came all the way from Narbonne, and took a whole day to move from the van on to its stand.
In true imperial style, Constantine demolished the most ancient and revered places in Rome and Trier to build his churches. Archaeological remains, including rich mosaics of a beautiful wealthy lady, show that Trier Cathedral was built over a palace thought possibly to be Fausta’s.
Of course, no one had built churches as such before, and there is a video that shows a bishop and architect in discussion about what is needed and what sort of size. (The video is in German, but one can guess what is going on.)
Strangely enough, I did not see any record of the Council of Nicaea, which he summoned in 325; but apparently he just sat and listened to the bishops, including Eusebius of Caesarea and Arius, arguing.
Constantine tired of Rome and Trier, perhaps because the pagan customs were hard to weed out, and perhaps also because he suspected his wife, Fausta, of having an affair with Crispus, his son by his first wife. They died under suspicious circumstances, and Constantine travelled to Byzantium (later Constantinople) in 330. A painting (above) by Rubens shows the Emperor in a red toga and imperial wreath discussing plans of the new Christian capital of the Empire and its cathedral with the architect.
Before leaving, he made sure that he had sufficiently glorified himself in Rome with a colossal seated marble statue of himself, 12 metres high, and a huge triumphal arch decorated with Christian and pagan symbols. The exhibition even has a marble reproduction of the three-metre-high head originally on the statue, now housed in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. There is also a colourful cork model of the triumphal arch.
One interesting ancient document on display is the Donation of Constantine, in which he apparently handed over Rome, Italy, and the West to Pope Sylvester and his successors. This was used by Holy Roman Emperors to justify secular power. Regarded dubiously by Pope Sylvester ll in the 11th century, it was definitively revealed in the 15th century as a forgery by Bishop Nicholas of Cusa, and independently by the humanist Lorenzo Valla.
In the third venue, the State Museum, near the Roman gate, Porta Nigra, a frieze with sculptured figures in relief shows the legend attached to the Donation. Constantine sits as a leper, advised by doctors to wash in the blood of babies to cure himself while several distressed mothers stand by the side. He has a dream of the apostles Peter and Paul, and regrets the suffering he is causing. He sends imperial messengers to Pope Sylvester, who is in retreat in the mountains. The Pope arrives, and shows him a picture of the apostles which is the same as in the dream, and heals him. In gratitude, Constantine offers him the Donation.
In 337, Constantine died in Turkey. He is portrayed in paintings as being baptised on his deathbed — in one, in his Emperor’s garments, and in another, bare to the waist.
THE Eastern Church has venerated Constantine as well as Helena as a saint, and two wooden icons of Constantine and Helena are displayed, as well as a reliquary from the Kremlin Museum, containing the bone of Constantine’s right arm. This was used by the tsars to justify their position as Constantine’s successors. The last Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, also identified with Constantine, and had the two copies of the labarum, the military standard, made for himself and the Pope, one of which is on display here.
There is also a piece of the “true cross” brought back by Helena enclosed in a jewelled reliquary. The “robe of Christ” which she brought back is in a special sanctuary in the Cathedral. It is clear that Constantine loved and really looked after his mother and delegated many responsibilities to her.
An area where the cult of the veneration of Constantine is alive even today is the Sardinian province of Oristano. The touching naïve Sedilo votive tablets from the church of San Constantino hang on the exhibition walls. There are scenes of accidents and illnesses where they have prayed to St Constantine for a miracle and he, seen riding a white horse in the clouds, has performed it.
Constantine encouraged designers to use Christian symbols. One can imagine the pleasure of having the Ada Gospel, with its fourth-century cameo of a three-layered sardonyx encrusted on its binding, portraying Constantine and his family, and then opening it to read the illuminated, gold-lettered pages.
This was brought to Trier by Ada, said to be a sister of Charlemagne. There is a beautiful jewellery box from the Esquiline Treasure with both Christian and pagan symbols (Constantine used both himself), and a private collection of signet rings showing the Chi-Rho and ranging from gold and silver to base metals.
Perhaps Christians of the fourth century received considerable comfort when they saw the sarcophogus of their relative sculpted with scenes of Christ healing, feeding the four thousand, and bringing Lazarus back from the dead; and this would be similar to Constantine and Helena’s.
The exhibition seemed to draw crowds from early morning until evening. One man commented that Constantine’s Christianity was merely a political move, while another showed me a poster with President Bush gazing at the huge Constantine with the sign of the cross in the sky. Even if the exhibition showed only the tip of the Constantine iceberg, it stimulated further exploration of the nature of his devotion.
Trier is a 35-minute train ride from Luxembourg. The nearest airport is Frankfurt Hahn. The three museums are close to one another, and open daily between 10 a.m and 6 p.m. until 4 November. A combined ticket costs E12. Phone +49 (0)651 20 17 07 0.